It was exactly 50 years ago that the one and only John Wayne accepted the role of Major John Reisman in The Dirty Dozen, a spectacular, runaway blockbuster. He asked Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer [MGM] for certain script changes, albeit he pulled out of the project to make The Green Berets . He was replaced by Lee Marvin, who ‘lived’ the role, and did a marvellous job that Wayne would have been proud of. This was the most fascinating element — although with Wayne donning the part, the film would have been dexterously different and a refreshingly original ‘Wayne’ in a new bottle on celluloid.
When Wayne, the first of the great Hollywood heroes, was born over 110 years ago, he did not know he would become a legend. What made Wayne, John Wayne was apparent. He sculpted a new style: what with his Stetson pulled down cockily on one side, with the scarf loosely tied by a solitary knot. His face mirrored true grit and willpower. His clothing was, for most part, jeans, and a shirt loosely worn, with his pistols, yet again, ready to blaze into action at the proverbial drop of a thought. Wayne, was, quite simply, Wayne — because, he’d be nothing else.
A DAMN GOOD ACTOR
Wayne was a damn good actor. He was, and still ‘is,’ America’s alter ego. A movie marvel, no less. As he once articulated, “I’ve established a character on the screen that maybe rough, that maybe cruel, and that may have a different code, but [it] has never been mean, petty, or small.” Wayne made the Hollywood Western a form of Shakespearean drama, a Greek tragedy. He was one of the most accomplished actors in Hollywood films — or, films of his era. Witness his grand portrayal of quintessential Western characters like Thomas Dunson, Ethan Edwards, Rooster Coburn, and Nathan Brittles.
No wonder why almost four decades after his death, Wayne’s image lives larger than life. More so, through his expansive bio, John Wayne: American, which is grandly steeped in Wayne data — a real tonic to bolster the great man’s image. As James Stuart Olson and Randy W Roberts, Wayne’s biographers, epitomise, “He [Wayne] was so American, so much like his country... big, bold, confident, powerful, loud, violent, and occasionally overbearing, but simultaneously forgiving, gentle, innocent, naive, almost childlike... In the persona he so carefully constructed, America saw itself, its past, and its future.” It is, therefore, only befitting that Wayne’s greatness prompted the American Film Institute to name him 13th among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time . Yet another poll placed him third among America’s favourite film stars. He’s, in fact, the only departed star on that list; and, the only one to have appeared on the annual poll, year after year.
Wayne’s movie career began in silent films of the 1920s. He emerged as a star in the 1940s, and did not look back till the mid-1970s. What made him a towering figure was his close association with both Westerns and World War II epics — including the great, all-time classic, The Longest Day . In addition, he also figured in a broad range of films in a host of genres, including biographies, romantic comedies, wildlife — the most notable being Hatari  — and, so on.
Wayne, who was a sports journalist, in his formative years, lived in the present-moment, and he also saw tomorrow. As he once revealed, in an interview: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. It comes into us at midnight ‘very clean.’ It’s perfect when it arrives, and it puts itself in our hands. It has hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
Wayne has been, and continues to be, a much-sough-after name in the US cultural landscape. Just think of it: John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, where his life-size statue adorns the entrance. The John Wayne Marina in Washington, DC, is another; so is John Wayne Elementary School in Brooklyn, New York, which houses a 38-foot mosaic mural. It is aptly called, ‘John Wayne and the American Frontier.’ This isn’t all. There is a 150-plus kilometre track too named ‘John Wayne Pioneer Trail’ in Washington State’s Iron Horse State Park. The list is long.
Wayne was born Marion Morrison to well-meaning, but utterly contrasting, parents. He was an overachiever from childhood. At every step, he hoped to win his mother’s approval through work, academics, sport, or any other activity, he could come up with. Result: a sense of duty, as well as a taste for parental support, or companionship, marked his psychical compass and radar. He’s, therefore, to people that adulated him ‘the Duke,’ and yet they were and are no less aware of his ‘weakness’ for women, drinking and compulsive shopping. But, they, like true fans, contend that the ‘man in Wayne,’ and the national values he so dearly espoused, on the screen and off it, were identical, and not opposed to each other.
Wayne first fancied a career in the US Navy, but he could not make the grade. Yet, what he could not do on a battleship, he made good through his political career, holding his ideological masts in place, albeit his radicalism, or rigid anti-communist element, put him at loggerheads with the Soviet Union. It’s said that Josef Stalin ordered his ‘hit-men’ to assassinate Wayne. Fortunately, Stalin died before his diabolical order was put into effect.
Wayne, who loved good literature, was paradoxically a charming hypocrite. He was superstitious too. He may have foisted values, no less, on the world that he couldn’t live up to in his own home. Yet, the fact was he believed in his own myth. He was a great propagandist and a highly underrated actor too, despite all the grand adulation, according to some critics. His endeavour to shape public beliefs with private ideologies may also have been contradictory, but his heart was always in the right place. His resolve was tough, his will vigorous.
Wayne went to Hollywood because it was the truest meritocracy in the US of his time — the one place, where his lack of wealth and connections could not have hurt him. After spending the first decade of his career in utter difficulty, Wayne emerged as a star in Stagecoach . The rest is history.
Wayne was also the typical, non-ideological conservative at heart. A man who believed in simple justice and common decency — attributes that will continue to endear him to movie buffs the world over. Yet, what’s so unique about Wayne, the Duke, who’s still the King of his genre? Over to his biographers, “During much of the 20th century... watching a John Wayne movie was like peering over and over again, into a great cultural mirror; we saw ourselves, what we thought was our past, and what we believed was a birthright of freedom, opportunity, security, and justice.” The inference is obvious. In an age of few heroes, Wayne was a genuine article. He belongs not just to America. He belongs to us all.