In his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Southern California, John Wayne (yes, that John Wayne) planned to be a lawyer.
I’ll wait here while you think about that one.
Yes, it is chilling to think how close we came to losing the most popular actor in the history of cinema, and the man who almost single-handedly defined America during the grandest and gaudiest chapters of our history.
Imagine, if you can, Sergeant John M. Stryker (Sands of Iwo Jima) reviewing ground leases. Try to picture Captain Nathan Brittles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) advising some Southern California Babbitt on tax matters, or one-eyed Rooster Cogburn writing writs rather than serving them in his vigorous but charming pre-Miranda style.
But thanks to perhaps the most fortunate shoulder injury in history, Wayne (still Marion Michael Morrison then) lost a football scholarship to USC. So the republic lost a lawyer and America gained a cultural icon and a fierce defender and explicator of its best values.
Hard to imagine how the Duke would be received today — nearly 25 years out from the day (June 12, 1979) he lost his long battle with cancer and went to that big ranch house in the sky. Picture the scene at the Pearly Gates: “Nice place you got here, Pete. Give the angels in the back what they want, on me. Don’t mind if I smoke do you, Pilgrim?”
But compared to what’s come along lately, I’d say the Gospel According to the Duke stands up pretty damn well.
THE CHARACTERS WAYNE played were tough, competent, self-reliant, honest, patriotic, and unapologetically masculine before these things became culturally passé — at least in elite circles. Just not the thing in a republic increasingly populated by what Joe Epstein (the John Wayne of essayists) calls passive non-aggressives.
Most of the Duke’s movies are morality plays. They feature a struggle between good and evil — made as they were back when most everyone believed there were such things — and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in ethics to see which is which.
In the Duke’s screen stories men are men, women are women, and horses are horses — and with any luck the cowboy kisses the right one. The bad guys don’t get a public defender and aren’t allowed to plead public sodomy down to following too closely. There are no anger management counselors, and gun control means hitting what you aim at.
No art and angst, just good, strong stories that entertain and make sense. Are you beginning to see why the Duke’s flicks give most movie critics and professors the vapors?
In Wayne’s movies, America is a great country: flawed as any country made up of fallen human beings must be, but still great and worth loving and defending. Characters don’t spend much time in church, but they are respectful of God. There’s romance in these movies, but all the heavy breathing takes place off stage. Such violence as there is — always in service of the plot — is never overdone or lingered over in slow-mo.
In other words, the Wayne’s movies are the very soul of political incorrectness. Just about every charge in the post-modernist penal code is somewhere in the Duke’s oeuvre (a word he would never use – I’m not even sure he knew men could have oeuvres).
THE PROFESSORS AND THE critics may scoff, but most of the American theater-going public still loves John Wayne. In a 1999 Zogby poll — 20 years after the Duke passed on and 23 years after his last movie, The Shootist — Americans chose him as their favorite actor of the 20th Century.
The Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee has taken notice. The 15-member citizen body that decides who will be honored on commemorative stamps chose the Duke for the 2004 entry of the Legends of Hollywood Commemorative series.
The 37-cent stamp bearing a likeness of the Wayne in a cowboy hat will be available to the public later this summer. It was unveiled April 3 at the Odyssey Ball, a private fundraising gala for the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica. Previous Legends of Hollywood stamps carry the likeness of folks the Duke would likely consider good company — Cary Grant, Bogie, Lucille Ball, Audrey Hepburn — and others he would as soon not have a drink with, like that rebel without a clue James Dean.
Guys like me, who came up learning at least as much about what being a man and being an American was about from the Duke’s movies as we did from anywhere else, have always known that he was first class. We don’t need a postal committee and government bureaucrats to make it official. But we don’t mind that they get one right once in a while.