John Wayne: Screen Image (Part Two)

Part Two in a Series of Five Articles

stagecoach_1_wayneIn Part One, we explored the John Wayne screen image in terms of its basic elements, specifically his physical presence, photogeniety, and natural charisma.

Titles of Wayne’s Pictures

The titles of John Wayne’s pictures abound with references to his Physical size.  He played the title roles in “Big Jim McLain” and Big Jake,” for example.

Even Wayne’s enemies–real or fictional, on screen and off–were described as big, a process designed to emphasize his strength in conquering and defeating 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 sheer size–or force of nature.  Numerous reviews of his pictures were entitled, “Wayne is bigger than the film,” or “The Big Duke does it again.”

Cynical Look

pi75hqjbnkuIn 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 (often for legal authority or pompous decorum) but also emotionalism in romantic scenes.

Slow, Sure, Sexy Walk

One of Wayne’s most distinctive trademarks was his walk, which he learned from his mentor, Yakima Canutt, who appeared in many of his Westerns.

It was a slow, 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 the WWII drama, “Back to Bataan,” reported that Wayne threw his huge body “like a lightweight gymnast.”

red_river_wayne_3Katharine 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.”

In 1969, he observed: “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, 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 recalled that during the shooting of their movie, “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.”

Names of Wayne’s Screen Characters

red_river_wayne_1The 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.”

Wayne’s screen names implied more than just physical force. In “McLintock!” his hero’s full name was George Washington McLintock, and in both McLintock!” and “Big Jake,” he played a respected (senior) citizen with towns named after him.

John Wayne: Quality of Being Real Man

Wayne’s image glorified virile masculinity–his 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,” director 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 screen 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 indicated naiveté, with a manner that was gauche but charming.  His heroes refused to lie. When they gave their word, even to Indians in films of the 1950s, it was as committing and abiding as the 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.”