Saturday, May 26, marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. That name may not ring a bell. After Marion’s family moved to southern California, he got a summer job working in the movies. They changed Marion’s name to John Wayne, know affectionately as “The Duke.”
For those under 40 years old, John Wayne is somebody in a late-night grainy black and white movie or an antique action hero in a feature on Turner Classic Movies.
For my generation, John Wayne was the quintessential American hero. The characters he played were always men who stood up for right, didn’t care what other people thought, and weren’t afraid to use their fists or their guns to beat the bad guys. They didn’t worry for a moment about being “politically correct.”
It was said that John Wayne always played himself. That may have been true but we loved him all the same. That was true of most of the movie stars of his era—Cary Grant always played Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart was always Bogey no matter his character’s name, and Clark Gable was always The King.
I know when John Wayne became my hero. I was a ten year old boy sitting in the darkened Ball Theatre in Millsboro, Delaware. The movie playing that night was The Alamo, starring John Wayne as Davy Crockett. It was a great story of these vastly outnumbered rough-and-tumble frontier heroes standing up against a Mexican tyrant and his army. There was a great final battle which I was sure Davy would win. But in the last shocking minutes of the movie, one after the other of these heroes is killed. Then, Davy with his rifle empty, grabs a torch to blow up the gunpowder, and is stabbed by an enemy soldier. He stumbles off, throws the torch, and dies in the explosion.
Almost 50 years later, I cannot fully explain what happened within me as that shocking scene unfolded. I walked out of the theater in stunned silence, my ten year old mind trying to figure it out. How could a hero die? The image of John Wayne as Davy Crockett dying at the Alamo was indelibly burned into my psyche. He remained a hero to me for the rest of his life.
In the years that followed I saw the Duke in other films: North to Alaska, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and El Dorado just to name a few. Later, I learned he’d been a movie star long before he played Davy Crockett. It seemed he always won his battles with the bad guys. If John Wayne was on your side, you couldn’t lose.
As I grew up, I continued to admire the Duke and the kind of movies he made. They were simple stories of the battle of right and wrong, in which right always won in the end.
As the 1960’s went on, John Wayne was out of step with the politics and values of many in that turbulent decade. He wasn’t as popular as he’d once been, his movies weren’t as successful. Other movie stars became more popular as action heroes—Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, and Sean Connery. Ominously, not even John Wayne could win the Viet Nam war in The Green Berets.
In spite of all this, he finally won an Academy Award in 1969 for playing a one-eyed, fat, drunken Deputy Marshall named Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Appropriately enough, even in this late 1960’s movie the Duke defeated the bad guys in the final showdown.
The 1970’s were not kind to John Wayne. Even to a devoted fan like me, movies like Big Jake, McQ, and Brannigan were forgettable. He was blamed by social scientists for every social ill in America. He was ridiculed by comedians and liberal editorial writers.
What’s more his old enemy “the big C,” cancer, returned. As he battled cancer, he rallied to make one final film, The Shootist. It was a story about a gunfighter that has outlived his era and who is dying of cancer. It was an eloquent celluloid culmination of almost 50 years of making movies. As he continued to battle cancer, in his final public appearances the Duke was a mere shell of the towering heroic figure he’d been for so long.
John Wayne died of cancer on June 11, 1979. It was the end of an era for America and for me. I’ve learned a lot about heroes since then. Sadly, I learned the Duke didn’t always do the right thing in real life. What’s more, I learned that there were real life heroes right in front of me, heroes that I didn’t notice as long as I was so fixated on the Duke. They were heroes like my Dad and my Pop Pop Collins. These were men of real courage who enriched my life and shaped my character far more than any hero on the movie screen. I’m glad I learned that in time to tell both men how much they meant to me before they too passed on.
I still like John Wayne movies. If one comes on, I’ll watch it even if I’ve seen it a dozen times before. There is something comforting about those morality plays. In these days when it seems so hard to defeat the real bad guys like the terrorists of 9/11 and Iraq, its good to watch a brave hero like John Wayne stand up against evil and win the battle in two hours.
A man who can still do that for us 28 years after his death deserved to be remembered on the centennial of his birth. Perhaps it was appropriate that this man who became famous portraying warriors—soldiers, sheriffs, Marines, and marshals—was remembered on Memorial Day weekend.