A couple semesters ago I was lucky enough to have accidentally signed myself up for a Western Cinema class. I was hesitant at first, being someone who was never particularly enthralled by the streamlined construction that most Westerns follow so closely, but I ended up falling in love with these dark-horse type protagonists and damsels in distress that were so often screened in my class.
Because of this, upon reading John Wayne’s America, I couldn’t help but compare the striking differences in the type of Star John Wayne was and is, and the way he is held in our hearts as Americans, to the types of roles he so often took on as a protagonist in Western Cinema. Willis notes how most of the stars who transcend time like Wayne did are “Young, Rebellious, and deviant (Willis).” He goes on to talk about how “Cult loves shadow, and theirs is a mysticism of the dark, of troubled youth and neuroses (Willis).” This quote is what brought me to considering Wayne’s type of stardom against that of a typical western hero. Your typical Western Hero is one who comes out of the darkness to perform a task in the light. He is mysterious, he has an air about him that can only cause one to assume he has a dark past, and he does not warm your heart in the way a typical American Hero might. These similarities in the typical American star and the typical western star are striking, and even more interesting when compared to Wayne.
Wayne is a star who transcends time, even after his death he is deeply loved by Americans as one of our favorite celebrities of all time. Willis notes how Wayne was not a young star; he reached his peak in his forty’s and was seen almost as an authority figure. I find it interesting that someone who is constantly playing the dark, mysterious western hero who is often violent can be seen as such a symbol of true, standup Americanism. It seemed Wayne carried an air of leadership. This is a quality that is hard to pinpoint where it comes from, and how it translated from the Silver Screen into our hearts and minds. Willis attributes this to the fact that Wayne seemed invincible to his fans, and even when his character was not so trustworthy, we wanted root for him as such. Wayne is powerful, he is large in stature, he is cool under pressure, he is simply someone men want to be, and women want to be with. I think this persona is how he was able to create his own persona after being pigeonholed into playing your typical western protagonist.
Willis then compares him to Michelangelo’s David, which really personifies John Wayne as a star to me. Both have an air of authority, and both are permanent entities of celebrity that will always carry a sense of notoriety and strength. This sense of permanence and power are something that David and Wayne exemplify more than other figures in the arts.