The Duke

Like many folks this winter I found myself sick with a bug and low-grade fever that didn’t want to let go. When you are really feeling under the weather, about all you want to do is watch movies. In addition to a boatload of comedies, I found myself drawn to John Wayne films. Each one was dramatic and interesting without being heart-wrenching, demonstrating the power of perseverance and the American spirit, while having comedic moments and ultimately (and always) satisfying endings without being predictable.

Born in May 1907 as Marion Mitchell Morrison, John Wayne acquired the nickname “Duke” early in life because he never went anywhere without his dog Duke. Wayne preferred the nickname to Marion, and so it stuck. His politics were controversial, especially in the 1960s climate, but even those completely opposed to his politics couldn’t help loving his films. In 1969, radical Abbie Hoffman said in Time magazine, “I like Wayne’s wholeness, his style. As for his politics…” So whether you agree or disagree with his politics, all sides seem to concur that he stands for an ideal we all like. And his films are timeless and irresistible.

Wayne has a signature style composed of his walk, his voice, his size, and his very presence on the screen. His characters are tough yet sensitive and very human; they are noble and honest and embody the American ideology of the free-minded, free-spirited man. “To live free or die” would surely have been the motto of Wayne’s characters. In the original script of The Shootist, he was supposed to shoot a man in the back, but Wayne rejected the script saying that his character would never do that even to a “bad guy”. I agree; neither Wayne himself nor one of his characters would ever shoot a man in his back … and this is one of the reasons we all love The Duke.

In 1969, Wayne won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Rooster Coghurn in True Grit. He was nominated three times in his career, but this would be his only win. The American Film Institute named Wayne 13th among the greatest American male film stars of all time, and when you begin watching his films, I am confident you’ll agree with that listing.

I’m partial to his westerns because of their rich interwoven fabric of story, setting, and history. Here are some of my favorites that can be found in OWL’s collection:

Rio Bravo (1959) co-stars Dean Martin (also one of my favorite actors – and singers) as an alcoholic in need of Sheriff John Wayne’s help. After cleaning up Martin, Wayne sets out with the help of his now sober friend to clean up the town. This is often listed as one of the top westerns of all time, and I agree. And you will, too.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) is another John Wayne-Dean Martin film. Here, four brothers are reunited when they return home for the funeral for their murdered frontier mother. They band together to avenge her death with plenty of sibling rivalry along the way.

El Dorado (1966) includes another bigger-than-life star, Robert Mitchum. Wayne plays a hired gun who along with Mitchum’s drunken-sheriff character, finds himself on the wrong side of the law in a range war. With craft and wit, Wayne turns things around and gets the town, and the sheriff, back into shape.

The War Wagon (1967) is probably my favorite Wayne film and co-stars another of America’s greatest actors, Kirk Douglas. Full of great comedic moments and quirky characters woven into a compelling tale, Wayne brings together a diversely strange yet wonderful group of cowboys to take back his land and money from an unscrupulous and thieving land baron who, perhaps more importantly, sent him to jail for five years. War Wagon is a masterpiece of American western cinema.

True Grit (1969) follows the drunk, coarse, loyal, and fierce U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) as he reluctantly agrees to find the murderer of a young girl’s father. Skip the current remake that takes a wonderful drama with comedic moments and turns it into a hyperviolent bloodfest.

Chisum (1970) is based on a true story. John Wayne plays the cattle baron John Chisum who trys to protect his land and way of life against a ruthless land developer, played by the premiere character actor Forrest Tucker, in 1868 New Mexico. One thing is certain about greed: it is a timeless human trait.

In the wonderful film Big Jake (1971), our hero leads his Native American friend and his two sons on a journey to rescue his grandson from kidnappers. At times dramatic, sometimes lighthearted, and compelling from start to finish, Big Jake was directed by John Wayne and gives fans of The Duke a chance to watch his work on both sides of the camera.

The Train Robbers (1973) co-stars Ann-Margret as a widow of a train robber who enlists the help of three Civil War veterans (one being played by Wayne) to help her find the hidden loot and clear her son’s name.

The Shootist (1977) was Wayne’s last film and his most poignant. You can’t watch this film without a tear in your eye because here, art imitates life. Wayne plays a dying gunfighter who arrives to take board in the house of a widow (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard), hoping to spend his last few days of life in peace. The fatherless son finds a mentor in Wayne but his peace is short-lived as killers seek out Wayne for a final gunfight. Powerful, sad, and the final celluloid expression of this American giant, The Shootist is a most fitting final work of America’s most beloved cowboy.

~ Ann Marie

Ann Marie is the Library Director of the Oliver Wolcott Library and hopes to one day explore the Great American West of John Wayne (and John Ford).

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