John Wayne: All-American Icon–Making or Faking?

John Wayne: All-American Icon–Making or Faking?*

This year marks the centennial of the actor and movie star John Wayne, who was born on May 26, 1907 and died in June of 1979.

The 2007 Cannes Film Festival, May 16-27, will be showing several of John Wayne’s classics, including “The Searchers” and “Rio Bravo.”

Over the next three weeks, joining the worldwide celebrations, will feature a daily review or article about the Duke, one of the most beloved American movie stars.

John Wayne was the most popular and most durable star in film history. The cultural critic Eric Bentley, who didn’t like Wayne and resented his use of politics in his pictures, described him as “the most important American of our time.” General Douglas MacArthur, the controversial Second World War hero, once told Wayne: “You represent the American serviceman better than the American serviceman himself.”

Despite differences in political persuasion, Wayne was one of the favorite stars of President Jimmy Carter. When Wayne died, Carter eulogized him as “a national asset” and “a symbol of many of the most basic qualities that made America great. In an age of few heroes, John Wayne was the genuine article.”

Clearly, John Wayne was much more than an actor, or a movie star; he was a screen icon, a mythic symbol of the American Dream. How did that happen?

Wayne’s lengthy career had spanned fifty years, from 1926 to 1976. He entered into the film industry at a strategically crucial time, during the transition from silent to talking pictures, and went on to pursue s viable career for five decades.

The duration and popularity of his career made Wayne a chief figure in the international film world. Wayne’s death, in June 1979, marked the end of an era in American cinema. An understanding of his life and his work therefore sheds light on the structural changes that took place in the film industry and in American society.

Throughout Wayne’s life, there have been considerable controversies about his contribution to film art, his status as an actor and, of course, his politics. My book attempts to provide a rather dispassionate evaluation of Wayne’s film work by comparing him with other major stars of his generation, particularly those who had similar, distinctly American, screen images, such as Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart.

During his illustrious career, Wayne appeared in close to 200 pictures, though it is impossible to assess their exact number because of the many serials and “B” Westerns that he had made. Wayne’s film output, estimated at over 170 features, outnumbered that of every star in Hollywood’s history.

Wayne’s career consisted of five distinct phases, in each of which he performed different functions in both film and pop culture.

The first phase, from 1925 to 1930, saw his rise from a prop man to a leading man in The Big Trail.

In the second chapter, from 1930 to 1939, Wayne declined from a potential star to the actor of numerous “B” Westerns.

This phase was followed by a whole decade, between 1939 and 1948, in which he continued to grow as an actor.

The most crucial phase of Wayne’s screen career took place between 1949 and 1969, during which he reached the stature of America’s most popular movie star.

In 1970, after winning the Oscar Award for True Grit, Wayne began the fifth and final phase of his career, which lasted until his death in 1979.

What marked this final stage, was Wayne’s new functions in the American cultural scene, shifting from a movie star to a national legend and folk hero, who expressed his views on various issues: film, politics, economics and education.

Wayne made significant contribution to two distinctly American genres: Westerns and war movies. While he did not make as many war films as Westerns, the former played a considerable role in his career and contributed to his screen image.

Wayne’s combat movie and the heroes he portrayed in them differ from the war movies of other stars, most notably Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Errol Flynn.  These actors, like Wayne, were not drafted into the war effort and therefore could make movies during the Second World War.

However, Wayne’s claim to notoriety, and his greatest pride as an actor, were based on the numerous Westerners that he had portrayed. Wayne’s intimate association with the Western movie resulted in an unprecedented phenomenon: his very name became synonymous with the genre. The Western was Wayne’s defining genre. He was committed to Western films throughout his career, regardless of fads and fashions in the film industry and the genre’s popularity with the large public.

Only one other star enjoyed such close affinity with an American film genre: Jimmy Cagney and the crime-gangster film. However, unlike Cagney, Wayne used the Western consciously as an ideological weapon through which he expressed his value system and commented on contemporary life in America. Wayne’s contributions to the Western genre, in ideological values, aesthetic form, and other technical matters (stunt work, fighting techniques), resulted in the creation of a distinct category, “the John Wayne Western,” which differed from the film oeuvre of other great Western stars, such as Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart.

Of all American actors, Wayne came closest to the notion of “actor-as-auteur.” Contrary to popular notion, however, Wayne’s image didn’t emerge spontaneously. Rather, it was a lengthy process of hits and misses, a process of systematic fabrication, based on careful and deliberate design.

The steps in creating the Wayne screen persona, including a new screen name, the abortive attempt to make a singing cowboy out of him, and the distinctive elements of his image are singled out and illustrated in my book. The methods used by Wayne to achieve and maintain such unprecedented control are also analyzed.

Throughout his career, there were controversies over his acting range, skills and abilities. Some critics considered him to be more of a “screen personality,” than an actor. My book deals with his natural performance style and his range as an actor, by comparing him with two contemporaries, Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. It also focuses on Wayne’s complex relationships with film critics, especially the New York intelligentsia which often reviewed his politics instead of his films.

Of the numerous directors he worked with, two distinguished directors, John Ford and Howard Hawks, exerted influence on his career and image. John Ford was influential in launching and shaping Wayne’s screen career and in pushing him to heights, which he would never have reached without him. The Ford-Wayne relationship was unparalleled, in extent, intensity, and impact, by other teams of directors-actors, such as John Huston-Humphrey Bogart or Anthony Mann-James Stewart, and most recently, Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro.

During the last decade of his life, Wayne became an influential public figure, a genuine media star, using the mass media (radio, film, television, books, recordings, ad campaigns) to promote his view of the American Way of Life.

My book discusses the equation between Wayne’s screen heroics and true grit off screen after licking cancer, which he nicknamed the Big C.

Wayne’s life style was intimately connected with his screen image–the private and public aspects of his life fused and reinforced each other. What made him an important national figure was his articulation and exemplification of some basic American values, such as hard work, upward mobility, individual attainment, economic success, and ordinariness. Conservative traditionalism marked every aspect of his work and life, which were devoted to projecting a positive image of American culture–on screen and off.

Wayne was not the only movie star to get involved in politics but, once again, what was distinctive about his politics was his success in integrating his politics into his professional career. Surprisingly, though, his controversial politics neither damaged his career nor affected his popularity.

Wayne’s political philosophy was defined in terms of his unabashed patriotism and anti-Communist obsession. However, there were changes in his politics that pointed to a mellowing of his reactionary image. In the last decade of his career, he was rewarded with social acceptance by the American public as some kind of a sentimental patriarch.

Ultimately, Wayne succeeded like no other star in persuading the American public that his screen image and personal life were inseparable.” Gradually, Wayne himself began to believe in his own screen heroics, though he made sure to invest them with his personal politics. As a star, his most significant role might have been sociological, as propagandist, using the screen as an ideological weapon to promote political issues.

The propaganda in Wayne’s films increasingly became more conscious and more blatant. He had used his notion of the American Way of Life as a value criterion to condone everything that reinforced it–and condemn everything that threatened or negated it.

Of all movie stars, Wayne was the greatest prophet of the American Way of Life, strongly committed to white, middle-class protestant culture (WASP) as a unifying force and an instrument of assimilation of an otherwise pluralistic and divided America.

This essay was written in May 2007