John Wayne: An American Icon

John Wayne in True Grit (1969)

The towering physical presence and charisma of the man called “The Duke” fostered a screen persona that came to embody forthright and self-determined American masculinity for countless filmgoers and that has continued to endure in popularity for generations. Years later, when John Wayne was the toast of Hollywood and was asked how he came by the moniker, he surprised many with his candid comment, “There’s been a lot of stories about how I got to be called Duke. One was that I played the part of a duke in a school play–which I never did. Sometimes, they even said I was descended from royalty! It was all a lot of rubbish. Hell, the truth is that I was named after a dog!”

Born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the son of a pharmacist who relocated to southern California for his health, young Marion Robert Morrison grew into a strapping kid who parlayed his excellence at high school football into a full scholarship at USC. Injury would ultimately curtail his athletic and academic presence at the college, but not before gaining entry into the film industry, beginning with a summer job as a prop man.

He made his first screen appearance, unbilled, as a Yale footballer in Brown of Harvard (1926), hit the gridiron again in another uncredited turn in The Drop Kick (1927), and got frequent walk-on work on the Fox lot over the course of the late ’20s, often from his developing friend and mentor, director John Ford.

In 1930, Raoul Walsh rechristened the unknown actor John Wayne, after Revolutionary War leader “Mad Anthony” Wayne, and rolled the dice that he could carry the director’s ambitious, expensive western The Big Trail. The project proved a notorious fizzle, but Wayne doggedly held onto his screen ambitions, spending the balance of the decade racking up some five dozen credits at studios major and minor. In Texas Cyclone (1932), he buddied with Tim McCoy; he came to the aid of a wild horse (named Duke!) accused of killing a man in Ride Him, Cowboy (1932); and John even tried his hand at crooning as Singin’ Sandy Saunders in Riders of Destiny (1933). As he continued anchoring B oaters, Wayne occasionally broke out of the Western pattern, playing a businessman in the 1933 romantic comedy His Private Secretary, and sometimes found supporting work in A projects. He also got starring roles in a trio of Saturday matinee serials: The Shadow of the Eagle and The Hurricane Express (both 1932), followed by the Foreign Legion saga The Three Musketeers (1933). Years had passed when, reflecting on his humble start in Hollywood, he said, “I read someplace that I used to make B-pictures. Hell, they were a lot farther down the alphabet than that!”

He worked his way up, throughout the 1930s, from the Lone Star and Monogram studios to Republic Pictures. It was at this juncture that Ford deemed him ready to play the Ringo Kid in his latest project for producer Walter Wanger:  the 1939 sagebrush drama Stagecoach.  Co-starring Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine and a top-billed Claire Trevor, the seminal adult western changed the face of the genre and planted Wayne on the A-list to stay. Because Republic had Wayne’s contract at the time, they were the primary beneficiary of his newfound success, as he co-starred in the Three Mesquiteers series and re-teamed with Trevor, plus a young cowpoke named Roy Rogers, in Dark Command (1939). The following year found John donning a coonskin cap for RKO’s frontier actioner Allegheny Uprising , also with Trevor.

John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

As the 1940s rolled on, Wayne had success at Universal, with starring stints in Seven Sinners (1940) with Marlene Dietrich; The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) with fellow Ford favorite Harry Carey; Pittsburgh and The Spoilers (both 1942), again with Dietrich; and Reap the Wild Wind (1942) for Cecil B. DeMille. A 3-A draft deferment due to age and family status (plus, some say, the influence of Republic executives) kept Wayne from active military service during World War II,  but he nonethless became a prolific screen serviceman, taking on the Axis in such patriotic fare as Flying Tigers (1942), the somewhat true story The Fighting Seabees (1944), and Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable (both 1945).

His popularity continued unabated in the postwar period, most notably for his maturing efforts under director Ford in the highly underrated Technicolor gem, 3 Godfathers (1948) and Ford’s classic Cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache  (1948) with Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), which paired him with Maureen O’Hara for the first of five times. His first collaboration with Howard Hawks was in 1948’s Red River with newcomer Montgomery Clift, and his first career Oscar nomination for Best Actor in 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima helped the Duke ride out the decade’s end in true style.

Wayne entered the 1950s with more battle tales, such as 1951’s Operation Pacific with Patricia Neal and Flying Leathernecks, opposite Robert Ryan. The following year he and O’Hara re-teamed for Ford’s engaging Ireland opus The Quiet Man (1952). The story goes that Ford was holding onto the picture since 1936, waiting for the right time to do it. Herbert J. Yates, head honcho at Republic, was sure the film would be poison at the box office, but agreed to finance it if Ford would first make Rio Grande, figuring the studio would at least recoup a few dollars with a western. For the uninitiated, The Quiet Man was Republic’s one and only movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and remains the studio’s most prestigious film.

After making Trouble Along the Way with Donna Reed for Warner Brothers in 1953, the actor got his own production company, Batjac, off the ground that same year with Island in the Sky and Hondo (which was originally shown in theaters in 3-D), and in 1954 scored a big box office hit as a commercial pilot who must try to land a damaged plane in the early “disaster movie” The High and the Mighty. Oddly enough, Wayne wasn’t director William Wellman’s first choice for pilot Dan Roman. Wellman lobbied for Spencer Tracy, who turned it down for political reasons. Tracy, a staunchly liberal Democrat, and upset by the Hollywood Blacklist at the time, wouldn’t work with arch-conservative Wayne or for a Batjac produced film.

Blood Alley, co-starring Lauren Bacall, and The Sea Chase with Lana Turner (both in 1955) continued Wayne’s unshakable popularity. There’d then be more fruitful reunions with John Ford over the rest of the decade, as evidenced by the combat aviation biopic The Wings of Eagles (1957),  co-starring Maureen O’Hara.  Wayne and O’Hara remained close through the years, and his true feelings about the famous redhead were apparent when he said, “There’s only one woman who has been my friend over the years and by that I mean a real friend, like a man would be. That woman is Maureen O’Hara. She’s big, lusty, and absolutely marvelous definitely my kind of woman. She’s a great guy. I’ve had many friends and I prefer the company of men… except for Maureen O’Hara.”

The Horse Soldiers, co-starring William Holden and helmed by Ford, pleased audiences in 1959 but could not come near the height of the previous Ford/Wayne western, 1956’s The Searchers, which has become a source of inspiration for many future filmmakers. It was around this time when method acting was the talk of Hollywood, sometimes ridiculing Duke’s supposedly “stilted” movements. It turned out that he had an acting method all his own when he admitted, “When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing. It was as deliberate a projection as you’ll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not. I practiced in front of a mirror.”

Donovan’s Reef Movie Poster (1963)


Wayne opened the 1960s by tackling a long-contemplated and very personal project, recounting the 1836 battle at The Alamo. Beyond starring as Davy Crockett, he took the director’s reins and sunk a large part of his own cash into its funding. While garnering seven Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nod, the critical and popular response was decidedly mixed. The Duke would rebound over the next few years with such two-fisted tales as North to Alaska (1960), co-starring Stewart Granger and Ernie Kovacs; The Comancheros (1961) with Lee Marvin and Stuart Whitman; and with James Stewart and Marvin in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  Wayne and director Howard Hawks reunited for the African-based actioner Hatari! (1962) and the range war drama El Dorado (1966), while 1963’s frontier rouser McLintock!, directed by old pal Victor McLaglen’s son, Andrew, re-teamed John and Maureen O’Hara. Donovan’s Reef, his final film for director Ford was a huge success. By the middle of the decade, though, health issues were besetting the performer, as he lost a lung to cancer due to his longtime tobacco use.

Always unabashedly right-leaning in his personal politics, his advocacy of America’s presence in Vietnam spurred him to direct and star in The Green Berets (1968) and made his public profile more polarizing than ever before. The ’60s concluded with his finally capturing an Best Actor Oscar on the second try, as the profane, one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn of True Grit. At the Academy presentation, he got a good laugh when he quipped, “If I’d known this was all it would take, I’d have put that eye patch on 40 years ago.”

Wayne stayed busy into the 1970s, even as the roles became less age-appropriate; notable exceptions came with The Cowboys (1972) and his 1975 reprisal as Rooster Cogburn opposite unlikely co-star Katharine Hepburn. He had lots of offers and could have made many more movies in his later years but laid it out so honestly, saying, “I never want to play silly old men chasing young girls, as some of the stars are doing.”

His last screen role– that of an aging, terminally ill gunfighter in 1976’s The Shootist— would prove to be valedictory and sadly prophetic, as he thereafter disclosed the gastric cancer that would claim his life within three years… and directly from the source: “God, how I hate solemn funerals. When I die, take me into a room and burn me. Then my family and a few good friends should get together, have a few good belts, and talk about the crazy old time we all had together.”

Hear, hear, Duke — Happy Birthday!

And now, enjoy one of Duke’s finest dramatic performances in the theatrical trailer for The Searchers from 1956:

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