John Wayne: Western Movie–Defining Genre

John Wayne’s career was closely associated with the Western movie. He was described as the screen’s greatest cowboy, the colossus of this art form.

Wayne’s very name became anonymous with the Western genre and with good reason; he contributed to it, qualitatively and quantitatively, more than any other actor.  The identification between Wayne and the Western was so intimate that it looked as if he were born in the Old West.

“To many moviegoers,” popular cowboy star Gene Autry notes, “No Western or War picture is acceptable without John Wayne.”

Of the two classic movie genres, however, the Western had featured much more prominently in his career. Although Wayne starred in many non-Western pictures, it is the Western that justifies his claim to screen immortality.  He gave the Western frontier an extended life, one that combined legend and myth.

A film critic once described Wayne as a man who “knows the Western like a roadmap, because he’s traveled the same route with the same cargo many times before.”

The scholar Richard Shepard saw Wayne’s significance in being “the greatest figure of one of America’s native forms.”  In his view, “Wayne had not created the Western with its clear-cut conflict between good and bad, right and wrong, but it was impossible to mention Westerns without thinking of the Duke.”

Legendary director Raoul Walsh observed early on in Wayne’s career, “anytime you put guys like Duke in civilian clothes, they’re dog meat.” Indeed, many people had difficulties accepting Wayne in a contemporary movie. “In a dark suit and ill-fitting soft collar,” Michael Wall noted in 1962, “John Wayne looks like a man who is lost without his horse and his spurs.”

The critic Roderick Mann claims that, because most of Wayne work was in costume movies, he not only looked ill-at-ease and furtive in a lounge suit, but also acted “as though he were expecting at any moment to be picked up by a suspicious shore patrol.”

Wayne himself found it strange to wear anything but buckskins. Of his experience of wearing a suit in the movie Pittsburgh, opposite Marlene Dietrich and Randolph Scott, in which he was cast as an ambitious coal miner rising to the top, the Duke said, “all the time I was looking at the finished product, I kept telling myself, ‘get behind a boulder, boy, and aim it at someone.'”

This “uncomfortable” feeling prevailed in many other non-Western films and was one of the major reasons for the failure of his crime films, McQ and Brannigan, made in mid-1970s, at the end of his career. Audiences found it anachronistic and incongruent to observe Wayne in urban (r any contemporary) settings, using a car instead of a horse.

Wayne’s association with the Western movie started as a product of circumstances. In the 1930s, he was under contract to the Poverty Row Companies, which produced for the most part “B” Westerns. And in the 1940s, he worked for Republic, which also excelled in making Western features and serials. Nonetheless, once his intimate collaboration with John Ford began, in the late 1940s, making westerns ceased to be a necessity and became a matter of personal choice. Wayne used the Western as an ideological tool, through which he expressed his value system and commented on contemporary life in America.

To his credit, his commitment to Westerns continued throughout his career, appearing in them consistently, even when they were out of vogue in Hollywood and unpopular with the American public.

Wayne: Movie Genres

Wayne’s 83 feature Westerns amounted to about half of his entire film output, overshadowing his contribution to other genres, including his 26 action-adventures, 16 war movies, 11 sports films, and a few comedies and bio-pictures.

Wayne: Western Output

Wayne made Westerns in each and every decade of his career:

44 in the 1930s,

15 in the 1940s,

5 in the 1950s,

11 in the 1960s,

8 in the 1970s.

Paradoxically, he appeared in the least number of Westerns in the 1950s, possibly the best and most prolific decades for the Western genre. Jimmy Stewart made his mark in that genre in the 1950s.

The watershed year in the genre’s history is undoubtedly 1950, with no less than 110 Westerns being produced.  Among the classics of this decade are The Wagon Master, Broken Arrow, The Gunfighter, and Winchester 73.

By contrast, most of Wayne’s movies in the last decade of his career were B-Westerns, a decade which saw the decline of the genre, rescued almost singlehandedly by Xlint Eastwood.

Wayne Vs. William S. Hart and Tom Mix

Wayne’s influence on the Western genre was greater and more significant than that of his predecessors: “Broncho Billy” Anderson, William S. Hart, and Tom Mix, all considered to be great Western actors. For one thing, Wayne’s career spanned half-a-century, compared with Anderson’s 15-year-career, Hart’s 11, and Mix’s 26.

Wayne Vs. Cooper, Stewart, and Fonda

The contribution of Wayne’s contemporaries (and often competitors) to the Western genre was also pale. Against Wayne’s 83 Westerns, Gary Cooper made 40, Jimmy Stewart 19, Henry Fonda and Robert Taylor each 16, Errol Flynn 8, Clark Gable 7, and Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney each three.

Even if Wayne is compared with stars of the “B” Westerns, most notably Randolph Scott, Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers, his Western oeuvre outnumbers theirs in both quality and quantity.

Moreover, none of the post-War stars, William Holden, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, had left as strong a mark on the genre as Wayne.

Wayne’s Ideological and Artistic Commitment to the Western Genre

Wayne may have been one of the few stars to be genuinely committed to Westerns ideologically, through the values they embodied, and artistically, through their uniquely cinematic worth–not just as commercial vehicles.