John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life (How My Interest Began? Origins of My Book?)

It is usually impossible to remember the specific date at which the idea for a book originated. However, my book about John Wayne may be the exception, for the initial interest in studying and writing a monograph about John Wayne was born on June 11, 1979, the day of his death.

The reaction to Wayne death was really shocking to me. Why would a movie star get such media blitz, with the news of his death occupying the frontpages of every newspaper in the country (and many in the world).

Could movie actors in other countries have acquired such extraordinary popularity and mythic status How special was Wayne’s stardom in the contexts of Hollywood and American society at large These were some of the questions, which my close friends later lumped together as “the Importance of being Wayne,” I set out to explore.

I began to collect systematic data on Wayne’s career and life in 1980, not realizing then the amount of work involved. But I wanted to be comprehensive and thus examine the socio-cultural significance of John Wayne that is his range of activities as an actor, star, folk hero, ideologue and political figure, and cultural icon.

The scope of the book further expanded when I decided to compare between Wayne and other major stars of his generation: Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, and Cary Grant.

The book reported here, however, is neither a biography of Wayne nor a chronological review of his films. Rather, it provides a sociological view of the historical, cultural, and cinematic importance of John Wayne as an actor auteur.

Many friends and colleagues have read and commented on earlier drafts of the manuscript. I would like to thank especially Jeanine Basinger, Sigmund Diamond, Robert Kapsis, Rob Remley, John Ryan, and Bill Shepard for providing extremely useful and detailed comments.

This book owes an intellectual debt to the writings of Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell on the auteur theory (and on John Ford and John Wayne). I have attempted to apply some notions of auteurism to John Wayne as an actor-auteur, though I am aware that auteurism describes best the work of directors rather than producers, screenwriters, or actors. I have also learned a good deal from Allen Eyles’s book about John Wayne, one of the best of its kind.

Finally, my students at Columbia University and other schools, such as Hunter College and Wellesley College, have contributed to this book by challenging my ideas about film and society in general and the Western in particular.

Over the years, I have introduced hundreds of students to Wayne’s best Westerns, particularly Stagecoach,” Red River,” “Rio Bravo,” and The Searchers.” As a result, I have derived great pleasure from hearing two frequent remarks: “I never used to like Westerns, but Red River” changed my mind about the genre.” Or, “I never realized John Wayne could really act until I saw The Searchers.” Such remarks make film studies and film teaching a more stimulating and rewarding enterprise.

I have spent a most pleasant sabbatical at the University of New Hampshire, where I worked on the final draft of the manuscript. I would also like to thank my friend Eli Meron, whose gracious hospitality I enjoyed during my extensive trips to Los Angeles in the 1980s, while living in New York and Boston.

The collection of data took place in many libraries and I would like to thank the personnel of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and the libraries of the American Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.

Mary Corliss and Terry Geesken of the Museum of Modern Art’s Stills Archive provided great guidance in selecting pictures for this book.

Finally, I would like to stress that this book could not have been completed without the assistance, belief, and moral support of my friends Rob Remley and Nathan Waterman.

The book is dedicated to my first partner (and first true love), Nathan Waterman, the most selfless and generous person I have met in my life, who passed away two years after its publication.