If this blog is to be a journey through the fascinating landscape of the Old West in film and wider popular culture, it would be impossible to commit to such a task without talking about the key figures associated with it, on both sides of the camera. To think of the archetypal Hollywood western is to think of one man above all else, perhaps only Clint Eastwood would come close, but then again he came into the scene much later with his own abrasive take on the genre. I am of course referring to John Wayne, the Duke, who with his stagger, way of delivery, dress code, and stature, has become synonymous with the Western genre and, by extension, the ideals of the country itself.
Without descending too much into biography, Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Iowa 1907 and by 1914 his family had emigrated to California. He entered the film industry under 20th Century Fox when an accident interrupted his professional football career. For some years he found small bit parts and walk ons, and it wasn’t until 1930 when he had a lead role in The Big Trail, which wasn’t all that successful. He would spend the majority of the decade appearing in b-movies, commonly referred to as ‘poverty row’ pictures – low budgets, hasty production values, and lesser known stars. Many of the films that Wayne made at this time can be found in charity shops and car boot sales as part of numerous ‘John Wayne’ boxsets – there was a lot of them.
In 1939, John Ford (we’ll get to him later) would bring to the screen Stagecoach, his adaption of The Stage to Lordsburg,” a short story by Ernest Haycox a few years prior. The short story was expanded upon and Ford embarked on what would be his first sound Western having made many silent ones in previous years. Ford knew Wayne personally, having adopted a mentor role to him during his poverty row period, but insisted the actor was not quite ready to make a film yet, not at least until his acting improved, or so the story goes. Stagecoach was to be the film that ‘made’ John Wayne the star he would become, although top billing went to co-star Claire Trevor mostly because of the risk Ford was riding by pushing Wayne to the front row. Ford and Wayne would go onto produce 12 films together, not all of them Westerns. In fact, their last collaboration was in 1962; Donovan’s Reef was a satirical action-comedy set in present-day Hawaii. While it wasn’t a critical disaster, nor a financial one, it was a long way from Monument Valley and the heights of the Old West. Ford and Wayne would not work together again, and both went onto their own projects. Wayne continued to star in sporadic Westerns throughout the 60s and 70s, but the genre was to evolve in new directions, as the soon-to-be iconic Man With No Name was riding into town.
We know where The Duke ended up then, and we know where he came from, but what really matters is the bit in the middle. Are we in such a position to ask “who was John Wayne?”, who came across as an unabashed patriot and conservative Republican, firm by his pro-American ideal and beliefs. It is certain then, that his body of work consisted entirely of westerns and war movies. It may be interesting to note that, during the Vietnam War in 1971, he made clear his opinions of race relations during another turbulent period of American history during an interview with Playboy magazine.
“I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”
And in reference to the Native Americans:
“I don’t feel we did wrong … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
Strong views indeed. Can we allow this to jeopardise our image of Wayne, or instead can it reinforce his on screen image?