Even 40 plus years after his death, the name John Wayne needs little introduction. Without question, he is one of the single most famous movie stars of the mid-twentieth century and probably the biggest western movie star of all time. John Wayne was born on 26 May 1907 as Marion Robert Morrison, although would be given the nickname Little Duke by a local fireman and the Duke part stuck as Wayne preferred it to Marion, and although he was born in Winterset, Iowa, he spent most of his formative years in California.
An avid athlete and a man’s man from a young age, John Wayne’s trajectory in life shifted radically after a bodysurfing accident injured him and prevented him from getting the football scholarship he was striving for.
With his dreams of making an impact on a professional sports stage shattered, John Wayne began thinking about a different kind of stage and started working for the Fox Film Corporation, mainly filling in with bit parts or as a background extra and although he appeared in over 20 films in the late 1920’s he went uncredited for most of them, with one notable exception when in 1929’s Words and Music, he was credited as Duke Morrison. His first on-screen break came with The Big Trail, a western which premiered in 1930, and although the film was a box office failure, it helped him to get more roles albeit, still as a b-list actor. It was also the film which saw him first credited as John Wayne, a decision that was made by the film’s director Raoul Walsh without Wayne even being present. He was paid $105 per week.
He appeared in over 80 projects throughout the 1930s, lots of them uncredited and it wasn’t until 1939’s Stagecoach in the role of Ringo Kid that John Wayne became a household name. From this point forward, the star power of John Wayne was exceptional and during his prime simply having him appear in a film was almost a guarantee that it would be a success. He would star in over 170 films over the course of his career and is second only to Clark Gable in terms of the number of tickets sold. He became not only an American icon, but he also became an international one too and represented what many saw as being synonymous with the American frontier and what the cowboy spirit was all about.
John Wayne had a memorable screen presence due to the way that he walked and the way he delivered dialogue, something which Wayne himself credited to his acquaintance with Wyatt Earp and audiences flocked to see the westerns that became his speciality including 1948’s Red River, The Searchers in 1956, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962, which also starred James Stewart, and his compelling role as Rooster Cogburn in the film True Grit which premiered in 1969 and for which he was awarded an Academy Award as best actor. It wasn’t just westerns. He played a soldier in The Longest Day, a firefighter in 1962’s Hellfighters, and a cop in 1974’s McQ, but it would be westerns that he would be most remembered for and which form the majority of the film work that became his legacy.
As it turned out, John Wayne was not only acting as the personification of the American dream but his own political views seem to have been built upon the concept of American exceptionalism and to that end, he was strongly involved politically as a conservative in Hollywood and was a vehement denouncer of Communism throughout his life. In fact, he was so outspoken that there is talk that although Joseph Stalin was a fan of John Wayne and his films, he contemplated having the Duke assassinated for being such an outspoken opponent of communism. According to some versions of the story, when John Wayne was made aware of the threats on his life by the FBI, he told them that he would leave his door unlocked and handle any assassins personally if they tried.
John Wayne used his star power to help gather national support for the Vietnam War by helping to produce and star in the film Green Berets which premiered in 1968. Due to his exceptional star power and conservative leanings, many Republicans encouraged him to enter politics and run for office. However, John Wayne is reported to have joked that he didn’t think that anybody would ever vote for an actor and so he threw his support behind fellow conservative actor Ronald Reagan instead.
John Wayne was married three times and had seven children. He was known as a strong family man and his children to this day continue to jealously defend his legacy and image. He won a variety of accolades and awards for his roles in film and in his service to his country. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979 with many big names testifying at Congress in support of the award including Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Katharine Hepburn and Maureen O’Hara. He was nominated for three academy awards, one of which he won and he was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.
As well as being a big drinker, John Wayne was also a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964. He decided to attack the disease head-on and had surgery to remove four ribs along with one of his lungs, subsequently being given the all-clear. He went public with his diagnosis in an effort to encourage people to get preventive tests done and is even credited with coining the term The Big C. The Big C would return over a decade later though, this time to his stomach and he died from the disease on 11 June 1979 at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles, California at the age of 71.
The legacy of John Wayne has gotten slightly mixed in recent years. An interview that he gave with the magazine Playboy in 1971 resurfaced in 2019 and some have labelled him a racist as a result, calling for him to be stripped of honours and for John Wayne Airport and other properties that were named after him to be renamed. His family have stated though, that it would be an injustice for someone to be judged based on an interview that was taken out of context.
Whatever, your views about John Wayne as a man, with the passing of the golden age of cinema westerns, he is the name that will likely be mentioned first when it comes to the cinematic representation of the American frontier and pioneer spirit.