With the release of a new True Grit this week, I thought I'd offer you a look back at the duke of the cowboys.
Now, I'm an unabashed John Wayne fan. A dangerous statement if you desire to be taken seriously as a film reviewer for there has always been a prejudice by many of my colleagues in criticism toward Mr. Wayne's acting style. However, most film historians proclaim the Duke to be one of the grandest personas ever to appear on celluloid. Some even take umbrage to the pronouncement that he could not act. From my research over the years, I've discovered John Wayne was John Wayne. Bigger than life with a Mount Rushmore identity, Wayne was brave, tough, generous and patriotic, just like the men he played in 150 movies. Even political foes like Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas stand in awe of what he was and what he stood for. True, no one has made more dreadful films (RIO LOBO, THE CONQUEROR, JET PILOT), but, on the other hand, few have given us any more entertaining pictures than THE QUIET MAN. And it's John Wayne who carried one of the best American films of all time, John Ford's THE SEARCHERS. Can't act? View him in The COWBOYS, THE SEARCHERS, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, THE SHOOTIST, or TRUE GRIT and I believe you'll come to a different conclusion.
The man who became the embodiment of the great American western hero was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907. (Fortunately, the nickname "Duke" replaced Marion.) Years later, when the young actor got his first big break in 1930's THE BIG TRAIL, the head of Fox Studios rechristened him John Wayne. His legendary career went on to span five decades, boasting several classic performances, including the Oscar-winning Rooster Cogburn in TRUE GRIT.
I think we liked John Wayne because he was never small. With the exception of THE SEARCHERS, his characters never showed intolerance for a race. What's more, he never started a fight – just ended them. There have been other influences in my life that directed me towards tolerance and the lifting up of other races, but surely John Wayne was a positive when it came to being open to other cultures and being respectful of all mankind.
"But, Phil, he was pretty rough on Indians." Was he, really?
A great many B-westerns used the Native American as little more than props. They were either a drunken joke or a savage menace. With all due respect to Roy Rogers, John Wayne was King of the Cowboys and therefore was lumped into the category of Injun hater. Well, I've done the research and here are the facts:
Out of 153 films (there may be more as some of the B-westerns he was involved in at the very beginning of his career are no more) 90 of them were westerns (one – THE CONQUERER with Duke playing Genghis Khan – being an eastern).
Out of those 90, only 13 had the Native American as central characters, only three others making reference to them.
Of those thirteen, only THE SEARCHERS featured John Wayne as hostile to Indians. And that film points out the wrongness of the Ethan Edwards' (Duke) bigotry.
In the following films, John Wayne makes speeches, showing regard for the Native American;
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
In HONDO, his character, who lived with the Indians for a part of his life, pays tribute to their courage and lifestyle. As he does in McLINTOCK and CHISUM. In THE UNDEFEATED, he has adopted a Native American child and raised him as his own son.
Now, I suspect an endorsement of John Wayne as my screen hero may not sit well with some. After all, he often ended conflict with guns or fisticuffs. But, as a kid, my views on character were reinforced by watching the Duke's movies. Wayne, who never played petty or vindictive on screen, portrayed men who faced down formidable odds, defended the rights of others, showed regard for authority and paid tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Those aren't bad qualities for a boy to glean from a movie hero.
Along with being a movie icon, Wayne was a vocal Republican, even during the late 1960s and early '70s when such a demonstrative conservative proclamation could have threatened his box office championship. Though he did not serve in the military, he was always an exalter of flag and country, his war movies and USO trips into harm's way making him a patriotic symbol.
There is also evidence suggesting he may have been a Christian. Indeed, there are many examples of him reverencing the Creator and acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God.
First off, he never denied God's authority in his movies. Even toward the end of his career when rating codes had slackened, enabling movie stars to profane God's name on screen, he never did. And in several films, including THREE GODFATHERS, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, OPERATION PACIFIC, THE COWBOYS, and CHISUM, he was either seen leading others in prayer or discussing God's authority. What's more, on the first day of filming THE ALAMO, Wayne, who produced, directed and starred in the picture, had a minister on the set to pray over the production.
On a segment of "The Dean Martin Show" in the mid-1960s, Wayne made a point of letting the audience know he would make sure his newly born daughter would grow up guided by the Psalms and the Lord's Prayer.
In the early 1970s, a televised interview showed Wayne gathered with his family at mealtime, Duke's youngest saying grace and ending the prayer "In Jesus' name." I remember thinking as I viewed Wayne bowing in prayer, "Yeah, we'll see him up there."
Certainly, it would be naïve to think we know a man by his carefully protected public image, but an acknowledgement of God must have been important to John Wayne for some reason. Since he didn't need to be reverential in order to maintain celebrity, I must assume these displays were motivated by other judgments.
I know that being a sinner or a saint isn't a matter of behavior: You can't be "good" enough to get into Heaven. But Solomon wrote "As in water face reflects face, so a man's heart reveals the man" (Proverbs 27:19). I think Duke's actions revealed his heart, and yeah, I think we'll see him up there.
The best of John Wayne:
STAGECOACH (1939). As John Ford's camera introduces us to Wayne's Ringo Kid, the filmmaker is saying John Wayne is a screen presence here to stay. And he was right. As for the film itself, nearly every other western to come would borrow from this masterpiece.
HONDO (1953). From Louis L'Amour's story, Duke found the personification of his screen image in this tale of a cavalry scout who rescues, and is rescued by, a lone pioneer woman and her young son. A true classic.
THE SEARCHERS (1958). John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood. Considered by many critics to be one of the finest films ever, it tells the story of Ethan Edwards returning home several years after the Civil War. Soon his brother's family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party who kidnap his young niece (played as a little girl by Natalie's younger sister, Lana). Years later, Wayne's character rightly fears the girl is now one of the chief's wives. Will the "Injun-hatin" Ethan kill Debby rather than see her become a "squaw"? In this reviewer's opinion, this is John Ford's most complex western and certainly the most visually majestic. A powerful look at the emptiness of hatred and bigotry. The perfect western. A perfect movie.
THE QUIET MAN (1952). John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara. In it Wayne is indomitable in dealing with Victor McLaglen, humorous with Barry Fitzgerald, and tender with one of the most beautiful women on the movie screen, Maureen O'Hara. John Ford won a deserving Best Director Oscar for this production of a man returning to his roots and discovering that love with an Irish redhead can be as rocky and beautiful as Ireland itself. A loving, sentimental look at the Ireland we all wish existed. Great music, cinematography and story make this one of the Duke's best. Romance, humor and one of the longest fight scenes ever filmed!
RIO BRAVO (1959). Wayne did four films with Rio in the title. This is the one to see. It's not a great film. It's just a good western. Wayne and director Howard Hawks did the film in response to HIGH NOON. Wayne had turned that role down because he believed it put the town's people in a bad light, portraying them all as cowards. Here, several members of the community want to help him face insurmountable odds. Dean Martin is terrific as his one-time deputy, now the town drunk. Great score, great color.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949). Speaking of great color, the word glorious springs to mind with this western adventure shot in Monument Valley. Playing a retiring cavalry soldier, this is the quintessential army post film. Mr. Ford did three of them (FORT APACHE, RIO GRANDE and this one). Along with the stunning color, the cinematography is so prominent that it actually becomes a main character in the film. And actor/equestrian Ben Johnson on a horse, being chased by Indians, now that's movies.
TRUE GRIT (1969) John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall. Hampered only by Campbell's unskilled acting abilities, TRUE GRIT stands tall as rousing western fare. Duke's rugged, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn was possibly his most energetic, definitive performance and worthy of that year's Best Actor Oscar. Caution: contains some violence and a couple of obscenities.
THE COWBOYS (1972). Some critics had problems with the ending of this film, as the kids turn out to be vigilantes, bringing the villains to a swift demise. But this is a top notch western, with a rousing score by John Williams. The dialogue, cinematography and direction by Mark Rydel are used brilliantly to further the story of an aging cattleman forced to use boys to lead his herd to market. Critic Rex Reed wrote of Wayne's performance, "All the forces that have made him a dominant personality as well as a major screen presence seem to combine. Old Dusty Britches can act." Here he is supported by memorable performances by Roscoe Lee Brown, Colleen Dewhurst and Slim Pickens. (Caution: contains some objectionable language and brutal action.)
THE SHOOTIST (1976) John Wayne in his last and perhaps best performance plays J.B. Books, a dying gunslinger. PG (contains a few obscenities and profanities – no misuse of God's name by the Duke; some bloody violence). Admittedly, a gunfighter shouldn't be your idea of a role model, but I bring this film to your attention for its intelligent script. In spite of its few objectionables, it is tame compared to recent westerns. And it validates the Duke as not just an actor, but a very good actor.