John Wayne: Most Powerful Movie Star in History–Part 2

Part Two in a Series of Articles

The distinctive screen persona of John (The Duke) Wayne can be described in terms of specific elements and essential themes, the most important of which are: a forceful screen presence, physical and moral strength, virile masculinity, honesty and sincerity, the portrayal of distinctly American heroes, and indestructibility.

Inner-Directed Hero

The Wayne screen hero is inner-directed, charismatic, and independent. Wayne’s characters are often lonely, in conflict with their marital and familial duties. But the single most important element of his persona is serving as a role model for soldiers, cowboys, and children, imparting those youngsters technical skills (how to hold a gun, or shoot or fight), a code of ethics, and a way of life.

Wayne’s physical presence

Wayne’s physical strength was probably his strongest asset and 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.” (Kroll in Weis 1981, p. 376).

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, he tended to overshadow those around him. Everything he did on screen–talking, swearing, fighting was with full force and gusto. Moreover, Wayne’s bigness became central to his image in both real and symbolic ways.

Titles of Wayne’s Pictures

The titles of his pictures abound with references to his size: he played the title roles in Big Jim McLain” and Big Jake,” for example. Even his 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. (Walker, 1970, 315).

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.” (Newsweek,” March 1, 1965). “He’s so big, most people don’t realize how graceful he is,” said Howard 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,” she remarked, and “his walk was very fine, light.” (L.A, Times, March 11, 1979).

At the suggestion that his walk was sexy, Wayne simmered, “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.” (Playboy magazine, May 1971).

Wayne’s presence projected tremendous strength, physical as well as moral. President Reagan claimed that everything about Wayne, “his stature, his style, and his convictions–conveyed enduring strength.” (Ronald Reagan, Reader’s Digest,” October 1979).

Katharine Hepburn: Duke’s Strong Tree

Katharine Hepburn recalled that during the shooting of their 1975 movie, Rooster Cogburn , one of the last for both of them, 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.”

Names of Wayne’s Screen Characters

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 “In Harm’s Way.”

Wayne’s screen names 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.” (Photoplay,” March 1951.)

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 the two-fisted, iron-willed man.

Honesty and sincerity were the key attributes to Wayne’s roles and the most consistent traits of his persona. In his early career, it was a youthful sincerity, playing likable heroes 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 he told Geraldine Page in “Hondo”: “Truth is a measure of a man.”

Ben Johnson, a colleague in several Westerns, 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.”