Special Report

Happy Birthday, Duke

Cowpoke turns 100 this Saturday.

By 5.24.07

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If the Duke had just taken better care of himself, like maybe not smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for decades, he would turn 100 on Saturday. For what he did both to entertain and to inspire us in his long movie career, he has certainly earned peaceful rest for Eternity. But we could sure use the old cowpoke today.

Marion Robert Morrison, who would later adopt the screen name John Wayne, entered this world at Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907. Who could have guessed that this child of the Midwest would become the nation's most popular actor, and perhaps the greatest explicator of America's best values? Values, which when we lived them, helped us defeat fascism, work our way out of the Great Depression, and build an economy and a way of life for the world to admire while remaining the strongest military power the world has ever seen.

Not too shabby for a country that began as an escape valve and dumping ground for a small band of cranky Puritans from England.

The Duke learned his craft in dozens of B westerns during the thirties. But after the success of Stagecoach in 1939, he was never far from number one in America's movie scorecard for the next three and a half decades. He was ranked in the top 10 box office attractions from 25 straight years. No other actor has come close to that.

Even now, almost 28 years after the Duke went to that great ranch-house in the sky, and long after his rock-ribbed conservative values and patriotism ceased being popular, even tolerated, in Hollywood, the Duke is still popular with regular walking-around Americans. TiVo's weekly list of the 10 most requested movie actors almost always includes the Duke. In 1999, a full 23 years after the Duke's last movie, The Shootist, a Reuters/Zogby poll found that the Duke and Katharine Hepburn were America's favorite movie actor and actress.

THERE'S LITTLE MYSTERY ABOUT the Duke's appeal. He worked hard at his craft. He had the God-given physique of a real hero. Some good scripts came his way, and he worked with gifted directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks. It also didn't hurt that his horse operas were beautifully filmed in America's physically spectacular Southwest. But beyond this, the characters the Duke played and the stories his movies told embody the bold and conservative values of America's salad days.

The Duke's movie soldiers and Marines and naval officers and cowboys were straight-forward, tough, honest, strong, reliable, brave, competent, hard-working, patriotic, and self-reliant before these qualities became un-PC. His movies were about good versus evil, and it didn't take a Ph.D. in ethics to see which was which, or which side the Duke was on. If the Duke ever encountered a nuance, he didn't waste much time on it.

Few public figures have fit their times better than the Duke fit his. But even at the peak of his popularity, liberal academics and journalists of the day didn't cotton to the Duke's work. His movies were a little much for elites, even back then. But while tony reviewers wrote sneeringly of the Duke's movies, Americans flocked to those same movies by the millions.

It's hard to guess how the Duke would be received today, or even if he could find work in contemporary Hollywood. There are plenty of red-blooded Americans who could make up a market for more of the Duke. But the values of the New York, Malibu bed-wetters pretty much have a lock on today's Hollywood. It's a legitimate question whether Hollywood would be big enough for both George Clooney and John Wayne.

It would be nice to see a real, full-service American hero like the Duke on the silver screen again. The current lot of leading men is pretty pallid by comparison. Show of hands, how many of you really believe in the likes of Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, or Val Kilmer as tough guys? Cowboys? These guys belong having a Cherry Garcia at Ben & Jerry's, not knocking off the trail dust with a straight shot at the Longhorn. Good grief, Val Kilmer would have to get a note from his mother to ride the range.

BUT THIS LINE OF SPECULATION is only good for conversation. The big guy is gone, God rest his soul. But his movies aren't. They still show up frequently on television and most are available to purchase. To take advantage of the considerable Wayne sentiment, likely to be stimulated by news stories of the centennial, Paramount is issuing "The John Wayne Century Collection" and Warner will release "The John Wayne Film Collection."

But even without these new editions, there are plenty of the Duke's movies on the market. It would be hard to find a better entertainment buy than some classic Duke such as: Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (my favorite), Sands of Iwo Jima, The Quiet Man, Hondo, Rio Bravo, The Horse Soldiers, In Harm's Way, True Grit, The Cowboys, Rooster Cogburn, The Shootist, et al.

The Duke's movies are action flicks and contain violence. But the violence is not gratuitous, it's always in furtherance of the plot, and in the name of good duking it out (excuse the expression) with evil. No spurting blood or exploding organs. Cowboys and Indians get shot and fall off their horses. There's the odd fist fight. That's about it. There's romance in the movies, and no attempt to suggest, as some fifties movies did, that sex doesn't exist. But the heavy breathing takes place off stage. Nothing in the Duke's movies that it would be difficult to explain to the kids.

The Duke played military heroes on the screen, but he never served in the military for real. He was almost 35, married, and father of four when Pearl Harbor was attacked. So he wasn't called. But many family men in Hollywood older than the Duke signed up. The Duke felt guilty about his lack of World War II military service for the rest of his life. But he served his country in other ways. Well enough to be called a Great American by any standard.

So this Saturday, when the sun is finally below the yardarm, let's all hoist one for the Duke. Our number one cowboy, a great entertainer and a great American. Can you do that, Pilgrim?

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.