The Duke at 100

We just had a couple of big anniversaries. Friday marked 30 years since the original Star Wars (now renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) premiered and altered the film industry. And Saturday was John Wayne’s 100th birthday. I’ll skip Star Wars and talk about the Duke.

Bay Area cinephiles don’t give John Wayne much respect. How bad is this? Let me put it this way. Last January, Bay Area theaters gave me four opportunities to tell you that I find Vertigo wildly overrated. But in 2½ years of maintaining, I’ve only had one such opportunity to criticize The Searchers.

As far as John Wayne films I actually like, in that time no local theater I know of has screened Stagecoach, Red River, Fort Apache, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Pacific Film Archive screened Rio Bravo once.

Yet few stars shined as brightly. When he strode into the frame with that manly-yet-graceful walk, he commanded the camera. He came across as a strong yet fair man, and as both a drinking buddy and a true friend who would watch your back. And on occasion, he could dig down into the dark side of his persona to play a complex and frightening anti-hero.

Why do so many of us hate John Wayne? Three reasons, none of them really fair:

He was a reactionary. Yes, he was a right-wing Republican who enthusiastically supported the anti-Communist blacklist and publicly attacked Viet Nam-era draft dodgers. (The later stance also makes him a hypocrite, what we today call a chicken hawk, as he avoided service during World War II to concentrate on his career.)

But his politics were no more right-wing than James Stewart’s, who we don’t usually vilify. By the 1970’s, Wayne was publicly defending rioting students on the grounds that the college administrators were interfering with the students First Amendment rights. And you can’t dismiss a white man who married three Mexican women as a simple bigot.

Besides, if we judge an artist solely on his politics, are we that different from the blacklisters?

He couldn’t act; he just played himself over and over again. He didn’t actually play himself. Could you imagine any John Wayne character starting every workday putting on makeup? His onscreen persona was a carefully crafted illusion. He had to learn how to ride a horse, fire a gun, and even, by his own admission, say “ain’t.”

But the “couldn’t act” charge is understandable. He was a movie star for nearly 20 years before giving his first complex performance in Red River. And he gave precious few after that, preferring to stick to a persona he was comfortable with. But when the script called for it and the director demanded it, Wayne could shade that persona with variety and complexity, creating real characters who were still “John Wayne.”

He made a lot of bad films. Guilty as charged. He stared in something like 150 features between The Big Trail (1930) and The Shootist (1976). Most of them were dreadful. He spent most of the 1930’s churning out B westerns that inspire more unintentional laughter than intentional thrills. Once he became a big star who could choose his projects, he stuck largely to what was safe and easy.

Luckily, he wasn’t consistent about that. Wayne knew he owed much of his success to directors John Ford (who saved him from B pictures) and Howard Hawks (who made him not just a major star but the major star), and he understood the virtue of loyalty. Even when Ford and Hawks needed Wayne more than he needed them, he would take any part they offered.

Thanks to those relationships, Wayne made a handful of great films, and it’s for these that he should be remembered and celebrated.

If you’re not familiar with Wayne at his best, rent some of these on DVD (or hope they come to a revival house near you): Stagecoach, Fort Apace, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Others would include The Quiet Man and The Searchers on this list,.