Not very long ago, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most singularly iconic members of American society, the individual who did a significant amount to define patriotic masculinity in our social consciousness, and who fought a long, patriotic campaign to make sure that no one ever used the phrase “social consciousness” to describe himself.
John Wayne helped define postwar America by representing our virtues and glorifying our vices. Wayne was born in 1907 as Marion Morrison, a comically un-Duke like birthname that most people are convinced is a lie; his name might as well be Percival Higginbotham III the Thoughtlessly Homosexual. Thankfully, he changed his name to the more dashingly appropriate John Wayne, and forever cast that name into the annals of our cultural history.
His early years were often noted with modest success tainted with failure. He tried college, but it didn’t take; he suffered an injury and lost his football scholarship. He soon found himself working at the prop department at Fox Studios. He soon took bit parts, eventually working himself up to a leading man. This was back in the day when one could become a leading man through hard work and determination, and not by being the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola.
Wayne’s forte was largely westerns and war films, and this was well-suited to his masculine personality. He soon came to represent this onscreen personality in an almost universal level, bringing the weight of an entire gender upon his shoulders as he rooted out evil men, wooed the ladies, drank like a fish, shot German infantrymen and Mexican bandits, wasn’t too keen on the Indians, smoked like a sublimating chimney, and did pretty much everything that could conceivably be considered grade-A class-1 American Man to the highest degree possible.
Of course, this hypermachoism is likely an overcompensation factor for the fact that John Wayne, regardless of the number of Huns he mowed down onscreen, never served in the military. At the time of World War II, he was 34, was injured, and had a young family, which under normal circumstances would have easily qualified for a deferment. Wayne did so with no hesitations, jumping on his exit ticket with both feet. However, many other Hollywood stars in similar situations, such as Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart, enlisted with little fuss. He felt incredibly guilty about not only passing up service but also exploiting the leading man gap to increase his stature in Tinseltown. Because of this, he tried as hard as possible to convey blatant jingoism and marketed testosterone as a recommended daily allowance as penance for him taking a powder on Europe.
One of the most bizarre aspects of Wayne’s life was one that never happened. Stalin—that’s right, the leader of our perpetual Cold War opponent, Russia—at one point decided that John Wayne represented a direct threat to the spread of establishing the People’s Paradise (or, at the very least, impede the pro-Communist insurgency of Hungary, one can safely presume) and issued an order that the Duke be assassinated. That’s right, the Party Chairman, representing 50% of the total number of people in the world at the time with their finger on the button, bypassed John Foster Dulles and Richard Nixon and went straight for the co-lead in The Flying Leathernecks.
Action stars rarely get respect from the critics, and Wayne was no exception. A lot of his movies, especially his early ones but by no means excepted in his later years, were largely formulaic throwaway films. As time marched on, however, Wayne differentiated himself as movies in general became more dramatic, stories became more complicated, audiences demanded intellectual stimulation, and the industry in general become more…well, more incredibly pussyish. Leading men were no longer Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott but Rock Hudson and Woody Allen. In the new Hollywood, Wayne could have easily been brushed off as a discarded relic of the past, a purveyor of a violent genre long past its prime. Instead, John Wayne embraced it, expanding its influence on cinema, and keeping it alive as a valid form of entertainment. The movies were top quality, the writing excellent, and Wayne was duly recognized with a Best Actor award for True Grit. And not because he threatened each and every member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with blackjacking their four-year-old daughters in the dead of night if they didn’t vote for him. Well, not only because.
The unthinkable happened, then, to the invincible. He contracted lung cancer, no doubt due to decades of chronic tobacco intake, or—if you are a regular listener to Coast to Coast, and if you aren’t, you should be—as a result of nearby nuclear testing by the government during the filming of The Conqueror in Utah. While he had a successful operation to remove the cancer, the removal of a lung made highly complicated stunts such as walking highly difficult, a fact most studio executives tried to minimize. It’s hard to represent American machismo when you have to stop to breathe every ten feet.
A different form of the C finally took John Wayne off the screen altogether in 1979—today, in fact: June 11th. This time it was the stomach, and there weren’t any cigarettes or government H-bombs to blame this time. And while Wayne is long off the scene, the ideals and values he represented are still prevalent in Hollywood, though they are slowly degenerating. In The Shootist, his last film, he refused to have his character shoot an enemy in the back, despite the script being written that way, stating that he didn’t want his real persona to transcend any negative portrayals on screen. By comparison, Dakota Fanning’s 12-year-old character is raped in 2006’s Hounddog without much objection by anyone involved in its production. John Wayne, alas, is dead.