John Wayne: Screen Image–Size Matters, Physical and Moral Strength

John Wayne’s distinctive screen persona can be described in terms of some basic elements.  The most important of these attributes are: a forceful screen presence, physical and moral strength, virile masculinity, honesty and sincerity, portrayal of distinctly American heroes, of indefatigable and indestructible men.
The typical Wayne screen hero was inner-directed, charismatic, and independent.  Wayne’s characters were often loners (and lonely), men in conflict with their domestic responsibilities–marital and familial duties.
However, the single most important element of his screen persona was serving as a role model for soldiers, cowboys, and children–instructing fighting skills, transmitting a code of ethics, imparting of whole way of life.
Wayne’s physical presence was probably his strongest asset, an attribute something which he always possessed–even before he developed as an actor.  Louise Brooks, the beautiful silent star, recalled meeting Wayne on the set of an unmemorable Western, Overland Stage Raiders, one of her last screen appearances.  On the first day of shooting, she observed two figures, “one was a cherub, five feet tall, carrying a bound script; the other a cowboy, six feet four inches tall, wearing a lovely smile.  The cherub was director George Sherman; the star, Wayne.”  “Looking up at him,” she thought, “this is no actor but the hero of all mythology, miraculously brought to life.”
Size Matters
Wayne was a giant of a man, rising to 6’4″ and weighing well over 220 pounds at the peak of his career.
He was so big, that he tended to overshadow all those around him.  Everything he did on screen–talking, swearing, fighting–was with full force and gusto.
Wayne’s bigness became central to his image in both real and symbolic ways.  The titles of his pictures had abounded with references to his size: he played the lead roles in The Big Trail, The Big Stampede, Big Jim McLain, Big Jake.
Even Wayne’s enemies–real or fictional–were described as big, to stress his strength in conquering them. Wayne himself referred to his 1964 successful bout with cancer as “The Big C,” thus coining one of his most quoted lines, “I licked the Big C.”  Audiences and critics also described him in terms of size or force.
Numerous reviews of his pictures were entitled, “Wayne is bigger than the film,” or “The Big Duke does it again.”  In addition to size, Wayne’s physical presence was endowed with steely gray-blue eyes, a cold cynical look and an ironic (lopsided) grin.  His voice, incisive and curled at the edges, was particularly effective in expressing two contradictory feelings: contempt but also emotion (in romantic scenes).
Sexy Walk–Light as Dancer
One of Wayne’s most distinctive trademarks was his walk, which he learned from Yakima Canutt.  It was a slow, though sure, walk, sort of a shuffle with the cutting in of the hands across the body.  Many actors tried to imitate it, but as Dean Martin observed, “nobody walks like John Wayne.”  “He’s so big, most people don’t realize how graceful he is,” said Hawks, “he’s as light on his foot as a dancer.”
Edward Dmytryk, who directed him in Back to Bataan, reported that Wayne threw his huge body “like a lightweight gymnast.”
Katharine Hepburn described Wayne as a man “with great legs and tight buttocks, a real great seat, and small sensitive feet. He carries his huge frame lightly, like a feather, and his walk very fine and light.”
At the suggestion that his walk was sexy in the way he moved his hips, Wayne would simmer, “God, I get hot when they say I wiggled my rear and all that stuff.”  But when challenged by Playboy, as to whether sexuality was still part of his magnetism, he conceded, “Well, at one time in my career, I guess sexuality was part of my appeal.”
As for the present (1970s), “I’m 63 years old now, how the hell I know whether I still convey that.”  “All that crap comes from the way I walk,” Wayne once explained, “there’s evidently a virility in it, otherwise why do you deep mentioning it?”  He denied, however, he was “conscious of my particular walk,” though agreed that “I must walk different from other people, but I haven’t gone to any school to learn how.”
Physical and Moral Strength
Wayne’s screen presence projected tremendous strength, physical as well as moral.  President Ronald Reagan once noted that “everything about Wayne, his stature, his style, his convictions–conveyed enduring strength.”.
Katharine Hepburn recalled that during the shooting of Rooster Cogburn, she leaned against his as often as possible, even when the script did not call for it, because “it was like leaning against a strong tree.”
The names of screen characters sometimes suggest personality traits.  The names of Wayne’s protagonists often signified physical strength.  For example, his hero’s name was Rocklin in Tall in the Saddle, Robert Marmaduke Hightower in Three Godfathers, Wilder in Blood Alley, Jack Cutter in The Comancheros, and Captain Rockwell in Preminger’s In Harm’s Way.  At times, his screen name implied more than just physical force.  In McLintock! his hero’s name was George Washington McLintock, and in both McLintock! and Big Jake he played a respected citizen with towns named after him.
Wayne’s image glorified virile masculinity–fans admired him for being a man’s man.  “It is not enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well,” John Ford said of Wayne, “something else has to come across to audiences, something which no director can instill or create: the quality of being a real man.”
Wayne himself believed that he was the stuff that real men are made of.  His roles varied, but their most common link was virility; whether he played a soldier or a cowboy, he was always a two-fisted, iron-willed man.
Essay checked October 14, 2020.