The U.S. Naval Academy
John Wayne, American, is all that is inscribed in the specially struck gold medal posthumously awarded in 1980 by an act of Congress to the legendary actor who rode and shot his way to fame in such classic westerns as Stagecoach, The Searchers, Red River, True Grit, and The Shootist. It aptly describes the man whom several generations of Americans have idolized, seeing in him the embodiment of what they believed a true American should be: strong, dignified, straightforward, fiercely independent.
People have found it impossible to distinguish his screen persona from his private image: whatever his role, John Wayne always acted as himself. His staying power at the box office years after his prime attests to enduring public devotion despite controversies spawned by his conservative views. In this paper, focus will be made on why John Wayne is an American icon, trace his rise to fame, and discuss his relevance and significance to American culture. A descendant of Scottish, English, and Irish pioneers who migrated to America before the Civil War, John Wayne was born Marion Michael Morrison on May 26, 1907 at Winterset, Iowa.
His father, Clyde Morrison was a handsome man who worked as a pharmacist clerk, while his mother, “vivacious, red-haired, blue-eyed” Mary Brown “had a hot temper and a strong will. ” Having a girl’s name made Marion a target of bullies, and early in his life he learned to fight back. His mother scolded him for making trouble while his father praised him for his bravery. “Don’t go looking for fights,” said Clyde, “but if you find yourself in one, make damn sure you win” (Wayne 7-8). The son would remember this advice and later make it the underlying theme in nearly all his films.
When Clyde was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the Morrisons moved to an 80-acre homestead on the edge of the Mojave Desert near Palmdale, California. In this rugged country, Marion learned to ride horses and shoot game from his father who was a good hunter. When Clyde recovered, the family moved to Glendale, California where young Marion got a job delivering newspapers. Local firemen who noticed the lanky lad started calling him “Big Duke” after his pet Airedale, to the boy’s delight.
He convinced his parents to call him by his new nickname, and from that time on, he was “Duke” to everyone except his mother who did not like him being named after a dog (Wayne 15). Duke performed well in high school despite having to work delivering newspapers early in the morning and making deliveries for a local store after his classes to augment the family income. As a junior he was elected class president and staff member of the school paper. In his senior year he was an all-A student, chaired several committees in the campus, and was the school’s top football player. He was class salutatorian at graduation.
He was a model young American. Duke wanted to join the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis but was denied admission. He was, however, granted a football scholarship by the University of Southern California. In the summer after his first year at USC, Duke found a job as swing man, moving props around the film set. Here he had a chance encounter with John Ford, one of Hollywood’s top directors at that time. During a shooting lull, Ford noticed the tall, good-looking Duke, and upon finding out he was a football player, dared the younger man to tackle him; Duke obliged and sent the director flying.
The incident was a prelude to a lasting friendship between them and the emergence, years later, of John Wayne as one of America’s enduring legends. Duke’s first bid for stardom arrived in 1930 while the country suffered from the Great Depression and movie companies made serious budget cutting measures. Director Raoul Walsh, hoping to economize, was hunting for an unknown to play the lead role of a wagon-train scout in The Big Trail when he noticed Duke. He was told to let his hair grow for a couple of weeks.
After that, he underwent a series of screen tests. Walsh was impressed by Duke’s screen image, as well as his voice. He also liked the fact that Duke could ride and shoot like the best of them. Duke got the role, but there was one other matter that bothered Walsh: Marion Morrison seemed an unlikely name for an action star. Thinking of a name on the spot, Walsh came up with “John Wayne. ” Excited at the prospect of being a lead actor, Duke agreed that it sounded American. Thus was born the screen legend who was to became a household name for many decades.