What is it about the Duke, John Wayne, that Americans and the whole world loved and still love? It’s got to be more than the good movies he made. I mean, just this year, 34 years after his death, John Wayne finished sixth in the Harris Poll of America’s Favorite Actors. Think about that for a minute. No other actor has had such longevity alive or dead, in any poll, ever; not Gable, not Boggy, not Cagney, nobody; only John Wayne. John Wayne; his friends called him Duke, a few called him John, and nobody called him Jack. The name itself is pure American.
We all know his story; the failure of The Big Trail, 10 years of struggle in B pictures, his discovery by Director, John Ford, his starring role in Stagecoach, his work during WWII (where he starred with some of the best actresses of the day), and of course the late 40’s when his career really took off. In the 50s we saw his work in the cult classic The Searchers, and his struggle to make his cinematic statement in The Alamo. In the 60’s, his character changed from leading man who “always got the girl” to a more mature leading man. He received an Academy Award his role in True Grit and finally, in the 70’s, his last movie The Shootist.
There were of course, so many more, fine performances in between – too many to comment on here. What I’m trying to get at, is why was John Wayne so popular? I believe, at least in my mind, I know the answer. First of all, there was nothing mean or petty about the roles Wayne played. Even when he was “the bad guy”, you cared about him. When he played one of his first bad guy roles opposite Randolph Scott and Marlene Dietrich in Pittsburg, you cared about him. The same is true of his character in Reap the Wild Wind where you knew somehow Wayne would make everything all right. His portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers was the ultimate “bad guy turned good”, whom you really cared about. You cared about him in the “good guy” roles such as Davey Crockett in The Alamo, The Cavalry Trilogy, and especially his role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; a role that he should have won the Academy Award for, and the role Wayne said was his favorite (mine too!). There were moments of comedy in North to Alaska, The Wings of Eagles, and The Comancheros.
All of these roles transformed Wayne into the American icon that we all came to love. He was able to symbolize and communicate good American values and ideals. Every one of us has, at one time or another, wished we were John Wayne. How many of us wish we could stand up to our bosses the way Wayne stood up to Henry Fonda’s Col. Thursday in Fort Apache, or take the long walk down the middle of the street and hit the bully, George Clews, over the head with a pistol in Tall in the Saddle? How many of us dreamed of being heroic like Capt. Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Davy Crocket in The Alamo, Spig Wead in The Wings of Eagles, or Will Anderson in The Cowboys? Finally, how many of us would like to, or even dare to, go out as heroically as Wayne’s character in The Shootist, knowing that you’re going to die and taking some town scum with you?
Wayne was all of these things; always good, always heroic, and always an AMERICAN HERO. During his time and 34 years after his death, no one has approached his appeal to America and the world. He was a man’s man and, a man that women loved to be with. He was John Wayne.