John Wayne’s America
Historian Garry Wills makes it a virtue to discover profound and wide-ranging significance in very specific events and personages. Essentially a historian of culture, he explores myths and values and relates them to larger themes. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg (1992), he demonstrated how Lincoln’s address and experience at the Civil War battlefield shaped the destiny of the nation. In John Wayne’s America, he undertakes to explore the meaning of John Wayne as a cultural phenomenon.
In 1995 John Wayne, who died in 1979, was voted the most popular actor in America. As a star of Westerns and war films, he represented to audiences a kind of masculine ideal. To Wills, continuing public adulation of a man dead nearly two decades is disquieting, and he seeks to explore its relevance. In doing so, he creates doubts about Wayne as a cultural icon, even suggesting that the actor’s enduring popularity is dangerous to society, though his attitude toward Wayne as a man is somewhat ambiguous. Having no desire to write a biography, Wills alludes to Wayne’s life only insofar as the biographical facts relate to a larger image.
A powerful presence on and off screen, Wayne exuded a raw, self- assured, comfortable masculinity, and this is what his audience finds so appealing. His size, though not extraordinary, had something to do with his overwhelming on-screen presence. Standing more than six feet tall with a long torso and graceful bearing, a visage both strong and kindly, and penetrating blue eyes, Wayne complemented his physical prowess with a natural talent for acting. Wills would like to whittle down Wayne’s image, but his efforts are not entirely successful, in part because the book reveals his own grudging admiration for the man, if not for the image.
Treating him primarily as a professional, Wills explains how Wayne learned his craft through hard work and complete absorption in the tasks he undertook. From many mentors—Yakima Canutt, the world champion cowboy and famous stuntman; Harry Carey, the veteran cowboy actor; seasoned directors such as Raoul Walsh and John Ford—Wayne learned how to carry himself and how to succeed in the business of making films. From Canutt he learned his slow, emphatic speech cadences and a mastery of stunts. Early, he learned to fight realistically so that he appeared to put his entire body into a punch that inflicted no injury. Even his relaxed contrapposto stance and his seemingly natural posture in the saddle resulted from study and practice. Also, Wills admits, Wayne learned to make the difficult look easy.
During filming sessions, Wayne proved himself the dedicated professional. He typically arrived on the set early, knew his lines, and was prepared to submit to as many retakes as a director thought necessary. Never the martinet, he kept his temper even when working with the autocratic and demanding John Ford, whose military-like control over his sets Wayne respected and perhaps admired. Wayne possessed little personal vanity, not minding second billings or lesser roles and accepting minor roles when he might have held out for better ones. Further, Wayne was helpful to family members, friends, and especially young actors and actresses on the sets. Unlike Ford, who hired members of his family so that he could exert control over them, Wayne hired his relatives in order to help them.
Beginning his acting career during college, Wayne worked in motion pictures more than forty-five years. Major stardom eluded him, however, until age forty-one. Throughout the 1930’s he had starred in a long series of low-budget Westerns, mostly formula films, as the studios struggled financially during the Great Depression. Although Wills believes that Wayne deserved more credit than he received in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), the only other exception to mediocre roles in the early films was Stagecoach (1939), the first “sound” Western directed by John Ford. Then in 1948, three major film releases established him permanently as a box office success: Fort Apache and Three Godfathers, both directed by John Ford, and Red River, directed by Howard Hawks. Following these, he remained a major box-office draw for more than twenty-five years, completing his last role only three years before his death.
Wills provides a selective, critical analysis of Wayne’s acting career, arranging his book chronologically. His analysis focuses on the more important films made under famed directors such as Hawks and Ford, and Wayne’s own The Alamo (1960). Thus he analyzes only a few films in depth and is content to omit some rather well-known titles such as...
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