John Wayne, one of the cinema's
greatest stars, was also one of the cinema's greatest problems.
His image as an icon of American individualism and the frontier
spirit has overshadowed his career to such an extent that
it is almost impossible for viewers and writers to separate
Wayne the legend from Wayne the actor and Wayne the man.
Born Marion Michael Morrison, in Winterset, Iowa, he played football for USC
and held several behind-the-scenes jobs at Fox before moving in front of the
cameras in the late 1920s in a series of bit roles. Director John Ford, who had
befriended "Duke" Wayne, recommended him for the lead in Raoul Walsh's
1930 western epic, The Big Trail. But stardom did not materialize and Wayne spent
the rest of the decade slogging through a series of low-budget oaters whose meager
budgets and rapid shooting schedules did little to sharpen his acting skills.
Still, even in the unsophisticated world of the Poverty Row studios, his easygoing
authority and physical presence could command attention.
John Ford gave Wayne another career break in 1939 by casting him as the Ringo
Kid in Stagecoach, thus rescuing the actor from a life in serials and cheap action
pictures. The role propelled Wayne into the top ranks of box-office stars and
during the 1940s his legend began to take shape. Excused from military service
because of physical ailments, Wayne became the film industry's exemplar of the
hard-bitten, decisive soldier who could be compassionate when necessary. Wartime
releases such as Flying Tigers (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Back to
Bataan (1945) placed Wayne squarely in the larger-than-life, heroic mold.
But it was the movies he made at the end of the decade that established him as
an actor of merit, something more than just a star of tremendous stature. Howard
Hawks emphasized the willful side of Wayne's screen persona, taking it to extremes
in Red River (1948). As the inflexible Tom Dunson, Wayne was able to eschew mock
heroics and concentrate on the psychology of a man obsessed. Giving an uncompromisingly
hard-edged performance, Wayne created a difficult, unlikable, yet compelling
character. Two other John Ford films from the period gave Wayne the opportunity
for greater depth Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) — the
latter a particularly moving portrait of a man and an era reaching a turning
For most of the 1950s and 60s Wayne ambled through a number of mediocre pictures,
standard westerns and action movies made watchable, and financially successful,
because of his participation. When the script was poor and the role ill-considered,
the results could be disatrous: witness The Conqueror (1956), which featured
the unfortunate Duke as Genghis Khan. But with a carefully tailored part and
a director at the top of his form, Wayne always rose to the occasion — Rio
Bravo (1959) for Hawks, and The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance (1962) for Ford. The Searchers, now considered by many to be Ford's greatest
picture, also features Wayne's best performance, perhaps because in the driven
character of Ethan Edwards viewers can negotiate their private terms with Wayne
the man, super patriot and defender of the conservative faith. Ethan is a grotesque
figure, the essence of patriarchy, a victim of his personal prejudices and blinded
by an extremist code. But at the same time his skill and tenacity are admirable.
Finally, one must feel compassion for him, realizing that he will never be integrated
into the mainstream, will never be thought of in terms of human scale. Understanding
the character of Ethan helps demystify Wayne the icon.
Although he won the 1969 Best Actor Oscar for True Grit, a light-hearted if not
particularly impressive performance, Wayne's best role in his last decade on
screen was also his last. In The Shootist (1976) he played a dying gunman who
is just beginning to understand his own life and legend. It was the perfect elegy
for Wayne, who was himself dying of cancer, and a role which he invested with
a touching simplicity and directness — the hallmarks of both his acting
career and personal popularity.