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Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne

Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne

3.5 2
by Ronald L. Davis

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Almost two decades after his death, John Wayne is still America’s favorite movie star. More than an actor, Wayne is a cultural icon whose stature seems to grow with the passage of time. In this illuminating biography, Ronald L. Davis focuses on Wayne’s human side, portraying a complex personality defined by frailty and insecurity as well as by courage


Almost two decades after his death, John Wayne is still America’s favorite movie star. More than an actor, Wayne is a cultural icon whose stature seems to grow with the passage of time. In this illuminating biography, Ronald L. Davis focuses on Wayne’s human side, portraying a complex personality defined by frailty and insecurity as well as by courage and strength.

Davis traces Wayne’s story from its beginnings in Winterset, Iowa, to his death in 1979. This is not a story of instant fame: only after a decade in budget westerns did Wayne receive serious consideration, for his performance in John Ford’s 1939 film Stagecoach. From that point on, his skills and popularity grew as he appeared in such classics as Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Searches, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, and True Grit. A man’s ideal more than a woman’s, Wayne earned his popularity without becoming either a great actor or a sex symbol. In all his films, whatever the character, John Wayne portrayed John Wayne, a persona he created for himself: the tough, gritty loner whose mission was to uphold the frontier’s--and the nation’s--traditional values.

To depict the different facets of Wayne’s life and career, Davis draws on a range of primary and secondary sources, most notably exclusive interviews with the people who knew Wayne well, including the actor’s costar Maureen O’Hara and his widow, Pilar Wayne. The result is a well-balanced, highly engaging portrait of a man whose private identity was eventually overshadowed by his screen persona--until he came to represent America itself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Anyone seeking the true "heartland" might well veer toward Winterset, Iowait is not only the setting for Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County but also the 1907 birthplace of John Wayne. An SMU history professor and the author of several books on film, including a 1995 bio of Wayne's longtime buddy John Ford, Davis follows Wayne's trek to Hollywood from high school in Glendale, Calif., to USC on a football scholarship, and then on to his initial film studio jobs and on through his appearances in more than 150 films between 1928 and 1976. In the 1930s, Wayne made scores of grade-B "horse operas" before Ford cast him in Stagecoach (1939), the film that made him a star and "elevated the screen persona that Wayne had developed over the past decade to the level of popular art." During the past three decades, some two dozen books on Wayne have been published. What moves this entertaining biography to a higher plain is that Davis, as the director of SMU's oral history program on the performing arts for 25 years, was in a singular position to document the memories of Wayne's family, friends and associates. He combined more than 65 interviews with extensive research through books, clipping files, printed interviews, film reviews and magazine articles, in addition to major studio production files, Indiana University's John Ford Collection and the papers of Wayne's agent, Charles K. Feldman. The exhaustive yet readable and entertaining result might explain why the back of this book carries rave blurbs by Janet Leigh and other actors and directors who worked with the Duke. Twenty-seven b&w photos. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Since his death from cancer nearly 20 years ago, John Wayne continues to be both praised for embodying traditional American ideals and reviled for archconservative bigotry. Davis (history, Southern Methodist Univ.; John Ford: Hollywood's Old Master, Univ. of Oklahoma, 1995) draws heavily on memoirs and oral histories by relatives, friends, and key filmmakers to explore the man behind the legend. What emerges is a sympathetic portrait of a rather ordinary man who was able to parlay his macho, no-baloney acting style into a screen image beloved by legions of fans who could identify with those very qualities of simple honesty and unpretentiousness. Davis's entertaining narrative primarily covers Wayne's personal life and the day-to-day production of his films, and the extensive use of personal recollections and anecdotes adds considerable dimension to his human side. This nicely complements the standard study, Maurice Zolotow's Shooting Star: A Biography of John Wayne (LJ 3/15/74). Recommended for public and academic libraries.Richard Grefrath, Univ. of Nevada Lib., Reno
Kirkus Reviews
Historian Davis (Southern Methodist Univ.) weighs in with another contribution to the recent spate of biographies of America's larger-than-life cowboy hero. It's hard to imagine someone adding much to the thorough job done by Randy Roberts and James Olson in John Wayne: American (1995), which Davis himself calls "exhaustive." Davis draws on extensive interviews with Wayne's third wife, Pilar, and his favorite leading lady, Maureen O'Hara, as well as on research he did for his biography of John Ford (1995), the director who contributed the most to the creation of the actor's screen persona, but the result is not a lot of new material. Davis offers a competent but clich‚-riddled recounting of Wayne's career ("In 1946 Hollywood's studios were a beehive of activity. The Golden Age of moviemaking had reached its zenith; every soundstage in town was bustling. . . .")—from his rather unhappy childhood (starved for affection from his chilly mother, deeply attached to his hard-drinking father, a warm presence but a failure as a provider) through his stumbling into the motion pictures by chance and his discovery that he really liked the process of making movies, his lengthy apprenticeship in B westerns, his sudden rise to stardom with Stagecoach, and so on. Although Davis promises at the book's outset that he will examine the nature of Wayne's image (without engaging in extensive analysis of the films, a remarkable feat, indeed), the resulting volume adds little to our understanding of Wayne as an actor, a political activist, or an icon. On the positive side, one does get a sense of the complexities and contradictions in the man, but even those are reduced to a handful of commonplaces.Despite thorough research, a book that adds little to our picture of Wayne. (27 b&w photos, not seen)

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The Life and Image of John Wayne

By Ronald L. Davis


Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8646-7


American Icon

On June 12, 1979, an elderly gentleman sat at a breakfast table in the Cafe de Paris in Monte Carlo reading an Italian newspaper with tears streaming down his cheeks. Lilia Garcia, a Hispanic teenager from south Texas caught a glimpse of the headline and started to cry too. "Il Duke e Morti" (The Duke Is Dead), the newspaper announced. That same day, halfway around the world, the Lima, Peru, Noticias declared in bold letters, "Adios, Vaquero" (Goodbye, Cowboy). Movie actor John Wayne had died at age seventy-two.

"Growing up on a ranch," Lilia Garcia said later, "it was easy for me to relate to John Wayne. Now that I've reached the ripe old age of twenty-six, he brings back the belief I had as a child—the conviction that if you ride high in the saddle, you can accomplish anything. Thanks to John Wayne, I'll never turn loose of those dreams."

Craig Schoenfeld, a wealthy undergraduate from Florida, bought cowboy boots and a Stetson soon after arriving in Texas for his freshman year of college. He returned to his dormitory and asked a friend to take his picture in front of a life-sized poster of the Duke he had taped to his door. "I've always had a picture of John Wayne in my room," Schoenfeld said. "When I was a teenager and my father and I didn't agree on anything, there were two things we could do together: watch sports events and John Wayne movies on television."

A thirty-seven-year-old clerk at a small-town Wal-Mart claimed in 1993 that she sold more John Wayne videos than any others. "I've been watching John Wayne movies all of my life," she said; "I can't imagine the world without him." A vacationer in Provo, Utah, declared with pride a year later that whenever he finds a Wayne film while channel surfing at a television set, he stops cold. "In our house the Duke rules," he said.

The Mexican grandfather of Isidro Aguirre, a graduate student at Southern Methodist University, suffered from cataracts and never saw a John Wayne film. He became a fan of "Juan Wayne" just from hearing the voice and from his grandson's description. A young father of modest means, his wife, and their small child detoured to visit the John Wayne birthplace in Winterset, Iowa. No detail about his idol was too insignificant for this young man to investigate. Asked why Wayne was his favorite movie star, the fellow replied, "For me the Duke is the only one."

"When I was growing up," Lilia Garcia said, "most girls liked Donny Osmond, but I was in love with a big, weather-beaten man over sixty years my senior. I was fascinated that Wayne married three Hispanic women, a unique facet to this American icon. I prefer to think that he complemented his American individualism with an earthy, passionate Latin flavor." Jane Elder, a working wife and mother of two preschool children, admires Wayne's strength on the screen and his willingness to act on his beliefs. "He reminds me of my father, who didn't take any nonsense from the corporate structure," she said. "John Wayne represents the kind of man you'd like to have around in a time of crisis."

Years after Wayne died, a young man told Duke's daughter Aissa that he had suffered child abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father. From the earliest time he could remember through adolescence the youth had a recurring dream that John Wayne appeared, beat up his father, and protected him against further mistreatment.

President John Kennedy watched Western movies and liked Randolph Scott, but John Wayne was his screen hero. Hong Kong-born filmmaker Wayne Wang, director of The Joy Luck Club, was named after John Wayne. So were executed serial killer John Wayne Gacy and dismemberment victim John Wayne Bobbitt. A decade and a half after the Duke's death, bumper stickers still proclaim, "God Bless John Wayne," while advertisements for The Gap assure readers that "John Wayne wore khakis." Visitors to Knott's Berry Farm can visit the John Wayne Theater, where stills and memorabilia of the star serve as a tribute. If one wished to order a John Wayne 45, the pistol could be purchased in 1987 for a deposit of $79, plus four monthly installments of the same amount.

Molly Haskell, a liberal journalist with feminist leanings, found herself in awe of the Duke when she interviewed him on the set of The Shootist, his last picture. "I never expected the sight of him to wipe me out," Haskell wrote. But when she saw Wayne in person, looking larger than life, she desperately wanted him "to take me in his arms, to tell me that everything is all right.... That he is not going to leave me. That it is all right for me to be a little girl sometimes." Novelist Joan Didion in 1965 summarized his impact for millions: "When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams."

Selden West, a film biographer, wife, and mother, sees Duke as a "masculine, masculine, masculine character. Not much education, but smart, big and strong. Tough and in control. Kind, with a sort of innocence. Never much self-doubt—just on the move and in action. John Ford may have thought Wayne had a 'fairy walk,' but I can assure you no woman ever did. When I was a little tomboy, I wanted to be John Wayne."

Wayne became Hollywood's all-time box-office draw, remaining the nation's top screen star for five years during his lifetime and ranking among the top ten for another fourteen. In a career that spanned half a century he made nearly two hundred movies and starred in seventeen of the highest-earning films in motion picture history. At the time of his death Wayne's movies had grossed $700 million, and his lasting popularity around the world marks him as the most enduring star in the Hollywood galaxy. Dismissed by the eastern intelligentsia and belittled by critics, Wayne's films have earned more money than those of any actor or actress of his generation. Yet John Wayne represents more than a successful movie star; he has become a folk hero, a symbol of America, a reminder of a time when his country had a mission.

"To the people of the world," actress Maureen O'Hara said before a congressional subcommittee a month before Duke's death, in an appearance in which she urged representatives to award her friend a special medal, "John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it will be. And he is what they hope it will always be." For countless fans Wayne embodies virility and courage; flinty resolution and moral purpose; steadfastness, dignity, and strength; fearlessness and action in the face of danger. His life came to exemplify hard work, upward mobility, and economic success. Wayne was a survivor, motivated by an inner code, consistent in his beliefs, always ready to stand up and be counted. He projected a friendly demeanor, yet his power made clear that he could be headstrong and combative when the need arose. Wayne's values, grounded in American mores of the nineteenth century, coincided with the traditional ethos of his nation. He stood for virtues many Americans aspired to and wanted to believe were typical of their country.

The equation was made simple by Wayne's ardent patriotism. "I am proud of every day in my life I wake up in the United States of America," he often said. He genuinely believed that sentiment; America had been good to him, and he would remain its defender. Duke "loved this land of ours," said Pilar Wayne, his third wife, "and his movies reflected that love." As his life took on mythic proportions, John Wayne came to be viewed almost as an extra star on his country's flag or an eagle that kept alive a legendary past. "I was America to them," Duke said of his fans.

More specifically, John Wayne personified for millions the nation's frontier heritage. Eighty-three of his movies were Westerns, and in them he played cowboys, cavalrymen, and unconquerable loners extracted from the Republic's central creation myth. Wayne's Western heroes are men of decision, unburdened by family ties, obsessed with a mission, placing duty before love or personal tranquility. Skilled in violence, they nonetheless possess a vulnerability that tempers their overriding toughness. Anti-intellectual, solitary, sometimes rebellious, Wayne's frontiersmen shoot first and talk afterwards. But ultimately his frontier heroes are the force that make order and civilization possible.

The conquest of the West has long been accepted as a unique aspect of American history, and the cowboy is still viewed by many as a chivalrous knight upholding justice on the last frontier. "My father became the symbol of the cowboy," said Michael Wayne, Duke's oldest son. "He wasn't a cowboy, but people saw him that way." Wayne knew the difference but was malleable enough to fit the image that earned him fame. A far better actor than most critics acknowledged, he disciplined himself to play a role the public expected. Yet he seldom mistook the movies and his professional persona for real life.

Wayne's image was a personification of a figure that had already become mythical through dime novels, Wild West shows, silent movies, and comic books. John Wayne breathed new life into the lore of the cowboy and made his men on horseback indestructible examples of what Americans imagined their heroes should be. "The cowboy is gone," Wayne said. "He lived only a hundred years [in reality, decades less], yet there is more folklore about him than any other figure of any nation. The cowboy, like all legendary heroes, symbolized the basic things of life—love, anger, hate, joy. He was always easily understood. He had no nuances. He lived healthily, loved healthily, hated healthily, laughed healthily, and fought healthily. And, of course, he was never a coward."

John Wayne's screen impersonations were a throwback to an earlier time, while his Westerns could be seen as morality plays. For Americans, the saga of the Old West is comparable to the GreekIliad, the Robin Hood legends of England, the Wagnerian Ring des Nibelungen, or stories of the Japanese samurai. Wayne's imaginary West is a place of hope, where heroes are in control and men have integrity and purpose. While the characters Wayne played so persuasively are flawed and commit mistakes, audiences know that the Duke, whatever his role, has done the best he could and will be man enough to admit his shortcomings.

As he grew older, Wayne became the eternal father figure, revealed a deepening genius for screen acting, and layered his characters with subtle complexities that are manifest in his aging face. His scenes with children are especially touching, as he portrays the loving patriarch teaching life's lessons to the young. With women half his age, he was able to project sexual tension without direct suggestions of physical involvement.

The older he got, the more Wayne embodied the American past. Always a man's man, he turned into more of a loner, estranged but still fighting the good fight, often using unorthodox means to achieve his ends, yet winning battles that would keep his society great. Katharine Hepburn, who worked with Duke toward the end of his career, admired both his independence and his skill as a film actor. For Hepburn, Wayne was "the style of man who blazed the trails across our country" and "who reached out into the unknown." He was the kind of man who was "willing to live or die entirely on [his] own independent judgment."

In addition to his work in Westerns, John Wayne also portrayed stalwart heroes of World War II, even though he was never in the armed forces and never fought in any war. Still, the Wayne persona was strengthened by his roles as a tough military man who shows superhuman courage under fire and teaches those serving under him the meaning of being soldiers. The Duke's war heroes are fearless, incorruptible, and exaggerated, though tempered by rough good humor and the hint of human weakness.

When Bob Crane was establishing the title character of television's Hogan's Heroes (1965–71), the producer insisted that Hogan not be played strictly for laughs. He and his buddies in the Nazi prison camp had to have a heroic dimension as well. After much thought, the actor decided to play him a bit like John Wayne. "That's it! John Wayne!" three guys in the crew yelled when Crane announced his solution. "If you want to be a hero, think John Wayne."

More than any other movie star, John Wayne became a role model for young American males, and millions the world over viewed him as their masculine ideal. In his book Born on the Fourth of July, Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic recalls how as boys he and a buddy sat watching the Duke in Sands of Iwo Jima charge up a hill and get killed just before reaching the top. They both cried when they saw the marines in the film raise the American flag on Iwo Jima. From then on John Wayne was their hero, their concept of what the American man should be. "Nobody ever told me I was going to come back from this war [Vietnam] without a penis," said Kovic. "Oh God, I want it back! I gave it for the whole country.... I gave [it] for John Wayne."

"People actually thought of Wayne as a great hero," screenwriter Roy Huggins said, "and, of course, John Wayne was just an actor. He was never in any armed service, never saw a war, never even saw a gun fired that actually had lead in it. To me that is an incredible comment on American society. It says something about the confusion in the American people between reality and myth." For men who secretly felt less masculine than the John Wayne prototype, the confusion often produced guilt and emotional complexes. For others it built a basic unreality into their relationships and into their concepts of life and danger. When an American officer during the Vietnam War realized that his unit was trapped in a Vietcong ambush, he reportedly rallied his troops by yelling, "Don't worry, it's only a John Wayne movie!"

Yet maintaining such a powerful image on occasions gave even Wayne himself problems. "Like so many American men of his generation," Duke's daughter Aissa said, "my father believed if a man was to call himself a man, he must wear a kind of armor, male and indestructible, that concealed his fears and deepest feelings from his family." In truth Wayne was a sensitive man, insecure in some areas and in need of constant love and affirmation. Underneath a genial, guarded exterior was a complicated personality—torn by conflict, driven by pride, haunted by a troubled boyhood and a failed first marriage. While he could be chilling in personal encounters, given to dictatorial stances and angry rages, he was also warmhearted, generous, and sentimental. Above all he was forthright and honest. "If he told you tomorrow's Christmas," his colleague Ben Johnson said, "you could get your stocking ready. He was that kind of person."

"I think the world should know that this was a human being," one of Wayne's friends, director Budd Boetticher, declared. "He wasn't a lowercase God, he wasn't Eisenhower running an army, he wasn't all the things he played in the movies. He was a human being that made a hell of a lot of mistakes. Duke was either very bad or very good; he was never down the middle. He did some really wonderful things, but I'll tell you—sometimes he was despicable." Actress Kathleen Freeman agreed: "Wayne was not a bender, never subtle. He could be a martinet and cut your head off, yet there was a vulnerable streak in him that ran deep."

Despite the laurels and public acclaim, Wayne was a lonely man, living in a black-and-white world, with little room for compromise or accommodation. His wife Pilar attested to the fact that Duke did not understand nor know how to treat women, and he freely admitted that they "scared the hell" out of him. "I've always been afraid of women," he said. In private Wayne was essentially the man's man he played on the screen, baffled by women and relaxed in the company of men. His leisure activities—sailing, hunting and fishing, poker, chess, and drinking --were mainly enjoyed with male friends. While never an alcoholic, he could outdrink most of his cronies without appearing drunk, and he swore without realizing it. "Like Ford, it was impossible for him to say two sentences without using words that would put a dockworker to shame," actor Henry Fonda maintained.

An outdoorsman who had been a football player in his youth, Duke continued to think of himself as an athlete. He placed little trust in his intellect, except where his career was concerned, nor was he given to introspection. "I can't picture the cowboy in his long underwear lying on a psychiatrist's couch," said Wayne. "The menace in the cowboy's life came from the seasons, the weather, the land. Not from interior sparks." Like the heroes he played, Wayne shied away from nuances—and from psychoanalysts' couches.

Much of Duke's ability to merge a screen image with his own person came from his physical makeup—his height and bulk, his deep voice, his macho swagger. No one else walks the way John Wayne did—that long, rolling, slightly pigeon-toed stride that became his trademark, as graceful as it was athletic. Nor does anyone deliver dialogue the way he did—slow and rhythmic, broken by unexpected pauses for emphasis. "I see him right now," said Coleen Gray, who played the sweetheart Duke left behind in the early scenes of Red River, "and I think of the expanse of his chest, the broad shoulders, the way he stood with his feet like they were ground into the soil. He was a pillar of strength."


Excerpted from Duke by Ronald L. Davis. Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ronald L. Davis is Emeritus Professor of History at Southern Methodist University, where he was Director of both the Oral History Program on the Performing Arts and the De Golyer Institute for American Studies. He has written many books in the performing arts in America, including the best-seller Hollywood Anecdotes.

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Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Good book. For more on the Duke and the tragedy surround the making of his film 'The Conqueror' check out Curse of the Silver Screen - Tragedy and Disaster Behind the Movies by John W. Law.