ONE OF THE great joys of the movies is their ability to convince us that we know the people on screen. Even the varied performances of the most versatile stars are often not strong enough to prevail against the overarching image we’ve formed of them. When Joan Didion met John Wayne on the set of the 1965 The Sons of Katie Elder, she wrote of having the sense that his face was more familiar to her than her husband’s.
And yet Wayne, whose centenary occurred this past spring, remains in some ways the most undefined of iconic movie stars. When we say we “know” Humphrey Bogart or Greta Garbo, or George Clooney or Julia Roberts, we’re talking about the intimacy we feel from having watched them at work. But much of what’s “known” of John Wayne depends on ignoring what’s on screen.
To the left, Wayne has always been close to a comic-book version of American power in all its swaggering crudeness. That his screen persona was neither swaggering nor crude hardly mattered. It was easier to think of Wayne as something like the vigilante of the plains—macho, indomitable, always in the right, ordering women and Indians around because that’s the way God planned it.
It’s inevitable that with nearly two hundred pictures to his credit (Wayne’s 1939 breakthrough, John Ford’s Stagecoach was his eightieth movie), some of Wayne’s roles do fit the traditional macho hero mold. But the image that persists of him seems more reinforced by things like his public support of conservative causes, as well as by his directing and starring in the pro-Vietnam War picture The Green Berets. And it’s been reinforced by the fact that Wayne worked primarily in Westerns, the most frequently, and often baselessly, stereotyped of movie genres.
”John Wayne represents more force, more power than anyone else on the screen,” his frequent director Howard Hawks once said. A performer who wields that kind of force, and has a physical presence to match, does not provide nuanced pleasure. But only the crudest reading would reduce the overwhelming force of Wayne’s persona to gung-ho cheerleading for American right and American might. To be true to the contradictions and moral ambiguities of Wayne’s best performances—Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, True Grit, El Dorado—you’d have to say he stands not so much for American power as for the American experiment—and thus for the possibility that it could all go wrong.
And in Howard Hawks’s 1959 Rio Bravo, the director’s masterpiece (now out in a beautifully remastered DVD from Warner Bros.), Wayne gave us the richest, most likable, and probably the most daring version of his screen persona. The story, by the veteran screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, couldn’t be simpler. Joe Burdett, the youngest brother of ruthless power broker Nathan Burdett, kills an unarmed man in cold blood. Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) ...
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