John Wayne: America's Greatest Movie Star

The centenary of John Wayne’s birth passed in 2007 with hardly any attention from the U.S. media, which shows both how out of touch the critical community is and how much more astute audiences are than the great majority of those who would presume to guide them. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the death of the greatest movie star of all time, John Wayne, and his films still remain immensely popular on television and video, while critics grossly underestimate both his talent and his cultural significance.

Wayne surely wasn’t the most skilled actor ever, but he played a much wider variety of roles than is commonly acknowledged, and he brought his characters vividly to life with a force of personality very few, if any, other performers have even approached. A tall, powerfully built, former college football player, Wayne was a huge presence in the motion picture industry, and a superb actor whose skills were consistently underrated by the critics and still are.

Audiences, however, knew just how great he was, and they made his movies nearly automatic successes at the box office.

Even more important, his films bore good and serious meanings, and that was so because he worked hard to make it happen. He was an unmatched success in the marketplace, and his films strengthened Americans’ appreciation for freedom and markets at a time when those ideas and institutions were under furious assault from big-government centralizers both at home and abroad.

Critics and social analysts should devote much more attention toward John Wayne’s singularly impressive career and accord positive recognition to the images he brought to American life and culture. The strong, stolid, but usually easygoing and often humorous hero he created is an American archetype, and although he had plenty of models on which to base it, he added much to it and made it his own. Wayne produced his own films for many years, ensuring that he could tell the stories he wanted to tell in the way he wanted them told.

Wayne was thoroughly of the right politically, but in the great twentieth century tradition of American classical liberalism. He was a Reagan-style Republican (and a friend of Reagan), strongly opposed to both communism and to big government in general. His movie characters were almost always on the side of the good, and they were often a little personally troubled but chose to fight through the adversities. They struggled hard not only to do the right thing but also by doing so to make their part of the world a little better.

That is a legacy of which to be proud, and John Wayne has rightly been seen as an American hero himself. His reputation took quite a few knocks as the devaluation of all values hit American culture and society with increasing strength over the past few decades, but only thorough cynics can deny the truth and goodness of what John Wayne and his movies stood for.

The following are some of Wayne’s best films, which provide a superb overview of the man and his great and well-spent life:

Rio Bravo – Director Howard Hawks, with whom Wayne worked regularly, despised the 1959 Fred Zinneman film High Noon, which Wayne and Hawks correctly saw as historically false and deliberately anti-American. Hawks was an intensely American man, rightly known for depicting in his films the beauty of personal devotion to “action and duty and bravery–and more importantly, the relationship between all three,” as John Nolte cogently expressed it. That’s what Rio Bravo is all about, and its underlying message of the goodness of ordinary people is a perfect rejoinder to the cynical elitism of Zinneman’s film. What’s more, Rio Bravo is true Big Hollywood, so darn much fun it’s likely to be made illegal soon. Hawks was absolutely brilliant at creating believable, complex, eccentric, immensely interesting and likable characters, and Rio Bravo is full of them, including Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance, Angie Dickinson as reforming dance-hall girl “Feathers,” Dean Martin as reforming drunkard deputy Dude, Ricky Nelson as hotshot gunslinger Colorado Ryan, Walter Brennan as the hilarious sidekick Stumpy, and Ward Bond and Claude Akins in likewise memorable roles. Rio Bravo is truly one of the greatest westerns of all time, and it features a wonderfully subtle and evocative performance by the Duke.

Hatari! This is another great Duke film directed by Howard Hawks, released in 1962. Wayne leads a team of hunters in Africa who catch wild animals for zoos. Like most Hawks films, Hatari! is great fun, features impressive action scenes, and is very thought-provoking in observing the various characters’ relationships and personal problems. Like Rio Bravo, Hatari! has a somewhat rambling plot that allows plenty of time for Hawks to observe the various characters’ relationships and personal problems, which he does with both sympathy and discernment, never allowing the characters to get away with self-pity or escape judgment–what we now call tough love. The film brilliantly proves that we can and should judge others without being judgmental.

Stagecoach – A classic Western from 1939, directed by John Ford. A disparate group of people are thrown together in a crisis, and the Duke leads them out. It spawned dozens of imitators over the ensuing decades, and made Wayne a star.

Tall in the Saddle Wayne’s character fights political corruption in the old West, while romancing a strong, courageous, and attractive female ranch owner played by Ella Raines.

The Flying Tigers, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Fighting Seabees, They Were Expendable, Back to Bataan, Flying Leathernecks, The Longest Day – Nobody was better in war movies than John Wayne. Nobody. His characters show determination and courage while always avoiding grand but foolhardy gestures.

The Big Trail – An early classic Western of the sound era, directed by Raoul Walsh and released in 1930. It is a grand story with impressive visual compositions, and Wayne’s persona is already very much in place here. Unfortunately, the expensive film failed to make money, and Wayne was relegated to B Westerns until his success in Stagecoach.

The Telegraph Trail – A quickly paced B Western from 1933, The Telegraph Trail includes some surprisingly thoughtful insights into economics and politics. Wayne’s character thwarts a greedy businessman who is attempting to stop technological progress (the telegraph) in order to protect his position.

Rio Lobo, True Grit, El Dorado, The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – As the Western changed styles and forms during the late 1950s and after, Wayne continued to make superb films reflecting sound values, and retained his immense box-office appeal.

The Searchers – Critics greatly respect this Western for its thoughtfulness and complexity, and Wayne’s superb characterization of the emotionally disturbed protagonist, Ethan Edwards, is central to the film’s success.

The Hellfighters – Wayne portrays a character based on Red Adair, who led a team that made their living in the hazardous occupation of extinguishing oil-rig fires. Although directed by Andrew V. MacLaglen, the film takes the Howard Hawksian approach of using the dangers to reveal the personal character of the various individuals involved.

The Alamo and The Green Berets – Wayne had immense respect for America’s fighting men, and he stuck his neck out to defend their honor when it began to be increasingly questioned during the 1960s and ’70s. The Alamo and The Green Berets are both excellent portrayals of men in combat and are highly moving at times. Wayne directed them himself, which suggests how important these films were to him. Each of the two films has some uncomfortably sincere and direct moments which snide, smug people can and do deride as hokey, but anyone with any respect for decency and honor can appreciate the real beauties of these films.

Donavan’s Reef – With one of Wayne’s warmest, most appealing performances and a great example of his skill at comedy, this 1963 John Ford comedy tangles with some serious issues and wins. Race, class, duty, family loyalty, the responsibilities of business owners, the role of the church in society, and other serious issues arise in a boisterous romantic comedy set in contemporary Polynesia and featuring superb supporting performances by Lee Marvin, Jack Warden, Elizabeth Allen, Cesar Romero, and Dorothy Lamour. Wayne’s ability to connect with other performers onscreen is strongly evident in this film.

The Quiet Man – Raucous comedy, heartfelt, drama, a beautiful setting, and one of the greatest fight scenes of all time; directed by John Ford and released in 1952. Wayne plays a character suffering a great amount of inner turmoil, and his understated, subtle characterization, which avoids both sentimentality and phony psychology, is central to the film’s power.

It takes a good deal of time just to watch Wayne’s best films, and even longer to delve into some of his more formulaic early movies which also have their rewards, but it will be time very well spent for those who choose to explore the cinematic accomplishments of this great movie star who was indeed a truly great actor.

S. T. Karnick is editor of the American Culture,


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