John Wayne: Screen Image–All-American Hero

John Wayne as All-American Folk Hero

The most important attribute of John Wayne’s durable stardom was his 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 the writer D.H. Lawrence as “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Wayne embodied the rugged virtues of America, its toughness and ruggedness.

The feminist critic Joan Mellen regards Wayne as the symbol of the American frontier, masculine, repressed, celibate, and brutalized. In his best roles, he epitomized the national virtues of rugged individualism and that pioneers’ heritage, which he translated into the notion that good and justice must always triumph over evil.

Only few of Hollywood’s movie stars have been described as great American heroes, most notably Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were also genuinely American figures but in different ways. As comedians or singers, they lacked definite screen personae that were associated with uniquely 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.

Small-Town America

The social background of Wayne, like that Cooper, Fonda, and Stewart, was most appropriate to the screen legends that they had 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, especially 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.

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 1932 to 1935, when he died in an air-crash: Roger symbolized the “homespun philosopher,” the “ambassador” of rural Americana and common folk.

Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda became the screen personification of the farmer-pioneer with his screen debut, The Farmer Takes a Wife, in 1935, 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 on in his career, Fonda played a fighting pioneer in the pre-Independence era in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and a farmer fighting social injustice in John Ford’s powerful 1940 film version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  It was arguably his strongest screen performance, for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

In the 1950s, Fonda continued to symbolized the ordinary American soldier in Joshua Logan’s Mister Roberts (a role that he had played on stage).

Photo: Mister Roberts

In 1957, he played the indefatigable citizen who fought for basic American ideals, such as trial by a fair democratic jury in Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama, Twelve Angry Men.

Photo: Twelve Angry Men

Jimmy Stewart

If Fonda epitomized farmers, Jimmy Stewart was best when cast as a small-town lawyer, establishing himself as another type of all-American hero in his pictures with Frank Capra, the director of “the American Dream.” Stewart usually played small-town men who found pleasure and fulfillment in unglamorous, ordinary existence. His character, Jefferson Smith in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is a naive Wisconsin Senator, committed to fighting graft and corruption.

Stewart’s young sheriff in Destry Rides Again, Thomas Jefferson Destry (note the similarity in the name of his protagonists) looks soft, vulnerable and easy-going, but he is actually hard as nails when he has to fight. In Capra’s ultimate American movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, in 1946, their first collaboration after they both had served 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.

Photo: It’s a Wonderful Life

Gary Cooper

Frank Capra also contributed to Gary Cooper’s image as spokesman for ordinary people and ordinary life. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Stewart’s Longfellow Deeds is a tuba-playing country boy who finds himself fighting the “Big City” crooks and swindlers. 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.

Photo: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

Biographical 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 that 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.

Jimmy Stewart excelled in the biopic, 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, and 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 John 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 not successful–for various reasons.

Photo: The Barbarian and the Geisha

Wayne took great pride, however, in his characterization of Colonel Benjamin Vandervoort in the epic Oscar winning The Longest Day, and, of course, as Davy Crockett, Texas’s heroic fighter in The Alamo, which he himself directed. Nonetheless, all things considered, Wayne had built his international reputation as a uniquely American hero by playing real or mythic fictional Westerners, not real-life figures.

Photo: The Longest Day