John Wayne’s 100th birthday, just before Memorial Day, invited a bit of reflection. I acknowledge a seeming discontinuity here: reflection; John Wayne. The Duke wasn’t about reflection, was he? He was about action. Wasn’t he?
I’m not so sure about that.
Well, yeah, in a John Wayne picture we viewers got our due share of bang-banging, wham-whamming, and so on. Still, I want to suggest another way of watching, or just thinking about, the Duke’s long string of movies, and thus thinking about the big guy’s enduring importance.
We could start by observing that, one way or another, most moviemakers are into action these days — the bloodier the better. It brings in — you know — the male demographic, ages 13 to 30. If we want to disentangle "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" from "Kill Bill" or "Taxi Driver," let us talk about models for living instead of for dying. When you went to a John Wayne movie, you weren’t going to see a classic villain or a sleaze or a comically ambiguous creep. You were going to see the leading man enact dignity and valor and honor. He was, most of the time, going to do the right thing for the right reasons — in ways the audience understood more or less intuitively.
A John Wayne movie gave visual sweep and context to ideals easily less popular now than before the upheavals of 40 years ago. This made the Duke somehow a valuable social and cultural influence.
We normally don’t pretend that actors are the people they portray. The Duke, for all his red-blooded patriotism and personal geniality, was no more a plaster saint than were 99.999 percent of his fans. And yet, when he suited up — in Marine camouflage, in cavalry blouse and galluses, in double-breasted Western shirt and wide-brimmed hat — he gave us more than a peep at what we needed to see, for our own good and, sometimes, the country’s.
We needed then and need now to inspect duty and courage close up, sitting erect in the saddle. We need to be shown what it’s like to do the right thing against large, sometimes fatal, odds. In "The Alamo," a movie he sacrificed financially to make, the Duke, as Davy Crockett, set forth what could be called a credo for the brave: "to feel useful in this old world, to hit a lick against what’s wrong, or to say a word for what’s right, even though you get walloped for saying that word." Imagine Jack Nicholson or Matt Damon imparting such a sentiment!
Cinematically, "The Alamo" was no great shakes. Morally, at least, it soared. A man does the best he can and lets the rest take care of itself — or so the Duke, speaking for himself, might have drawled.
It was John Wayne’s good fortune, and ours, that he teamed so often with director John Ford — another flawed gem who could sparkle in the right light. The great Ford understood folly and pride well enough to understand, additionally, how bravery could transcend and eclipse them. "Stagecoach," "They Were Expendable," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "The Quiet Man," and so on — the Wayne-Ford catalog more than entertains. It affirms in highest degree not a few of the highest human attributes. Seeing them, you feel good. You might even, if caught unawares, go away feeling redeemed.
We look on today in some wonder. Such were the ideals of conduct Way Back When? Truth-telling in preference to excuse-making? Comradeship valued more than backstabbing? You wonder, idly, how we got where we got in latter years.
Still, you say, it was fiction. Was it? The highest function of fiction is the telling of truth and the exhibition of the good things that go with truth and make possible lives of dignity, not to mention grace.
As for Duke Wayne, he showed us — provided we were paying attention. A happy 100th to the big guy.