Marlon Brando is not the quintessential American male movie star. That honor belongs to John Wayne. John Wayne was a shrewd actor who carefully manufactured his on screen persona. For many, Wayne represents the All-American WASP, yet he was of Irish descent and a Roman Catholic. Most of the B western actors had a favorite horse. In his B western beginnings, Wayne had the horse Duke, yet he disliked horses, preferred slacks and dinner jacket to western duds, wore a toupee through most of his career, and felt more at home on his boat than he ever did on a ranch.
In addition to being the archetypal cowboy, Wayne represented the ideal American soldier, yet he never served a day in the military. When the second World War broke out in 1941, many of Wayne’s contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda, all enlisted. These actors were already established as “A” list stars in 1941. Even with Stagecoach (1939) behind him Wayne was not yet secure in his career and still languished in numerous “B” films. Wayne saw this as a golden opportunity, while the competition was away, to grab the number one spot, and he did just that. It was less a case of draft dodging, and more a calculating career move, one for which John Ford would relentlessly needle him ever after. The war interrupted the careers of numerous actors, such as George Reeves, who seemed to be on the way up, but had not yet established themselves in a large enough body of “A” productions. Upon his return, Reeves and many others found they had been virtually forgotten while they were away, never to regain their previous career position, let alone surpass it. So much for studio patriotism towards its contract players.
Wayne symbolized American virtue, yet he had countless affairs with married women. Some maintain he was racist. In a 1971 interview he made naive and blatantly ignorant remarks about African Americans and Native Americans, yet he enjoyed working with African American co-stars, and was drawn to native American spirituality, an interest on display in his film Hondo (1953), produced and distributed by Wayne’s own production company. Fellow star Jimmy Stewart was far more inclined to pronounced racist views. Wayne married three Mexican women and bedded many more of them. He was a rabid anti-communist during the cold war. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks saw the film High Noon (1952) as anti-American and both saw to it that scriptwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted; Wayne bragged about that until the end of his life, yet Wayne also encouraged Hollywood to forgive and forget regarding Larry Parks’ communism. Despite his republican leanings, Wayne began as a socialist and later sided with Jimmy Carter in giving back of the Panama Canal, much to the chagrin of fellow Republicans. Wayne’s response was, “We promised to do so and we should keep our word.”