It’s an absurdly incomplete image, but we are vulnerable to it—for it’s that image, not Great Western, that Wayne is really selling. He seems to have taken one last opportunity to connect himself and us to a heroically decent America we can neither rationally credit nor emotionally surrender. As we listen to what is by now a kitsch-mythic voice, whatever Wayne might have shown us about the country and ourselves stiffens, as if, as a legend—the man who, on screen or off, stands tall, certain in the knowledge that he is always right, waiting quietly to make his move—he were already the freeze-frame we will get at the close of the tributes that will appear on each network the day after he dies.
Because Wayne’s legend has become encrusted with the myths he has acted out (or maybe vice versa), it’s no longer satisfying to ask what, as a kind of statue-in-waiting, John Wayne means. We can do better looking for the psychological and historical territory he has explored and others have avoided. This is wild, unsettled, unsettleable territory: almost a blank spot on the map of Wayne’s career as the media floats it before our eyes, but also the site of his greatest and most frightening triumphs—triumphs so frightening, in fact, it’s as if Wayne’s legend has taken shape and been accepted precisely to exclude those moments, to render them invisible.
The Wayne we know best is the Wayne of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959), a perfectly focused version of a persona that consistently develops from Stagecoach (1939, directed by John Ford) to Dark Command (1940, Raoul Walsh) to Back to Bataan (1945, Edward Dmytryk) to Fort Apache (1948, Ford) to The Quiet Man (1952, Ford) to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961, Ford). This Wayne is not remotely a cartoon. In Rio Bravo, as John Chance, a sheriff holding a prisoner against great odds and slowly coming to accept the help he needs, Wayne acts out a toughness that is inseparable from his restraint. When he’s arrogant, or even wrong, you’re utterly convinced he’s earned the right to be so. This is a man who has truly learned, and is still learning. He—the sheriff, but also Wayne the actor, Wayne the representative man—has invented and discovered himself out of necessity and out of curiosity about life. His natural superiority, and his unmistakable menace—his readiness to kill his enemies, his honest belief that some people don’t deserve to live—is redeemed from cynicism by open humor, which keeps the character alive. This John Wayne is flawed just sufficiently to be wholly admirable, and he leaves behind an overwhelming, almost fated sense of moral symmetry: nothing so hard as justice, more like fairness.What makes the John Wayne of Rio Bravo so convincing is that he does not take his role for granted. Underneath the assurance and experience he must communicate, he is feeling out the role moment to moment—constantly judging himself and others, weighing choices, posing moral alternatives and, once he has acted, sanctifying his actions by agreeing with them.
I don’t mean simply that as a mature actor Wayne betrays no distance between himself and his character, or that he loses himself in his role. He doesn’t. Rather, the distance between Wayne as an individual and the role he is playing is always present, and, over and over again, you can see him close it.
This is an extraordinarily intense style of performance—and within the basically smooth good guys vs. bad guys matrix of most good John Wayne movies, that intensity is not as threatening as it probably ought to be. The moral uncertainties that push to the surface as Wayne the man sanctions what his character must do are easy to miss, or forget. If Wayne’s films dramatize a heroically decent America, then their essence is the story of how the hero achieves decency and passes it on to others, and the ultimate outcome is not in doubt. It’s when the same style of performance is brought to bear in much rougher territory that the heroically decent America comes unglued, and Wayne emerges as an actor less easy to track.
If in other movies Sheriff Wayne is, to take a figure from Moby Dick, Starbuck armed—the god-fearing man acting forcefully within limits—then in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948) and John Ford’s The Searchers Wayne is plainly Ahab. He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honor and decency burned down to a core of vengeance. This Wayne is better than other men not in a social sense—because someone must do society’s dirty work; because he has a stronger idea of right and wrong—but for his own dark reasons. The sin of pride is all mixed up with a bitter, murderous defiance, and before our eyes Wayne changes from a man with whom we are comfortable into a walking Judgment Day, ready to destroy the world to save it from itself.
In both Red River and The Searchers, the main action gets underway in Texas after the Civil War. In The Searchers, Wayne plays Ethan Edwards; still wearing the pants from his Confederate uniform, he returns to his Texas relatives under a cloud so heavy thunder seems to be breaking over his head as he enters their house. The family is soon wiped out by Comanches—except for Edwards’s young niece, who is abducted. Edwards sets out with his adopted nephew to find her; five years later, after searching from Canada to Mexico, he does. But by then she is a woman, no longer innocent, defiled by the Comanche chief under whose hand she has lived, and we realize that what Edwards has gained from his long search is the knowledge that he will have to kill her, and the will to do it.
In Red River, Wayne plays Tom Dunson, cattleman. His adopted son returns from the war to find the Dunson ranch on the verge of bankruptcy; Dunson decides to risk everything and take his ten thousand head of cattle to the new markets in Missouri. No one has ever made this drive before. The trek begins with exhilaration, but it’s not long before Dunson is pushing his men too hard. Discipline begins to crack; Dunson bears down harder. He refuses advice from men he’s trusted most of his life, takes to the bottle, sleeps with a gun, and, in a truly staggering coincidence, if that is what it is, slowly and surely begins to look like another Texan—the embattled Lyndon Johnson, fighting off quitters and cowards as he struggled to hold on to his war and his sanity. *
The whole camp twitches with fear; finally, after a ruinous stampede, some men desert. Dunson has them brought back. They are prepared to be shot for stealing provisions, but in a horrifyingly determined moment Dunson announces he will hang them instead. Violating the code everyone understands, he will replace justice with sadism.
With this act, Dunson crosses over into territory where none will follow. Faced with rebellion, he goes for his gun, and it’s shot out of his hand; his son takes over the drive. Wounded, leaning against his horse like some forsaken god, Dunson is left behind, but not before swearing to chase down his son and kill him. The grandeur of the settings of these movies—the Red River as the huge herd enters it so gracefully, Monument Valley in The Searchers—ennobles their characters even as it dwarfs them. But as Edwards or Dunson, Wayne refuses to be either ennobled or dwarfed. He has other business. As the conflict his characters insist on deepens, as they greet madness as a spell they have cast on themselves, their resistance seems to encompass not only the actions of others, but the natural scale of things. If Ethan Edwards gazed too long on the wonders of the country through which he pursues his niece, he might realize that his quest was, in some essential way, beside the point. And so, like Ahab, who is softened when he contemplates the beauty and the vastness of the sea, and thus turns away from it, Edwards accepts no messages from god.We are a long way from the prosaic troubles of Rio Bravo. We are in a country where final, elemental murders can take place, and Edwards and Dunson have vowed that they will. That Edwards does not kill his niece or Dunson his son takes little if any of the edge off: Wayne’s performances are terrifying because he has, as an individual, accepted the choices of his characters.
Shot by shot in The Searchers and Red River, you understand that Wayne is judging the motives and actions of his characters and finding them correct, necessary—satisfying. With a thousand details of expression, inflection, carriage—the tiredness of Dunson leaning on his horse, Edwards’s revulsion when he sees how years of Indian captivity have turned two white women into gibbering lunatics—Wayne conveys to his audience the hard reality that were he thrown into the situations his characters face, he would act as they do, or hope for the strength to do so. That these situations are horrible—not heroic but a perversion of heroic possibility—lets us see the oddity of Wayne’s way of acting them out. Very few actors enter such desperate, psychologically catastrophic crises, and when they do they protect themselves. They overact, distancing themselves and their audience from the action, or they underact and convey reservation. Or, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or Al Pacino in the Godfather movies, they lose themselves in their roles and thus as individuals really do get lost—they can’t be seen. In the imagination of the audience, they aren’t culpable for what their characters do.
Wayne watches the action unfold even as he carries it forward; you can feel him thinking as he moves. He doesn’t throw himself into his role, he edges into it, step by step, until he comes out the other side.
In Short Letter, Long Farewell, Peter Handke describes a scene from John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Lincoln, played by Henry Fonda, has agreed to defend two brothers accused of murder; a drunken mob arrives at the jail to lynch them, and Lincoln faces it down. He talks; he captures the drunks “by softly reminding them of themselves, of what they were, what they could be, and what they had forgotten. This scene—Lincoln on the wooden steps of the jailhouse, with his hand on the mob’s battering ram—embodied every possibility of human behavior. In the end, not only the drunks, but also the actors playing the drunks, were listening intently to Lincoln.” The scene is a cinematic miracle, but it is not complete: Henry Fonda does not listen to Lincoln. He simply plays him, and there is the difference. When Ethan Edwards speaks in The Searchers, or Tom Dunson in Red River—when their vows are made, and when they are taken back—John Wayne is listening to what they say.
* As Lawrence Wright wrote in 1988 in In the New World, after being driven from office by antiwar protesters and the North Vietnamese army Johnson “came home to Texas and let his hair grow down to his shoulders.” The symbolism of that line is bottomless. Was Johnson’s long hair the hair of the people who shouted him down? The men who died at the Alamo? George Custer? Regardless of whose it was, it was also that of Wayne’s Dunston; once he begins to crack his gray hair seems to lengthen by the day.