In a Harris poll taken in late 2008 the American people announced their latest cast of favorite actors. It is as follows.
1. Denzel Washington
2. Clint Eastwood
3. (tie) John Wayne, Will Smith
5. Harrison Ford
6. Julia Roberts
7. Tom Hanks
8. Johnny Depp
9. (tie) Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman.
All are currently working actors except one. John Wayne has been dead for 30 years. Today is the 30th anniversary of his death.
Thirty years! Why is the Duke still near the top of America's favorite actors? No one ever accused Wayne of being a great actor, though he did win one Oscar, for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, released in 1969. Most Hollywood insiders insisted that Oscar win was not for his performance, but was instead really a life-time achievement award. It was probably some of both. So if Wayne was not a great actor, why does he still hold such a fascination with so many Americans?
Women didn't find the Duke sexy, like they did Carey Grant or Clark Gable. He didn't play noir cynics like Humphrey Bogart or dashing highwaymen or pirates like Errol Flynn. He didn't play great historical figures ala Chuck Heston ( unless you consider Davey Crocket to fit that description, a role Wayne played in his own production of The Alamo ) and he didn't star in blue-screen special effects extravaganzas like Star Wars or The Matrix. The Duke worked primarily in two genres, westerns and war movies. The Searchers is generally regarded as his best western, and in fact considered by film experts as the best western ever made. As far as I know, none of Wayne's war movies is considered great, but fans most often mention Sands of Iwo Jima as their favorite. But Wayne's continuing popularity doesn't rest on just one or two of his movies, but instead on his entire body of work. Okay, what's so special about John Wayne?
What makes the Duke special is that every one of the characters he played exhibited the character traits most American men and a sadly shrinking number of women, associate with manliness. Even in our current climate of metro-sexual nice guys trying so hard to be inoffensive and nonthreatening to women by sublimating their masculinity, John Wayne still resonates!
John Wayne's characters were manly men. They wouldn't tolerate injustice and fought to protect the weak. They were plain spoken and direct men who said what they meant and meant what they said, nuance happily unknown to them. They understood that what a man says is a damn sight more important than how he says it. They did not judge men by anything other than the high standards of their own code of honor...honesty, integrity, physical and moral courage, and intrepidity. They didn't want to die, but understood that some things are worth dying for. They were civil and demanded civility in return. In Wayne's movie, The Shootist, released in 1976, his character J. B. Books, an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, states the code he lived by; "I won't be wronged, insulted or laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." Not a bad code to live by, if only we could get away with it in today's America.
As it happens, Wayne was already dying of cancer when he made The Shootist. Clearly he was drawn to play the role of J.B. Books, because Books was looking for a way to die as he lived, with his boots on and gunning down the never ending cast of evil doers that were close to hand. To die with some semblance of dignity, as he saw it, not to slowly fade away lying in bed dying from some disease. Unfortunately, that is exactly how the Duke died. Lying in a hospital bed, helpless and delirious from pain and powerful medications. Modern life offered him no dignified way out.
There is one Duke movie that stands out from all the others. Not because his character is any different from all his others, but because of the setting. It's not a western or war movie, but what I always thought of as a retelling of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. The Quiet Man is one of my favorite Wayne movies. He plays an American prize fighter who inadvertently killed a man in the ring. He returns to his ancestral homeland, Ireland, to find a life of peace and tranquility away from America and the boxing ring. He is drawn to a high spirited red head Mary Kate Danaher, played by Maureen O'Hara, but his interests in her are challenged by her older brother, Red Danaher, acting as the patriarch of her family. Oblivious to Irish custom, Wayne's character, Sean Thornton, soon learns that both of the Danaher's expect him to fight for the right to court and marry Mary Kate. Reluctantly, Thornton obliges, answering Red's challenge in an epic fist fight that covers most of the country side, then literally dragging Mary Kate back to his cottage, her fighting him all the way. Thornton then demands that Mary Kate prepare supper for himself and his soon to be brother-in-law, Red. Mary Kate happily obliges, secure in the knowledge that Sean loves her enough to fight for her. I'm sure the modern American feminist, both female and male, are appalled at such behavior.
I'm fully aware that the Duke's life did not always mirror the nobility of the characters he portrayed. Married three times and too often separated from his children as he made a living to support them, he was not a perfect husband, father or man. He loved to hang out with his buddies, director John Ford and fellow actor Ward Bond, drinking and playing cards on Ford's yacht as they sailed the waters between Los Angeles, Catalina Island and Mexico. John Wayne worked hard and played hard.
Sadly, the elites of America don't hold John Wayne or the traits his characters exemplified in much esteem any more. They would say the Duke is an anachronism; an uncouth brute lacking in nuance or the social graces; unwilling to accept the modern America of political correctness, affirmative action, socialism, professional politicians inseparable from their teleprompters, and moral relativism.
Mores the pity.
Rest in peace Duke. Some of us are still fighting to preserve the America you knew, and the individual character traits that made America great.
( For a differing opinion on the social and psychological meaning of The Shootist, see this rather lengthy essay, written in 1981, but still I think a good example of the psycho-babble nonsense so common among academics and "serious" critics today. It'll turn your stomach, but I offer it as an example of what is wrong with film criticism today, especially among the hoi pal-oi of the east coast establishment. )