John Wayne swaggered like a rodeo bull, thundered like a storm over Monument Valley, and towered over the West like a craggy butte.
And he looms as large in death as he did on-screen. Duke, as he was universally known, died the year Heath Ledger—a very different kind of cowboy—was born, in 1979.
Ever since, when pollsters ask Americans to name their favorite actor, Wayne, whose centennial is this week, routinely makes the top 10. The iconic figure of Westerns and war movies placed third in the 2006 Harris Poll, behind Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks.
Would Frank Sinatra rank with Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z as America’s favorite musical artist? That’ll be the day.
The Duke, as historian Garry Wills observed, “reverses the law of optics.” The farther away this hombre gets, the larger he looms. I’m talking not only about Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, conceived as a corrective to the gung-ho heroics of a Wayne war movie. Or about this week’s celebration of Wayne on Turner Classic Movies. Or about the restored Rio Bravo showing at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday. Or about the stat that in the history of Movies Unlimited, John Wayne has sold more units than any other actor.
I’m talking about this: When a Marine in Iraq shoots first and asks questions later, they say he “pulled a John Wayne.” When we think of masculinity, The Duke is the yardstick by which we measure it. When we think of those who are larger than life, Wayne is the authoritarian who commands respect or incites rebellion. In my case, both.
Rather than doff my Stetson on the occasion of The Duke’s hundredth (Saturday), I want to sort through my ambivalence about the man reviled by some as the Godzilla of American imperialism and revered by even more as a god of the American Olympus.
The stormy relationship that some have with their fathers is one that I have with Wayne. For as long as I can remember I’ve responded very differently to his two faces. The unyielding man of war in Sands of Iwo Jima makes me want to go AWOL. The unyielding man of the West who yields in the final moments of “Red River” by not killing his sworn enemy makes me weep, tapping a reservoir of emotion I didn’t know I possessed.
In my moviegoing life, Wayne is responsible for more cinematic epiphanies than I can count. Is it great acting? He called it reacting. I’d call it presence.
“How can I hate John Wayne upholding (Barry) Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when he sweeps Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?” asked French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. His Wayne-bivalence is not mine. My feelings about an artist’s politics rarely get in the way of appreciating his art.
I’d put it this way:
Wayne as Sgt. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima, turning ordinary Joes into murder machines with “I’m gonna ride you till you can’t stand up and when you stand up, you’ll be Marines”? Gag.
Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, falling sideways while firing his Winchester, dispatching three bad guys in the time it takes to hit the dirt? Gasp.
It was in Stagecoach (1939), probably the actor’s hundredth film (he made so many cheapies at Republic Studios that there is no canonical count) that John Wayne sprung, fully formed, from the forehead of director John Ford.
In this film that launched the modern Western, legitimizing a B-movie genre, Wayne’s Ringo Kid seemed both solid and liquid. Manifest Destiny in cowboy boots, he was carved from Monument Valley’s red rock with a sinuous movement as fluid as mercury.
A 10-year-old peacenik watching Stagecoach on TV circa 1963 saw Wayne as a mythic figure—we had men of action then, kiddos, we didn’t have action figures—like Apollo or Odysseus in the Classics Illustrated comics she hoarded. At 10, I didn’t connect the laconic prime cut of Homo erectus with the beefy ideologue campaigning for presidential contender Barry Goldwater.
That came five years later, when Wayne’s The Green Berets, his justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, was released. It was the first—and last—movie I ever picketed. Maybe that’s because when I mentioned my affection for Wayne’s Red River and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a fellow protester threatened to boot me from the line.
This is how polarizing a figure The Duke still is. Four decades later when I turn on a Wayne movie, my husband leaves the room.
Many continue to detect in The Duke’s screen persona a dangerous might-makes-right imperialism, his presence a metaphor for American indomitability. It’s certainly there, in Battle of Iwo Jima and Green Berets. But that’s not all The Duke is.
It’s in those Wayne films I don’t much like that he’s a one-dimensional figure whose stubborn stride betrays arrogant certainty. In the Wayne movies that I love—Red River, The Quiet Man and The Searchers (and here I’d include a war film such as They Were Expendable)—his rhythm is different; you can detect his uncertainty in his afterbeat.
Wayne’s best directors—Howard Hawks in Red River and Rio Bravo, Ford in The Searchers and Liberty Valance—saw through the alpha male’s protective confidence to the challenged authoritarian beneath. They knew the drama of a Wayne performance was in what Jack Kroll eulogized as the actor’s “divided, complicated, self-questioning humanity.”
Growing up, I thought of Wayne as Hollywood’s heroic archetype, and actors such as Montgomery Clift (who costarred with him in Red River), Marlon Brando and Paul Newman as the antihero reaction.
By this token, Wayne sired the unsmiling masculinity of Clint Eastwood (of Dirty Harry, a role Wayne lobbied for), Bruce Willis and Russell Crowe, while Clift sired the puckish, boyish, less threatening maleness of Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford and Johnny Depp.
But upon rewatching and rethinking Wayne, to use such poles is to simplify him—and the other actors who followed in his bootsteps.
For isn’t Red River‘s Tom Dunson, the adoptive father who vows to kill his son, Matthew Garth (Clift), more antihero than hero?
Isn’t The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, on a mission to kill the Comanche who abducted his niece (Natalie Wood), as well as the violated girl herself, an alienated antihero of the Clift and Brando kind?
And isn’t Liberty Valance‘s Tom Doniphon one who refuses to claim a hero’s glory and lets it accrue to his rival?
For Duke’s hundredth, may I pay tribute to his best selves?
As Tom Dunson in Red River he showed me the limits of revenge. As Sean Thornton, who courts and claims his flame-haired bride in The Quiet Man, he showed me the limits of pride.
But most of all, as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Wayne’s toughness brings an unexpected tenderness into sharp relief, enveloping me in the infinite heart of reconciliation.
THE ESSENTIAL JOHN WAYNE
Set among the natural landmarks of Monument Valley, John Ford’s landmark Western features Wayne as rifleman Ringo Kid, the role that made him a star.
Red River (1948)
Wayne rides herd on his cattlemen, including adoptive son Montgomery Clift, and the explosive result is Mutiny on the Bounty played out on the scenic Chisholm Trail. Directed by Howard Hawks.
The Quiet Man (1952)
American boxer Wayne retires his gloves and returns to a picturesque Irish village where he claims his ancestral cottage and a spirited colleen (Maureen O’Hara) in Ford’s Technicolor delight.
The Searchers (1956)
As that human fury Ethan Edwards, The Duke sets out to hunt down the Comanches who killed his brother and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood) in this gripping drama of revenge and reconciliation.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Jimmy Stewart as the tenderfoot and Wayne as the tough guy whose uncredited act of frontier justice makes his friend (and romantic rival) a hero.
The Shootist (1976)
In his swan song, The Duke is a legendary gunfighter, now terminally ill, recruited for one last showdown. With Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard.