A recent Harris poll gave the names of America’s ten most popular movie stars. Every actor on the list was alive and working—except for the one who hadn’t made a movie since 1976: John Wayne. It didn’t surprise the pollsters; Wayne has made this Harris list every year since 1964. But it might surprise younger movie fans who wonder why the Duke’s popularity has outlived those of his contemporaries such as Bogart, Brando, Grant, and Gable.
Partly it was his roles. Wayne always played heroes who showed integrity, fairness, and courage—virtues prized by a generation that had confronted a depression, a world war, and a cold war. But it was also his talent for giving these roles credibility. His gestures, his walk, his speech—whether on- or off-screen—all seemed to intensify his heroic charisma.
No less a writer than Joan Didion (renowned “new journalist” and author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem) felt this charisma. She and Wayne had first met in 1943 when he was a cowboy in a black-and-white two-reeler and she was a nine-year-old kid on a sun-baked air base where movies were the only entertainment. She described their meeting for the Post in “John Wayne: A Love Song.”
In the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater… while the hot wind blew outside… I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, “at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.”
I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.
In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders. “Let’s ride,” he said, and “Saddle up.” “Forward ho,” and “A man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do.” “Hello, there,” he said when he first saw the girl, in a construction camp or on a train or just standing around on the front porch waiting for somebody to ride up through the tall grass.
Didion wrote those words in 1965 after visiting Wayne on a movie set. In person, he seemed larger than life while giving the impression of a decent, unassuming guy.
There was Wayne, in his 33-year-old spurs, his dusty neckerchief, his blue shirt.”You don’t have too many worries about what to wear in these things,” he said. “You can wear a blue shirt, or, if you’re down in Monument Valley, you can wear a yellow shirt.”
There was Wayne, in a relatively new hat, a hat which made him look curiously like William S. Hart. “I had this old cavalry hat I loved, but I lent it to Sammy Davis. I got it back, it was unwearable. I think they all pushed it down on his head and said, “O.K. John Wayne. You know, a joke…”
(That hat, and several others, went up for auction this past week in Los Angeles, as Wayne’s family finally acceded to fan’s request to purchase some of their father’s movie memorabilia.)
Didion also noted several moments of pure, unrehearsed “Duke.” For example, when Michael Anderson, a young member of the cast, was given his own chair with his name on the back, he hurriedly brought it to Wayne’s attention.
“You see that?” Anderson asked Wayne, suddenly too shy to look him in the eye. Wayne gave him the smile, the nod, the final accolade. “I saw it, kid.”
There was also the moment when the crew, during a lunchtime break, discussed what they’d do to anyone who threatened their lives.
[Director Henry] Hathaway removed the cigar from his mouth. “Some guy just tried to kill me he wouldn’t end up in jail. How about you. Duke?”
Very slowly, the object of Hathaway’s query wiped his mouth, pushed back his chair, and stood up. It was the real thing, the authentic article, the move which had climaxed 1,000 scenes on 165 flickering frontiers and battlefields, and it was about to climax this one, in the commissary at Estudio Churubusco outside Mexico City.
“Right,” John Wayne drawled. “I’d kill him.”
Later, when Didion and her husband had dinner with Wayne and his family, she felt how his charm could fill an entire restaurant.
For a while it was only a nice evening, an evening anywhere. We had a lot of drinks, and I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s.
And then something happened. Suddenly the room seemed suffused with the dream, and I could not think why. Three men appeared out of nowhere, playing guitars. I watched Pilar Wayne lean slightly forward, and John Wayne lift his glass almost imperceptibly toward her… We all smiled, and drank… and all the while the men with the guitars kept playing, until finally I realized what they had been playing all along: “Red River Valley” and the theme from The High and the Mighty. They did not quite get the beat right, but even now I can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this…
In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever, but in any case existed no more—a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the sun.