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Saturday was the 100th birthday of John Wayne. He may be gone, but I think it’s ok to go right on counting. Whether he’s still with us or not, John Wayne’s legend lives on. He was a true American icon, and on this weekend of barbecue and patriotism, I can’t think of any actor more appropriate to talk about.
He was born Marion Robert Morrison, on film he was known as John Wayne, but to his fans he’ll always be the Duke. He started working in movies before sound back in the 20s, but he was a Hollywood superstar for an incredible more than 30 year run between the 40s and the 70s. The Duke made an incredible 171 movies, his first being an uncredited performance in the 1926 movie Brown of Havard and his last the 1976 film The Shootist.
His career was littered with classics like The Searchers, Hondo and True Grit. He won a Best Actor Oscar in 1969 for True Grit, and he probably passed up another one by refusing to star in 1949’s All the King’s Men because he thought the script was un-American. For some people, it’s Clint Eastwood that embodies the American cowboy but for me it’s always been John Wayne. Rio Bravo remains my all time favorite western, and the film has become sort of a template for a certain type of western filmmaking over the years. If you’re watching a good western, there’s a good chance they’re copying at least part of it, and there’s an even better chance that while making it, at least someone was thinking of John Wayne.
Wayne was more than just westerns though. He’s brilliant in The Quiet Man, another of his collaborations with director John Ford, but also a major step outside the norm for Wayne. The film is the story of a disgraced American boxer who retired to Ireland and falls in love with a beautiful, poor, and fiery tempered Irish maiden played by the great Maureen O’Hara. His performance is one of subtlety and restraint. Like so many of his characters, Sean Thorton is a man who says little, but has a torrent of emotion going on beneath the surface.
More than any other actor in the history of Hollywood, it is perhaps fair and proper to call John Wayne a true American legend. For an entire generation he embodied real American spirit, and he took that role seriously. He died of stomach cancer in 1979, and though his grave was initially unmarked it now bears a quote from Wayne’s interview with Playboy: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”