I once met an Arizona cowboy, a real cowboy, not a film one, who said he wanted to vote for John Wayne as President. That Wayne had entered politics only on the sidelines and not a candidate, and the fact that he had been deceased for some years, did not detract this cowboy from his belief that Mr. Wayne was somehow eternal, and somehow eternally the right answer to America’s problems.
John Wayne had a remarkable career, and his image on screen as someone stalwart, moral, and dispensing no-nonsense justice was, and is, appealing in a world where we have many doubts about where our society is going and who we can really trust. The 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth, on May 26th, will undoubtedly give us a chance to watch some of his films and remember again what made him so likeable, and so iconic an American figure.
His long career, begun in the 1920s, really took off after John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), and the 1940s saw Wayne’s career blossom, from war films to westerns. By the end of the decade, he was firmly ensconced in the public’s, and the film industry’s mind as the man who made things right just by showing up. The posse and the cavalry were just there for support.
But that is image, and film is first and foremost, all about illusion. John Wayne did not bravely fight the enemy in World War II, no matter how many times he did it on the soundstage. In truth, he applied for a deferment and never served, even though many of his fellow actors, men with families and careers that were just as important to them, joined the armed forces. At the time, Mr. Wayne was criticized as caring more about his career than his country, and was disparaged as a coward, just as he would accuse men who would not serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War of cowardice. Some have suggested that this period of his life in Hollywood during the war may have helped make him such a vocal supporter of investigations against communists in Hollywood in the 1950s and an advocate of right-wing politics in the future. Whether his later actions were because of, or in spite of, the personal choice he made during World War II not to serve, he remained a heroic figure on film, and some of his best work was when the film was less about a message and more about the man he was playing.
One of his best in this vein was in “The Quiet Man” (1952) where John Wayne plays the lone American in an Irish village, out to put a violent past behind him, only to find more exasperating, and much more comic, battles ahead of him before he finds happiness with Maureen O’Hara. He is as much the rugged individualist in the rain-swept ruins of an Irish castle, vainly trying to protect from the rain Miss O’Hara, who nestles against him in a beautifully filmed wordless scene, as he ever is leading a cavalry charge in Monument Valley.
His cross-country fistfight with Victor McLaglen is the most entertaining pummeling we are likely to see on film, and director John Ford’s stock actors, including Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Mildred Natwick, and a riotous flock of actors from Irish theater make Wayne’s Irish-born but American-raised character seem as if he is truly a man without a country.
In a world today where Americans are so disparaged abroad, it is especially poignant to see Wayne in this foreign setting, bewildered and misunderstood, but managing to fit in at last while losing none of his American individualism. He still stands tall. (At 6’4½ ” he should.) If John Wayne means different things to different people, then that is as it should be. Being allowed to express your own perspective is one of the best things about being American.
That’s all for this week. See you Monday.