The Legacy of John Wayne

On the 36th Anniversary of His Passing

By Robert Moeller Published on June 10, 2015

Tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.”
― John Wayne

The name of Marion Robert Morrison means little to most Americans. The name of John “Duke” Wayne still means a great deal to a lot of Americans — myself included.

The remarkable thing about it is that even those who have never seen a single frame from one of his 170 films know the name and the ruggedly western images it conjures up. Those at Fox Studios responsible for changing Marion Morrison’s name to John Wayne could never have dreamed of the impact that name and that man would have on popular culture for the next eighty-five years.

But it did. And he did.

And thirty-six years ago today, The Duke passed away in a room at the UCLA Medical Center here in Los Angeles.

The Quintessential American Cowboy

After recently reading Scott Eyman’s biography — John Wayne: The Life and Legend — I began to reflect on what sort of legacy the quintessential American cowboy left behind, and how it compares to the careers and popularity of modern celebrities. I must admit at the outset that I am biased when it comes to the topic of John Wayne. My nickname growing up was “Duke” because of my obsession with his movies. From the age of five, and like many young boys over the past 80 years, I wanted to be John Wayne when I grew up. I audited a class on the Western genre offered by Northwestern University’s film school one summer during college and was the only one who had seen every movie the professor had.

But the appeal of John Wayne, and the impact he had on our culture, goes beyond boyhood fantasies of riding horses around Monument Valley and participating in wild shoot-outs in front of the town saloon. It is broader than the internal desire nearly every man has to rescue the girl he loves from the bandits who captured her. It is more complex than the “Americans love winners” line that the more cynical among our cultural commentators say with a sneer at the rest of us.

John Wayne had the impact he did because his characters, more often than not, embodied the things we aspire to. They were noble. They were brave. They were self-reliant. They were sacrificial. And, more often than not, they brought wrongdoers to justice.

Those are powerful character traits, especially when presented in Technicolor.

Scott Eyman’s biography is very thorough and, on the whole, pretty fair. Apart from the palpable condescension in Eyman’s tone whenever revealing bits and pieces of Wayne’s conservative politics, the reader walks away with a detailed run-down of each year of John Wayne’s life and career. From his birth in small town Iowa, to his final days in the cancer ward at UCLA’s hospital, we are presented with a sweeping view of Duke Morrison’s time on this planet.

The battle over any famous man’s legacy after he is gone always involves an investigation into what he was like when the cameras and press were not around. Eyman chronicles the three failed marriages, the unsuccessful business ventures and the emotional brokenness Wayne dealt with throughout his seventy-two years.

Wayne’s mother was a horrible person who withheld affection from her eldest son and this impacted his self-confidence and ability to experience love. During WWII, Wayne was medically prohibited from serving in the military, but also took flack for not attempting to do more to get around those bureaucratic roadblocks (as many other brave soldiers did). He was ashamed of this for the rest of his days.

He had a nasty temper and dominating personality. He smoked like a chimney and drank like a sailor. He refused to change with the times in Hollywood and stubbornly made more than a few pictures that could have made more money for all involved if he had been a team player.

The Sort of Man We Want

Eyman reveals these things to give the reader a fuller portrait of the man most known for riding into town on a white horse to save the day. But, in my opinion, all of these things only make John Wayne more interesting and relatable. He was far from perfect in his personal life, but the ideals he pursued (and encouraged us to pursue) through his art were noble ones.

The obsession in modern Hollywood is to turn every hero into an anti-hero. This is not done simply to make on-screen characters “more interesting,” but to undermine the very notions of such concepts as objective truth and moral certitude. Good and evil often appear to be far too definite and concrete for contemporary artists to bother with. They want shades of gray to blanket everything.

But John Wayne found a way over the course of his career to communicate both the “realness” of life — warts and all — without diving into the deep abyss of moral relativism.

This is the sort of man I want riding into town to help me and my family ward off nefarious characters. I want someone who not only knows who the “bad guys” are, but is willing to help bring them to justice.

John Wayne lived an exciting life. He built an impressive career. He was very conscious of the impact that he could have on society through his films. He took chances. He was very loyal to his friends and respectful to his enemies. He had strong personal convictions about government and economics and used his platform to advocate for those convictions. He was grateful for everything he had. He would mentor young actors on the set and send flowers to a sick family member if someone he knew mentioned the illness to him.

The Duke’s impact and legacy are found in the things he pointed us toward, not the adherence to some perfect off-screen standard. He did, in fact, personify many of the qualities his on-screen characters portrayed, but not all of them. Who could?

American audiences have responded to John Wayne because he played men who wanted to do the right thing and had a moral code.

Many modern movie stars think that if they Instragram enough pictures of themselves walking in a charity 5K or driving in their smart car we will love and respect them in the same way we did (and do) The Duke. They think Ice Bucket Challenges will make up for the dark, sad, cynical anti-heroes they choose to portray.

Ain’t gonna happen, Pilgrim.

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