Vintage Hunk: John Wayne

By: Mike McCrann

John Wayne was a huge star and has long been considered an American Icon. As an actor he may not be considered in the same league as Stewart, Fonda or Tracy, but some of his performances really do stand the test of time.

Marion Morrison was born in 1907 in Iowa. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 4. An early football scholarship to USC  was lost when he had a season ending injury. Bit parts in films followed with his first leading role in 1930's super western The Big Trail. But this flop film only sent him back to small parts and serial westerns for the rest of the decade. In 1939 Wayne was given a second chance at stardom when legendary director John Ford gave him the lead in the epic Stagecoach. This time Wayne did become a star and spent the rest of the decade (no World War 2 participation for this icon!) in a string of hits. Most of these films were mediocre, but Howard Hawks gave him Red River and John Ford came to the rescue again with Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. Wayne was excellent in all three films and while his performances were ignored at the time, many critics today think Wayne reached his acting zenith. Wayne got his first Oscar Best Actor nomination for the patriotic Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949.

Unfortunately the 50's brought out all of John Wayne's right wing tendencies. A virulent anti-communist, John Wayne helped HUAC in their purge of "liberal" Hollywood artists. Acting wise this was Wayne's decade.

In John Ford's The Quiet Man (gorgeously filmed in color in Ireland) and The Searchers, Wayne gave probably his two greatest performances. The Searchers - now considered the preeminent American Western - was just another popular hit in 1956. But John Wayne playing a racial bigot determined to find and kill his niece (Natalie Wood) kidnapped and raised by Indians gives a towering performance that did deserve an Oscar.

The epic The High and The Mighty was also a huge hit that started the Airplane disaster film cycle. John Wayne sailed into the 60s and still was a box office star. In 1969 Hollywood startled him and the world by giving him the Best Actor Academy award against stiff and more deserving competition. But this award was pretty much a thank you for a long and popular career.

John Wayne's later years included more right wing support of the war in Vietnam including the ghastly film he directed The Green Berets.

John Wayne was married three times and had seven children. He died of cancer in 1979 at the age of 72.

John Wayne received every civilian honor this country had to offer. While one might not be able to reconcile the actor with his politics, John Wayne starred in a number of masterpieces - all of them directed by John Ford.

Whatever you think of "the Duke" check out The Searchers. The film is classic and John Wayne gives a performance for the ages.