×

John Wayne: Biography Of America's Greatest Star (Warts And All)

Icons | October 29, 2020

1969: John Wayne accepts his Best Actor Oscar from singer and actress Barbara Streisand. Wayne won for his role in "True Grit." STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

John Wayne was just... John Wayne. The cowboy, the hero, the soldier -- he played them all in his own particular (and endlessly parodied) way, the heart and soul of movies like Red River, Rio Bravo, The Searchers and True Grit. John Wayne didn't merely portray American western protagonists; he defined them. For many of us, when we think of the archetype of the gunslinger or the sheriff, it's not abstract, and it's barely even fiction. It's not an archetype -- it's literally John Wayne.

The western was the most popular film genre of the '40s, '50s and '60s; westerns ruled movie theaters and John Wayne was the king. Horseback riding, open desert, starry skies, dusty streets cleared for gunfighting, scenery of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon… all of these elements were characteristics of the Old West, but they don’t quite measure up to the most important western ingredient: John Wayne. Wayne rose to mid-century fame as the ideal American cowboy starring in a multitude of classic western films with his brooding, masculine presence. Despite a few faux paus that fortunately didn’t ruin his career, Wayne is often considered a true symbol of American freedom.

John Wayne Was Supposed To Be A Football Player

John Wayne was born Marion Morrison in Iowa in 1907, but moved with his family to California in 1914. He was given the nickname “Duke” because he never left the house without his trusty dog also named Duke. Duke’s robust figure made him a natural athlete, and his career in sports seemed promising when he received a football scholarship for the University of Southern California (USC). Sadly, his athletic calling ended after a terrible bodysurfing accident destroyed all of his football dreams. The timing could not have been worse as The Great Depression soon struck leaving Duke desperate for any way to make money. That’s when he found a job as the “Prop Guy” who moved equipment and furniture around Fox Film Corporation. Eventually he was used as extras in small films and his fit physique made him a perfect football player in the silent films Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927). 

John Wayne First Played Small Roles In Low Budget Silent Films

Director John Ford kept an eye on Duke as he noticed his talent that was slowly building. Ford tried Duke out and casted him as a goose herder in his 1928 silent film Mother Machree. Ford and Duke immediately clicked and from that moment on they stayed close friends throughout the rest of their lives. Ford also introduced Duke to director Raoul Walsh who then gave Duke his premiere leading role in his 1930 western The Big Trail, the first big budget sound film. Duke was not only breaking out of the silent era, but he was also playing much larger roles. Although the film was not very appreciated during its time and Duke was not quite a star yet, The Big Trail did cement Duke’s future as a western star as he played the cowboy Breck Coleman flawlessly. It was thus time for Duke to take a name that would fit his trademark style and character, and that was when he became John Wayne.

Throughout the 1930s Wayne starred in 60 low budget western films that never achieved great commercial success. But it was during this decade that Wayne studied the western lifestyle vigorously so that he could portray his characters authentically to the audience. He spent the bulk of his time outside of acting hanging around stuntmen and true cowboys. Through his studies he developed his famous style, attitude, walk, and even learned to perform his own stunts. Wayne’s strong, macho demeanor of a cowboy/soldier represented American values of freedom and adventure before he even made it big. When Ford casted Wayne in his breakthrough role as outlaw The Ringo Kid in the 1939 western Stagecoach, Wayne’s entire career transformed. The film was a masterpiece as it began Ford’s tecnique of shooting Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border which created a perfect western backdrop that would be the setting of many of his future films. Audiences were enchanted by Wayne’s performance and it was then that Wayne became a western marvel who would continue starring in similar films throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s. Here are some fan favorites…

Red River

Western 1948 classic Red River directed by Howard Hawks is considered one of Wayne’s finest acts as the powerful and stubborn Tom Durson. A rivalry ensues between Tom and his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) as they embark upon the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail. Many believe that there is an underlying homosexual theme portrayed through a conversation between Matt and his cowboy friend Cherry Valance. Cherry asks Matt flirtatiously, “That’s a good looking gun…Can I see it?” and continues, “And you’d like to see mine?” He goes on to state the famous line, “You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun; a swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?” This rumor was speculation although it is a common suspicion and would be a very progressive message for the time. The film was a commercial and critical success, and John Ford was so impressed with Wayne that he famously exclaimed, “I didn’t know the big son of a b**** could act!”

The Quiet Man

Directed by John Ford in 1952, The Quiet Man took a completely new direction from Ford and Wayne’s typical westerns. This film was actually a romantic comedy-drama with Wayne leaving behind his typical manly-man character for a softer and more tender Sean Thornton, an ex-boxer from Pittsburgh who returns to his roots in Ireland. Instead of the wide open wilderness, the film was shot in Ireland providing a much greener background than usual. As expected, Sean falls in love with a woman Mary Kate Danaher (played by Maureen O’Hara) and ends up in a fist fight with her older brother. Ford won an Oscar for Best Director and many actors won awards, except for Wayne who was duped despite his outstanding performance.

Rio Bravo

Another film directed by Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo was a light-hearted, comedic, and action-packed western released in 1959. Sheriff John T. Chance, played by Wayne, gathers a motley crew of misfits including the town drunk, an old deputy, a young singer, and a gorgeous gambling woman to prevent a gang of outlaws from escaping prison. Most of the beautiful scenery was shot at Old Tucson Studios (a movie studio/theme park) right outside of Tucson, Arizona although it takes place in the town of Rio Bravo, Texas. Even though Rio Bravo didn’t win any major awards, the fun and fast-paced energy has made this film cherished by audiences worldwide.

The Searchers

The Searchers, released in 1956, has been cited by many critics as John Wayne’s best performance and the greatest western film of all time. While most westerns depict a majestic and amusing perspective of the Old West, The Searchers took a darker turn and focused on the undesirable aspects of the cowboy world. Wayne plays bitter Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards who loathes the Native Americans that reside in the same area of West Texas. Ethan suffers through tragic loss and eventually his eight-year-old niece Debbie (played by Natalie Wood) is kidnapped. Ethan sets out on a quest to find Debbie, not to rescue her, but instead to kill her because he feels she’s spent too much time with the Native Americans and would be corrupt by now. The Searchers is often called one of the most influential films ever particularly because of Ford’s astonishing film style using the Vista Vision Widescreen process as he shot the magnificently beautiful Monument Valley once again. This approach would inspire many future films, especially of the western genre. 

True Grit

After 43 years in the business, Wayne was finally recognized for his incredible talent when he won an Academy Award and the Golden Globe for “Best Actor” for his part in 1969 western True Grit. A teenage girl hires rough-around-the-edges U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (John Wayne) to search for the wicked Tom Chaney (played by Jeff Corbey), her father’s murderer. Tom is working with some other dangerous criminals unbeknownst to them causing even more trouble. As always, Wayne’s eye-patch-wearing, drunk, and lovable character has no problem taking the villains down especially with the help of his comrade La Boeuf, played by country singer Glen Campbell. True Grit is loved for the loud, rowdy, and rambunctious attitudes of the heroes. 

Political Controversy

Amongst a sea of far-left liberals, John Wayne’s far-right beliefs caused quite a bit of scandals in Hollywood. When Wayne was on the board of Screen Actors Guild in the 1940s, his views were opposite of almost all the other members. Consequently, Wayne took political matters into his own hands by co-founding the Motion Picture Alliance For The Preservation Of American Ideals (MPA). The goal of this organization, of which Clark Gable was also a member, was to fight the leftist movement in Hollywood. This was during the time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s contributions to The Second Red Scare with his intense communist accusations. Wayne, an extreme anti-Communist as well, was a huge supporter of McCarthy and was partly responsible for the black list of suspected communists in Hollywood. 

Wayne was also accused of racism because of his doomed quote from a 1971 Playboy interview: “With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.” This interview recently resurfaced and offended many Americans causing groups to advocate for the withdrawal of his name from Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. In the same interview, he also used harsh insults against the suspected homosexual characters from Midnight Cowboy. 

Although he wasn’t perfect, it is undeniable that Wayne left a huge mark in American history and culture. His characters symbolized heroism, courage, overcoming boundaries, and who he was in movies became who he was in real life. During World War II, he expressed his appreciation for the military and traveled to different bases to entertain the troops, and he additionally helped the United States ratify the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977. Wayne’s career spanned through many diverse eras when each decade experienced immense changes, especially in the film industry. In 1976, Wayne gave his final on-screen performance as J.B. Brooks, a gunman with cancer, in the western The Shootist. Although he was almost 70 years old, Wayne’s talents never diminished as some celebrate this film as his finest performance. Similarly to his character, Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer and passed away at the age of 72, but he’ll forever be remembered as one of the most iconic western legends in the history of American film.   

Tags: John Wayne

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Emily Morenz

Author

Despite her younger age, Emily Morenz (Emo) is a serious 1960s/1970s enthusiast who is pretty much the Austin Powers of this decade. Through her all-vintage wardrobe, obsession with old time rock 'n' roll, and her mid century bedroom and 1,200+ vinyl collection you might think she just stepped out of a time machine. Emo plays the rare gems of the ‘60s and ‘70s on her radio show on OC’s 101.5 KOCI and teaches rock ‘n’ roll history on her podcast “The Rock & Roll Sweetheart.” When there's not a pandemic, she's rockin’ out with all the middle aged-men at every single classic rock concert happening around the town, and she will battle her away to front row and dance hard. Paul McCartney even once brought her up on stage to dance...while she was in a walrus costume. You also might find Emo surfing waves, skateboarding through a neighborhood, groovin' '60s gogo style, and pretending like she can play bass. And she's obsessed with peanut butter and corgis.