In Gary Wills' piece, "John Wayne's America," Wills compares John Wayne to Michelangelo's early 16th century marble sculpture, "The David." Having learned about this masterpiece and seen it in person, I think this description could not be any more fitting. These images are quite similar both in what they represent and how they look. The David was created as political propaganda for the republic of Florence as an anti Medici symbol that represented quiet strength and protection. As Wills notes, Michelangelo created a "counterpoised position of tension and relaxation" which shows David ready for any opposition, but also confident in himself and the republic. Similarly, in his Westerns, John Wayne often strikes this contrapposto pose where his weight is shifted to one side indicating potential motion. Just like David, he stares into the distance at the enemy, who in this case might be the enemies of Vietnam or American exceptionalism.
Perhaps it might have been more threatening to see a John Wayne or David with their respective rifle and slingshot raised and at the ready, but Wills reminds us that "Wayne was always lightly weaponed and he didn't have to use it," which exudes more confidence than a man who is constantly on guard. The David has long been considered the sculpture of the perfect or ideal man partly because of his chiseled body and the popularity of John Wayne proves that with time, our concept of the ideal man has not changed much.
The David is similar to John Wayne in yet another way. David faced tremendous odds, as he was a small boy with a slingshot facing a giant. In John Wayne's films, he is attacked by tremendous opposition because, as Wills says, that is what is required to make his fight believable. "Opposing tremendous odds calls for a hypertrophy of musculature" but in the case of Wayne, his hypertrophy of musculature called for the creation of tremendous odds. Wayne and David exemplify how masculinity is associated with violence and dominance. Wills describes Wayne's walk as an "I own the world way of walking." This idea naturally makes it difficult for any man who isn't muscular to be considered masculine. The idea of a male being dominant also leads to the idea of female submission or delicateness which is a troubling idea. Or, if a woman walks with authority, she might be considered masculine.
Even more interesting is the fact that John Wayne's characters do not exist in real life but were nonetheless viewed as ideal male figures, ideals real men can never completely fulfill.