John Wayne: Screen Image–Masculine Hero (Part Five)

Part  five of Nine:
His 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 hismelf 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 the two-fisted, iron-willed man.
Honesty and Sincerity
Honesty and sincerity were the key to Wayne’s roles, and the most consistent traits of his persona.  In his early career, it was a youthful sincerity, playing likable Heros who were awkward but genuine.  The tone of his voice and his open-mouthed grin indicate naiveté, with a manner that was gauche but charming.  His heroes refused to lie.  When they gave their word, even to Indians, it was as committing and abiding as law.
They were genuinely committed to the truth, as his hero told Geraldine Page in Hondo: “Truth is a measure of a man.”  Ben Johnson, a colleague in several Wasterns, described Wayne as real and profoundly honest.  “If he tells you tomorrow’s Christmas,” Johnson said, “you can get your sock ready.  He was that kind of person.”
All-American Heroes
But perhaps most important of all was Wayne’s portrayal of genuinely American heroes.  His entire work can be described as the glorification of the American hero and the perpetuation of American ideals.  For many, he symbolized the essence of the American soul, described once by D.H. Lawrence as hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.
Wayne embodied the rugged virtues of America, both its toughness and ruggedness.  The feminist critic Joan Mellen regards Wayne as the symbol of the American frontier, being masculine, repressed, celibate, and brutalized.  In his best roles, he epitomized the national virtues of rugged individualism and that pioneers’ heritage, that right and justice must always triumph over evil.
Only a few movie stars have been described as great American heroes, most notably Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart.  Bob Hope and Bing Crosby have also been genuinely American figures but in different ways.  As comedians or singers, they lacked definite screen personae that were associated with American values.
Interestingly, none of the popular female stars, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, or Doris Day, were regarded as distinctly American heroines on the level that Wayne, Stewart, and Cooper were.  It seems that Americanism and patriotism have been linked more intimately with male than female stars which, if true, provides a revealing commentary on the differing attributes American culture has used in describing men and women.
Wayne, Coop, Hank and Jimmy
The social backgrounds of Wayne, Cooper, Fonda, and Stewart, were most appropriate to the legends they created.  They were all born and reared in small towns: Wayne in Winterest, Iowa; Cooper in Helena, Montana; Fonda in Grand Island, Nebraska; and Stewart in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  Small towns have been important in American culture, especially during the Depression, when these actors became popular, because of the strong belief in the virtues of rural life.
At the center of the myth of small-town America, as critic Kerbel pointed out, was the heroic, self-reliant farmer, the mainstay of America until industrialization–and to a lesser degree afterwards.  The farmer embodied the Puritan ethos of honesty, hard work, and decent righteous living.[ii] During the Depression, there was a short-lived return to the ideals of a simple rural life and the farmer became again a popular folk hero.
This is probably the reason why Will Rogers was the most popular star from l932 to l935, when he died in an air-crash: Roger symbolized the “homespun philosopher” and “ambassador” of rural Americana and common folk.
Henry Fonda became the screen personification of the farmer-pioneer with his screen debut, The Farmer Takes a Wife, in l935, a romantic drama set in the 1920s, in which he plays a farmer whose sole wish is to work the land and live peacefully with his wife.
Later, Fonda played a fighting pioneer in the pre-Independence era in Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and a farmer fighting social injustice in the powerful film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, arguably his strongest screen performance.  Fonda continued to symbolized the ordinary American soldier in Mister Roberts, and fought for basic American ideals, such as trial by a fair, democratic jury in Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men.
Jimmy Stewart
If Fonda epitomized farmers, Stewart was best when cast as a small-town lawyer, establishing himself as another all-American hero in his pictures with Frank Capra, the director of “the American Dream.”
Stewart usually played small-town people who found pleasure and fulfillment in unglamorous, ordinary existence.  His Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is a naive Wisconsin Senator, committed to fighting graft and corruption.  And his young sheriff in Destry Rides Again, Thomas Jefferson Destry (note the similarity in his protagonists’ names) looks soft and easy-going, but is actually hard as nails when he has to fight.
In Capra’s ultimate American movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, their first collaboration after a lengthy military service, Stewart is cast as the simple but honest George Bailey who, all his life, has been dreaming of breaking away from his small-town and doing “big things,” only to realize how meaningful that life is to him.
Frank Capra also contributed to Cooper‘s image as spokesman for ordinary people and ordinary life.  In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, his Longfellow Deeds is a tuba-playing country boy who finds himself fighting the “Big City” crooks and swindlers.  And in Meet John Doe, Cooper starts as a desperate ex-bush league pitcher, but ends up fighting a Fascist publisher and a corrupt political system.
Bio-pictures, in which Cooper and Stewart played distinctly American, real-life heroes, also featured prominently in their careers.  No matter what figure they portrayed, historical or contemporary, they always stood for basic American values: simplicity, humility, honesty, integrity, and courage.
Of the many biographical roles Cooper played, two stood out: Alvin York, the First World War hero in Sergeant York, for which he won his first Oscar Award, and Lou Gehrig, the admired baseball player, who died prematurely, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
And Jimmy Stewart excelled in The Stratton Story, as the baseball hero who continued to play with an artificial leg, and in The Glenn Miller Story, as America’s most popular band leader who died in an air-crash in World War II; in both movies, he was cast against June Allyson, who played his wife in idyllic marriages.
Compared with these two stars, Wayne played fewer real-life heroes.  Bio-pictures, as a genre, featured less prominently in his oeuvre.  Furthermore, these movies were made rather late in his career and subsequently did not affect his image in the same way that they had affected Stewart’s or Cooper’s careers.  For example, Wayne was cast as Navy Aviation Commander Frank (“Spig”) Wead, who became a successful Hollywood screenwriter, following an injury, in Ford’s Wings of the Eagle.  And his portrayal of Townsend Harris, the first American ambassador to Japan, in John Huston’s The Barbarian and the Geisha, was even less successful
Wayne took great pride, however, in his characterization of Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort in The Longest Day, and, of course, as Davy Crockett, Texas’s heroic fighter in The Alamo.  Nonetheless, all things considered, Wayne built his reputation as a uniquely American hero by playing mythic fictional Westerners, not real-life figures.