Each month I’m going to take a look at an actor, actress, or filmmaker that I grew up loving and has informed my own career (if calling what I do in the industry qualifies as such) in writing or performing. Films are supposed to be fun, entertaining ventures that allow an escape from the day-to-day happenings of our lives. Why not celebrate the uncelebrated, folks. Join me on my quest as I gush over those who have inspired me to put words on a website that will ultimately never equate what it means to be honored by their peers at an official award show or film festival.
You’re probably scratching your head at this one. I mean John Wayne is an Unsung Hero of Hollywood? I know I struggled with the pros and cons for this entry as well, so I think to do this piece proper we can put an asterisk by this one in the record books. Less as an official entry, but more to signify that this is a special Father’s Day edition of the Unsung Heroes. After all, it was my father that sat me down to watch my first Wayne picture.
Now when we think of John Wayne, his praises are (mostly) sung in middle America, but Hollywood, especially over the last decade or so, has really turned heel on the western icon. And I started thinking about the biographies I’ve read and watched, and though Wayne was always a box office draw and liked amongst his peers, studios treated Wayne pictures the same way they’ve always treated horror films. Cash in on success but shy away from praising the product. It’s always been a tolerate the product sense of mentality. Many John Wayne pictures were the butt of jokes upon release, and nowadays they are attacked for cultural appropriation and racism by elitist leftist and studios alike. Plus there is that whole “black list” deal, but surely Hollywood would never punish an actor, writer, or director due to their political beliefs. For more on that catch Tim Allen in “Last Man Standing” on ABC…wait, what? Hmm. Let’s forget I mentioned that.
Sure Wayne won himself an Academy Award for his turn as Rooster Cogburn “True Grit,” and his picture he championed for many years and eventually directed, “The Alamo” was nominated for Best Picture, as well as being nominated for his performance in “Sands of Iwo Jima.” But many have claimed his big win came near the tail end of a storied career. A career win opposed to truly being the best performance that year. I love “True Grit.” I especially love Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. But I think it is far from his best role. Maybe there is something to those claims. History books will always tell a different, corrected tale.
My favorite performance by the Duke will always be as Sheriff John T. Chance in “Rio Bravo.” It wasn’t until after I had seen a handful of the western icons films before I would seek it out. While reading an old John Carpenter interview he had mentioned how he had modeled his film “Assault on Precinct 13” on the Howard Hawks classic. Having just watched the inspired by psydo-remake, I went to my local video store and rented a copy of “Rio Bravo.” That night I learned a lesson in the art of cinema. The characters are rich with development. The cinematography as beautiful as any. Wayne’s co-stars Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson and Angie Dickinson are a wonderful complement to the actor who is at his absolute best. Chance and Feathers blossoming romance is a chemistry on screen that is tough to beat. Chance’s fondness for Colorado is ever charming. Dude’s demons are often tough to watch, but his dependency on his close friend Chance to dish out tough-love is what friendships ought to be about. And then there is Stumpy, the crotchety old codger that will run his mouth to tear you a new one while pointing a double barrel over your shoulder to properly secure your hide.
There are two types of Wayne pictures that I adore: The Everyman, or reluctant hero just doing his job which means keeping himself and those around him safe. And The Hero, or the godlike shot that can, and will, knock your ass out of the saddle at 100 yards in the name of justice. “Rio Bravo” and “Hondo” are classic Everyman roles. “True Grit,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are The Hero.
The Duke’s ability to transform himself into a beloved icon was a long road that had its fair share of hardship, but teamed with John Ford, who saw something special in the lanky actor from Iowa, is proof that a strong work ethic, dedication to your craft, and willingness to start at the very bottom to prove your worth and earn your shots, will get you to the top. Wayne didn’t just walk onto the backlot and demand he be heard. He started in film working in props and managed his way on screen in various extra roles. Hell his first gig with John Ford was herding sheep. The lesson here is do whatever it takes.
John Ford and Duke would work together for many years to follow, but “The Searchers” might be the duos greatest accomplishment. In “The Searchers,” Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a grizzled Civil War veteran that goes to great lengths to rescue his niece from a group of Comanches who’ve recently murdered Ethan’s family. Ethan Edwards is a wonderful mix between the Everyman and Hero. Ethan’s revenge is fueled by past pain and blind hatred. Wayne’s performance is simply breathtaking in “The Searchers,” and it is a shame he wasn’t hoisting a golden statue for it. Actually, the entire film having been snubbed is out right criminal.
A close second to Wayne and Ford’s best collaboration is the charming “The Quiet Man.” Wayne would be paired up with the lovely Maureen O’Hara for the second time. Duke and O’Hara made five pictures together and held a tight friendship off screen. A romantic at heart, Duke was always at his best opposite O’Hara, even if the end result wasn’t the best picture in critics eyes. “The Quiet Man” was the result of Republic Pictures taking a chance of Ford’s “silly Irish picture” if in turn he would direct Wayne and O’Hara in “Rio Grande.” Wayne and O’Hara are simply magnificent in this picture and I will always make it a must watch every St. Patrick’s Day, as I am a sucker for tradition.
This entry could go on for months dissecting each and every project Wayne was ever in. His filmography is hundreds of projects that will continue to stand the test of time despite what today’s PC Culture of faux-rage would have you believe. The Duke’s films will always be around to inspire generations that are willing to reflect on what Cinema was and hopefully is. Entertainment with a core set of fly-over state values. Wayne, a Republican, never beat you down with his politics though. In fact he made plenty of art with those that stood across the aisle. Many Dems would go on to say that he was respectful of their beliefs and though they may have had an argument or two, they never held sour feelings with one another. Something both sides could take a lesson from. Republican, Democrat, who cares. We’re all neighbors after all.
Wayne’s films taught me to respect those with differing opinions, but to stand firm on my beliefs so long as they don’t directly harm anyone. To fight for the rights of everyone, even if those rights don’t sit well with me personally. Wayne loved his country, and believed it was a great nation if not exploited for the wrong purposes. I agree with Duke. How else would a bum like me end up working in the entertainment industry if not for an equal playing field. You’re not entitled to anything in this life, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and earn the chances to reach goals. So I’ll end this special Father’s Day edition of Unsung Heroes with the words of a wiser man than I: God Bless America… and God Bless John Wayne.
One final thought– this is a far better read if you’ve poured yourself a glass (or three) of Duke Bourbon.
“John Wayne beat lung cancer in 1964. He died 15 years later after a struggle with cancer of the stomach. During this difficult period, he became passionate about helping others fight this terrible disease.To honor his memory, his family created the John Wayne Cancer Foundation (JWCF) with the mission to bring courage, strength, and grit to the fight against cancer. JWCF funds novel and innovative programs that improve cancer patients’ outcomes and save lives through research, education, awareness and support.”
For more information on how you can #ShowYourGrit please visit www.JohnWayne.org.
Jeremy Morrison – Staff Writer
Co-creator/host of the Acid Pop Cult Podcast, film reviewer, screenwriter, Jeremy has more than eight years experience in television and film production. His childhood fascination with the naked breasts featured in the “Friday the 13th” franchise prepared him for absolutely nothing in life. J-Mo lives by one motto: #wecantallbezacksnyder
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.