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By Tom Charity
John Wayne turned one hundred years old in May, an occasion Hollywood marked with several DVD releases. The Cannes Film Festival showcased a restored version of Hondo (1953) in 3-D. Newspapers and many bloggers dutifully doffed their hats. And Patrick Wayne bulldozed a gas station in Winterset, Iowa, to make way for the first dedicated John Wayne museum. According to a recent Harris poll, the Duke remains America’s third most popular movie star, no matter that he passed away in 1979. It’s been three decades since his last film, The Shootist (1976) yet he’s consistently ranked in the top ten since Harris started polling 13 years ago.
This love affair goes back a long ways. For 20 years, between 1945-1975, he only dropped out of the Motion Picture Almanac’s annual top ten box-office stars list twice; between 1950 and 1970, he was usually in the top three. For many Americans, we may surmise, John Wayne is the consummate movie star, the image they would choose to project for themselves: The American Ideal. And this was how he was seen everywhere. According to Garry Wills, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the US in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, he made two special requests. He wanted to visit Disneyland, and he wanted to meet John Wayne.
He was tall (6’4”) and big (225 lbs), and it was obvious from the beginning he was leading man material. Again and again, you find yourself looking up at Wayne, whether it’s in that famous Dean Martin POV shot at the beginning of Rio Bravo (1959), or any number of Monument Valley vistas where Duke seems as imposingly permanent as the landscape. Dimitri Tiomkin said he loved writing scores for Wayne pictures, “His shoulders are so broad he can carry a massive score.” His first credit—and the film that literally made his name—was the starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, shot in 70mm “Grandeur,” in 1930. He went on to make more than 170 films as an actor—not even the Wayne estate is sure exactly how many—and he played the lead in over 140 of them. It seems unlikely that record will ever be bested.
The stature came naturally, but Wayne had to learn how to carry his weight. Gauche and bashful in his earliest films (check him out as an office clerk, one of Barbara Stanwyck’s stepping stones, in Alfred Green’s 1933’s Baby Face), the young man was the first to admit his limitations. Serving a 60-film apprenticeship on Poverty Row, the man born Marion Morrison took a long hard look at himself: “When I started I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing,” he said later. “I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up this drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not. I practiced in front of a mirror.”
The parts were interchangeable. In a four-year period between 1932 and 1936 he played characters named “John” 24 times (and in 1932’s Two-Fisted Law he was “Duke”). The repetition constructed his persona, which quickly coalesced into a stoic, somewhat puritanical loner with a ready grin but a hair-trigger temper. In the public imagination and eventually in his own mind he was always playing John Wayne.
From John Ford’s old mentor Harry Carey and veteran character actor Paul Fix, he learned how to overcome his self-consciousness on screen: how to hold the camera’s attention by slowing his speech, pausing mid-sentence, or laying the stress on an unexpected syllable. He figured out that fewer lines could pack more punch, but even at his most laconic, his cadence pitches up and down like a ship on a swell (“That’ll be the day”). With age and over-repetition, Wayne’s undulating diction—like Jimmy Stewart’s trademarked stammer—came to seem mannered and ripe for parody, but this was also an unfortunate repercussion of the small screen, TV, which inverted Hollywood wisdom to privilege sound at the expense of sight. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” John Ford is supposed to have berated Wayne during Stagecoach (1939). “Don’t you know you act with your eyes in pictures?”
Often, by the time he was an established presence, we sense how Wayne floats above the dialogue. It’s not that he isn’t listening, but he absorbs other voices—with his eyes of course—and then he listens to himself. Writing about Rio Bravo, perhaps the consummate Wayne performance, Greil Marcus observed that, “Underneath the assurance and experience he must communicate, he is feeling out the role moment to moment—constantly judging himself and others, weighing choices, posing moral alternatives and, once he has acted, sanctifying his actions by agreeing with them.”
It is said he changed the way he walked because he hated how stiff he looked in his first films. According to Harry Carey Jr., Paul Fix advised him to point his toes into the ground as he moved. With his thin legs and broad girth, it gave him an almost dainty gait, but his rolling glide was graceful and fluid. “It may not be Shakespearean, but who else can spin like that?’ John Carpenter enthuses on the commentary track to Rio Bravo after sheriff John T. Chance whirls around on his heels to knock out the murderer, Joe Burdette.
From stunt man and former rodeo champion Yakima Canutt he learned how to be a cowboy: how to ride, how to fight, how to hold a gun. Canutt was a terrible actor, but Wayne watched him on and off camera, and noticed how when he was confronted with real danger, Canutt didn’t act scared; on some level he seemed amused. That half-humorous glint at the first sign of trouble found its way into Wayne’s arsenal. Thirty years later, when Patrick Wayne was starting out on his own acting career, the only note his father gave him was to learn to master a horse. James Caan and Chris Mitchum both recalled how Wayne made a point of demonstrating the right way to bear arms.
Such guidance wasn’t meant lightly. You can pinpoint the precise moment John Wayne became a bone fide movie star. It occurs 15 minutes into Stagecoach (1939), when we first see the Ringo Kid in the desert, a saddle over his shoulder, twirling his Winchester rifle in one hand as if it were a toothpick. Personally and professionally invested in Wayne—he had passed up Gary Cooper for the role—Ford seals the deal by dollying in for a close up.
To quote Robert Mitchum: “Most actors handle guns on screen like they’re cap pistols… A real gun is a very serious instrument. It has serious implications and terrible consequences, so you want to handle a gun like that…If you do this, your character gets real in a hurry—it steals the reality of the gun. That’s movie acting: you steal the reality of the props and control the pace of the pictures.”
Unlike the sharp-shooting exhibitionism that excites Matt Garth and Cherry Valance (Montgomery Clift and John Ireland) in Red River (1948), Wayne doesn’t have to pull the trigger to establish his authority; the way he carries a rifle is a mark of prowess for anyone who cares to notice. And that rifle is insoluble, as much a part of Wayne as Fred Astaire’s top hat and tails or Bette Davis’s cigarettes, The serious implication Mitchum speaks of, Wayne carries as naturally as a birthright. Famously, in all the films he made, he died only eight times.
“The Westerner…fights not for advantage, and not for the right, but to state what he is,” wrote Robert Warshow. “What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image… This is what makes him invulnerable.” Wayne’s success at erasing all traces of Marion Morrison—or, if you prefer, eliding any distinction between himself and whatever character he happened to be playing—led everyone to overlook the facility of the performance.
Even as keen an observer as Richard Dyer admits in Stars that he had fallen into the common misconception that Wayne was no actor: “The assumption that he is just there, and just by being there a statement is being made.” Dyer proceeds to analyze a scene from Fort Apache (1948) that belies this fallacy, pointing out how Wayne’s relaxed body language, his flexibility and ease of movement and the subtle, original manner in which he registers wry amusement—shading into contempt—for another character (the gunrunner, Meecham) all deepen and elaborate our impressions of Captain Kirby York, especially in contrast to Colonel Thursday, the rigid martinet played by Henry Fonda.
This characteristic grace in motion is routinely obscured by the intransigence of Wayne’s Republicanism, especially his rabid anti-Communism. “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when he sweeps Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers (1956)?” Godard wondered, and 40 years after Vietnam—with Barry Goldwater himself slipping into obscurity—the question still hangs over the star, not least because his persona was his politics.
Asked about his approach to acting, Wayne didn’t talk about technique, he talked about a credo: “Merely to act by a code…In any role I try to act as any man or woman would think a real man ought to act in that situation. That’s all.” When he found himself in a position to control his own career, he put writer James Edward Grant on the payroll to tailor his scripts; Grant had an ear for the lilting colloquial style that didn’t just define Wayne but a whole breed of evangelical down home conservatism: “A man oughta do what he thinks is right” (Hondo). “Republic—I like the sound of the word…One of those words that makes me tight in the throat” (The Alamo). “Lock and load!” (Sands of Iwo Jima, 1949).
The rhetoric still rings loud for many Americans, and Wayne certainly influenced how Presidents Reagan and Bush II addressed their constituency. It was Jimmy Carter who posthumously awarded him a Congressional Gold Medal: ”In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article,” he claimed (presumably in reference to his long battle against cancer, since Wayne notoriously defeated the Axis from the comfort of the Hollywood Canteen). “He was more than a hero. He was a symbol of many of the qualities that made America great.”
To this day, the problem for liberals and progressives is not that Wayne embodied those qualities—strength, moral authority, independence, freedom, integrity, and the courage of conviction—but that, in later life, he wrapped them in a reactionary rightwing ideology. “Out here, due process is a bullet,” he announces in his Vietnam picture, The Green Berets (1968), probably the most risible film in his career, and like his only other directorial credit, The Alamo (1960), a labour of love. It’s a sentiment that we hear echoed today in rationales for the War on Terror, Gitmo, and Abu Ghraib. The irony is that it could be Owen Thursday speaking; the nuance and ambiguity that Wayne himself invested in Fort Apache has been lost along the way.
It’s worth remembering how often in his career—especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s—he was identified not with power brokers, Generals, and certainly not with politicians, but with Native Americans. In Hondo he’s half-Indian. In Fort Apache and many another Western of this period he is personally on good terms with them, and a voluble critic of their dishonest treatment. As late as Chisum (1970) his cattle-rancher claims kinship with an old Comanche foe: “I respect him. We’re brothers.”
This sympathy might seem strange, except that it hints at a greater affinity underneath; the recognition that Wayne’s rugged frontier individualism is as archaic and untenable as the Native American way of life he frequently found himself eulogizing. Indeed, by paving the way for civilization, the pioneer hastens the demise of the wilderness that is his very element. This was one of John Ford’s favourite themes, and Wayne was his most important collaborator in 14 films, among them The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), two tragic laments which hang on Wayne renouncing his claim on any future.
According to Anthony Quinn, his co-star in Tycoon, Wayne worried his career was past its prime in 1947. He was 40, his hair was thinning, and he felt he wouldn’t be able to play romantic leads anymore. He was considering a move behind the camera. Ironically, he was just entering what is certainly his greatest period. Playing significantly older than his years as Tom Dunson in Hawks’ Red River and Nathan Brittles in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wayne took on gravity and maturity, a weight that matched his build. If he was too old to romance the girls, then that enhanced his image as a man’s man, a stoic who had either been wounded by a woman in the past, or had sacrificed romantic attachments for a higher cause.
At the same time, he discovered more depth, more anguish and anger inside himself. It was Hawks who spotted that Wayne’s Puritan zeal bore examination; that such apparent self-sufficiency needed to be tested. In their later films together (Rio Bravo; Hatari,1962; El Dorado, 1966; and Rio Lobo, 1970) this investigation is seriocomic and indulgent in the best sense of the word (for what it’s worth, these movies seem to me among the most companionable in the world). But in Red River it’s tragic. Dunson is an Ahab figure, the obsessive patriarch whose blinding sense of purpose brings him to the brink of murdering his own (surrogate) son, just as in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards means to annihilate his own bloodline.
Wayne is at his most turbulent in these roles, where his strength is also his weakness. He shows flashes of this pathology in Tycoon (1947), a kind of dress rehearsal for Dunson also written by Borden Chase; as Captain Ralls in The Wake of the Red Witch (1948); as Sgt. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. It was as if the older he got, the more double-edged his heroes became. Their values were too rigid to live by; too rigid to live with.
Asked to nominate his own epitaph, Wayne used to quote a Spanish motto: “Feo, fuerte y formal.” which he translated as “Ugly, Strong, and Dignified.” The strength was a given, but it is that mixture of ugliness and dignity which makes him such a compelling and problematic icon. His gaze was unblinking, but more often than not his eyes were kindly. And he carried a massive score.