John Wayne: End as a Man

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Throughout his life in Hollywood, John Wayne made friends with his co-stars and fellow cast members at an incredible rate, counting among his chess partners Hollywood icons from Rock Hudson to acclaimed director Josef von Sternberg. Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy

John Wayne's The Searchers revolutionized the Western film industry. As it approaches its 60th anniversary, Newsweek sorts out John Wayne's sometimes complicated legacy. This article, from the June 25, 1979 Newsweek, is excerpted from a Newsweek Special Edition, John Wayne: The Unstoppable Legacy of America's Favorite Cowboy.

"I am proud of every day in my life I wake up in the United States of America," John Wayne used to say. Now, big Duke will awaken—at least in the United States—no longer, but John Wayne the legend will certainly prove as deathless as any figure of popular culture in the history of his beloved republic. ("Republic—I like the sound of the word," said Wayne in The Alamo. "It's one of those words that makes me tight in the throat.")

His death at 72 from cancer last week triggered a massive nationwide reaction to the man, the movie star and the legend that was more than a tribute to a 50-year career spanning more than 200 movies that grossed more than $400 million. It was a moment for America, the greatest producer of mass fantasy in human history, to take a close look at one of
its biggest, most ambiguous embodiments of such fantasy. Celebrating the dead John Wayne, America was celebrating one of its gallant dead dreams—a dream of unflagging national virility, courage, moral righteousness and stone-fisted sincerity.

Or was the dream gallant? The president of the Republic thought so. "John Wayne was bigger than life," said Jimmy Carter. "In an age of few heroes, he was the genuine article." On Wayne's 72nd birthday, the president had signed a bill authorizing a special medal, approved by the Congress, to honor Wayne.

A Mythic Figure

There is no question of John Wayne's courage. His 15-year struggle against illness—the cancer that cost him a lung and his stomach, his open-heart surgery and gallbladder operation—testified to that. He was, however, a polarizing figure, capable of inspiring feelings of both admiration and disdain in his fans. The brilliant French director Jean-Luc Godard, whose politics are as far left as Wayne's were far right, once wondered how he could "hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the next-to-last reel of The Searchers."

For 50 years—my god, 50 years!—Wayne created such epiphanies on the screen, moments and passages of resonant, emblematic behavior that are not reality and that are not even what is commonly meant by "acting." In his novel The Moviegoer, Walker Percy wrote: "Other people...treasure memorable moments in their lives: The time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise, the summer night one met a lonely girl in Central Park…. What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling into the dusty street in Stagecoach."

Although this is a scene of violence, and John Wayne no doubt played more violent scenes than any actor who ever lived, it's not the violence that's being treasured in the memory of Percy's moviegoer. It's the drastic grace, the nickering mythic rhythm that dissolves a triple killing into some Utopian gesture that kills nothing but the mediocrity of our ordinary behavior. There's nothing highbrow or pretentious about this: All good art triggers transcendence, and the great thing about the movies is that they turned transcendence into fun—whether it was the Olympian grace of Fred Astaire, the explosive solemnity of Buster Keaton or the toppling locomotion of John Wayne, leaning into every stride like a dancer falling into arabesque after arabesque. It's Ernest Hemingway's "grace under pressure," and the pressure is our own need for a quick myth-fix that has turned movie stars into behavioral pushers.

If it seems odd to talk about super-tough guy, super-macho, super-patriot John Wayne in such Apollonian terms, it must be remembered that he had this mythic quality from the beginning, and it's this quality that will keep him in our pop pantheon.

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Frank Sinatra, left, and Bob Hope, right, laugh at the sight of John Wayne, second from left, and Bing Crosby pretending to sing a duet before the foursome went on stage for a Bob Hope TV special. AP Images

Comet

The radiant and brainy Louise Brooks, who was second only to Garbo as a screen beauty of the '20s and '30s, recalled meeting Wayne in 1938, in the twilight of her career and just before Wayne's comet was to gallop off in Stagecoach. Arriving on the set of a cheapie Republic Pictures Western, Brooks saw two figures approaching through the dust. "One was a cherub," she wrote, "5 feet tall, carrying a bound script; the other was a cowboy, 6 feet 4 inches tall, wearing a lovely smile. The cherub, who was the director, George Sherman, introduced me to the cowboy who was John Wayne, the star…. Looking up at him I thought, this is no actor but the hero of all mythology, miraculously brought to life."

Throughout his career, people had this sense of portent when they met up with John Wayne. Visiting the set of a Wayne movie, writer Joan Didion felt that "the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband's." When John Ford hired Wayne as a prop boy in 1927, he was still Marion Morrison, a big shy fella from Winterset, Iowa, who played football for the University of Southern California. The great director promptly tried to intimidate the kid in a roughhouse, but Duke calmly kicked him in the chest, forever earning Ford's respect.

Three years later, director Raoul Walsh met Duke Morrison (the nickname came from a pet Airedale) and signed him to star as John Wayne in an epic Western, The Big Trail. "Dammit, the son of a bitch looked like a man," said Walsh. Marlene Dietrich thought so too. She met Wayne in a studio commissary, "looked him up and down as though he were a prime rib at Chasen's," recalled director Tay Garnett, and whispered in Garnett's ear, "Daddy, buy me that!"

Paradox

Wayne was, as President Carter said, larger than life, and this mythic quality led to the paradox of his career, the conflict and the confusion between illusion and reality. His popularity was truly amazing: In an annual poll of exhibitors to select the year's top money-making stars, Wayne was listed a record 25 times and, in 1977, Photoplay magazine chose Wayne as the top movie star of all time. And yet many critics, moviegoers and movie-industry people never took him seriously as an actor, while taking his reactionary image very seriously. The formidable John Simon once defined Wayne as "a cross between a face on Mount Rushmore and a head on Easter Island atop a Doric column that moves with a swagger, talks in a monotone to which a drawl adds a slight curlicue, and looks at you with a lazy gaze that starts out downward but then curves slowly upward. Oh, hell: The last cen-tury had its Iron Duke, Wellington, this century has its Granite Duke, Wayne. Every era gets the leader it deserves; John Wayne is ours."

Gung Ho

Wayne wrote to President Johnson in 1965 about his wish to make a movie on the Green Berets, the Special Forces fighting in Vietnam. Wayne told LBJ that he thought it was "extremely important that not only the people of the United States but those all over the world should know why it is necessary for us to be there." He said he wanted to "tell the story of our fighting men in Vietnam...in a manner that will inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of fellow Americans—a feeling which we have always had in this country in the past during times of stress and trouble."

Ironically, Wayne's vision of the Vietnam War was a bit strong even for the Administration. The Army rejected the initial script because Wayne's Green Berets were too gung-ho in their anti-Communist enthusiasm. Wayne's son Michael, the film's producer, didn't tell his father about this hassle. "I was actually afraid to," Michael said, "because he would have said, 'You dumb SOB!' " Jack Valenti, then a presidential assistant and now president of the Motion Picture Association of America, told LBJ that "Wayne's politics [were] wrong, but in so far as Vietnam is concerned, his views are right. If he made the picture he would be saying the things we want said."

The Green Berets was made, with Wayne playing a colonel assigned to kidnap a North Vietnamese general and uttering such lines as, "Out here, due process is a bullet." It ranks second only to True Grit (which won him his only Oscar) as a Wayne moneymaker. Wayne was angered by the review in The New York Times, which called the movie "Unspeakable...stupid...rotten...false…." But Times critic Renata Adler raised the crucial issue when she bewailed what had "happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country."

Individualism

The paradox of John Wayne is the paradox of the conservatism that the country—maybe the entire West—seems to be groping toward. How to recapture the classical virtues and energies, integrity and even a righteous forcefulness of individualism without losing the passion of an extended fraternity or abandoning the complicated covenants that alone can hold the discordant forces of our time in balance.

Wayne, says his longtime acting colleague Ben Johnson, "was real. He was honest, he was an American. If he tells you tomorrow's Christmas, you can get your sock ready. He was that kind of person." Yes, but he was also occasionally unthinking, uncharitable and arrogant in an excess of pride that swamped that honest grace of his. Only under the real pressure of his art, not the fake pressure of his reality, did that grace operate in a shifting, human balance that touched, amused and thrilled you. Maybe he knew that at the end, playing The Shootist, like himself a battered old pro, violent and warm, dying. What the hell. Let Wayne be a hero. Maybe a hero is someone you never forget.

This was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition, John Wayne: The Unstoppable Legacy of America's Favoriate Cowboy, by Issue Editor Tim Baker.

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Everett Collection. Digital Imaging by Eric Heintz
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