John Wayne - American
An Insight on his Life by Naveen Gupta
John Wayneas Rooster Cogburn in 1975
Heroes in real or reel life are loners, and that is a choice made by them in order to fight epic battles as ordained by fate, and for us the spectators.
In Hollywood, the genre that has remained steadfast in paying tribute to the loner has been the western. The Cowboy remains a legend etched forever on American psyche, he won the frontiers, defended it and turned it into the land of the brave and home of the free!
The western has had a galaxy of great directors as its followers; nay let’s call them disciples. John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, King Vidor, John Sturges, Fred Zinnemann, Samuel Fuller, Sam Peckinpah and even the greatest filmmaker ever- Akira Kurosawa. Kurosawa’s ronin, the wandering samurai warrior exemplified by Mifune, was a Japanese cowboy fighting evil and off course modernity and its ills.
But then we were talking of heroes, and the greatest western or one the greatest American heroes was born over a century ago on May 26,1907 as Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. The world would salute him as John ‘Duke’ Wayne. John Wayne’s pharmacist father found work in a drugstore in Glendale, California. It was a pit stop for local firemen, who were quick to nickname the little boy,” Little Duke,” after his huge Airedale terrier called ‘Duke,’ following the little boy, everywhere he went. In his early decades in Hollywood, Wayne dropped ‘Marion’, in favour of this pet name, which stuck with him for the rest of his life. As a teenager, Wayne worked in an ice cream parlour, shooed horses for local Hollywood studios and played football for university of Southern California on scholarship. He was also an ardent body surfer, promptly got injured, lost his scholarship and dropped out of his course, major in pre-law.
It was the legendary western star Tom Mix, who got him introduced to John Ford for bit parts and later as a prop man at Fox Film Corporation. His first big role was in ‘The Big Trail’ (1930) helmed by Raoul Walsh. Slogging through his share of low oaters, Wayne continued to hone his acting skills, however his easygoing authority and physical presence kept him in demand. In 1939, he landed with his biggest role that made him an overnight icon, in John Ford’s,’ The Stagecoach.’ As Ringo kid, Wayne was to become the indestructible male; a man of impregnable virility with simple laconic virtues packed into 6-foot-4-inch-frame. He was the embodiment of American individualism and frontier spirit.
John Wayne was John Ford’s Mifune, appearing in twenty of his films- ‘She wore a yellow ribbon’ (1949), ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952), ‘The Searchers’ (1956), ‘The wings of Eagles’ (1957), and ‘The man who shot liberty Valance’ (1962) have gone on to secure their rightful places in the genre’s hall of fame. Wayne was excused from military service but the studios found in him a goldmine as exemplar of a hard-bitten decisive soldier, compassionate when necessary in films like ‘The Flying Tiger’ (1942), ‘The Flying Seabees’ (1944), ‘Back to Baatan’ (1945),’Sands of Iwo Jima’ (1949) and ‘The High and the Mighty’ (1954). This was his second run to immortality, the super patriot, and the archetype on which Stallone’s Rambo was modeled in the eighties.
Why John Wayne became a sort of American ‘natural resource’, and why his various critics, political and film, showered on him adulation and respect are questions best answered keeping his screen persona and his real life at the back of one’s mind. John Ford and Howard Hawks created a John Wayne- a man of action, restless if to lead a settled life, chafing at injustice done to him or those around him. When his figure shambled onto view, the audiences froze with the arrival of a coiled vigour awaiting provocation to be sprung. He was always a man, who did not look for trouble but would relentlessly stamp it by the heels when it affronted him-the perfect father figure. But he was flawed, as Ethan Edwards in ‘The Searchers’ is imbued to his toenails with patriarchy, he’s a victim of personal prejudices and is blinded by an extremist code. But you are forced to admire Edwards’ skills and tenacity as much as you are overwhelmed by compassion for the tortured figure that will never be integrated into mainstream, never be thought in terms of human scale. And he played Ethan Edwards again and again, with different shades but in same tenor. He won the best actor Oscar as over the hill Marshall, Reuben Cogburn trying to track down the killer of a 14 year old girl’s father in ‘True Grit’ (1969).
But it was the way Wayne lived his life with certain candour and sunbaked honesty that the American People, found in him a man who was not a star but one of their own. John Wayne the Republican was an ardent anti-communist and supporter of McCarthyism, rallied support for Vietnam War, fought lung cancer and yet declined offer to run for Presidency in 1968. the same man supported Panama Canal treaty and clemency for Patty Hearst. The Duke was a man of his mind and his heart. He may have had Carl Foreman blacklisted from Hollywood and star in Hawks’ “Rio Bravo’, as a right wing response to Gary Cooper’s ‘High Noon’, but at Cooper’s funeral he was at the front without his hairpiece.
In an interview to Playboy Magazine in 1971, Wayne admitted having no guilt for the historical treatment of Native Americans. He concluded by believing in white supremacy,”…until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility….” And yet Spike Lee silenced Clint Eastwood at Cannes, this year, in their historical spat by reminding Eastwood that he is not John Wayne! He married thrice, divorced twice, had numerous affairs including one with Marlene Dietrich, but his esteem never suffered a dent. His last picture ‘The Shootist’ (1976), became a personal swansong, battling stomach cancer this time in real life he was John Bernard Brooks, a dying gunman coming to grips with his life and legend at the home of a widow, whose son (played by a young Ron Howard) hero worships him. A fortnight after being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the Duke passed away on June11, i979.
But then his enduring status was in casting since 1975, when Emperor Hirohito on state visit to United States, asked to meet John Wayne; the symbolic representation of his country’s former enemy. In 1980, Wayne was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter, at whose inaugural ball the Duke thundered in his speech that he was in attendance, ”. as a member of loyal opposition.” The medal has John Wayne riding on horseback, and the other side with his portrait with the words, “John Wayne, American.”
Michael Caine had asked Wayne tips on acting in 1974 in Vancouver Times, john Wayne nixed him between the eyes- “ Talk low, talk slow and don’t talk too much!”
John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)
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