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“He was ugly, strong and had dignity”

John Wayne as “Ethan” in THE SEARCHERS

“John Wayne, when asked how he wanted to be remembered, replied:

‘Feo, Fuerte y Formal’
— (a Spanish proverb, meaning,
‘He was ugly, strong and had dignity’).”

Today is and was the birthday of “John Wayne,” otherwise known at his birth by the name of “Marion Robert Morrison.” He never changed his name, legally, to “John Wayne,” but the trade name (“John Wayne”) stuck with him — change and effect enough, apparently, just the way it was and how it happened. At least, that’s so as long as I think like Marion Robert Morrison about name changes, changed or otherwise — his decision to leave it the way it was, to let the personna be him and yet not reject his roots.

I live just a few miles, if that, from where John Wayne is buried. His resting place remained unmarked for about two decades due to his survivors’ fears his grave might be vandalized — I really can’t imagine who would or could ever do something like that but I’ve long since stopped wondering why there are people who do and have, so, I understand his family’s concerns.

The now-marked resting place of John Wayne is on a rolling hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, underneath the tallest tree grown large as it is after Wayne’s passing. That tall tree reaches over in offering of shade and gesture toward Wayne’s place, but, otherwise, there aren’t any floats or grandstands or banners or confetti, just a peaceful, graceful, grassy hill on a knoll overlooking the ocean and a copper plate as headstone now in place for the man who passed on to Heaven in 1979 at the age of 72. Pretty intense years of life for someone struck with both lung and stomach cancer, which were cause of Wayne’s eventual demise.

But, I don’t want to remember John Wayne today by how he died or where his body is buried or what did him in but on how he lived and who the man was. I grew up watching Wayne on Saturday morning television and the John Wayne presence in films was something I departed from as to any reverie as I left childhood. The work he did during his aging years — the best of what he accomplished in film — was lost on me as a teenager and in early adutlthood. There I was, approaching prime and there he was, approaching the end. Because of that, Wayne was a distant presence to me in my earlier adulthood, except for the early childhood years and now, also, during my middle-to-middle-later adult years when there are no barriers left in ability to read the person on screen and off. I’ve grown older enough to understand and appreciate Wayne’s artistry and character, and characterizations in film, what I’ve come to know about both, while he’s remained the same, pretty much fixed on screen and through the wonder of cinema, as he is now, certainly, fixed by finite time in his life path character in history. So, we’ve managed to meet in this middle place and I’m only now appreciative and awe struck by the man. That he is buried so close to where I now live is more than interesting to me as life paths go. I mean, this isn’t Hollywood — where historical and cinematic characters are interred in many memorial parks the area over — and the country is a big place, but here the two tangents meet. Not like there was a plan. At least, by me, about these tangents. Nor by anyone else other than, perhaps, the things that are mutual influences.

John Wayne lived his later adult years with his family, also only a few miles from where I now live, although Wayne’s home — a one-story, ten-room, white ranch house with a pool, at the tip of Bayshore Drive on the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach — has been raized in recent years by more wealthy folks who left nothing to mark the spot where Wayne lived and contributed to our world; the only notice of Wayne’s past residential presence in present times being the float-by broadcasts of various tour boat operators who announce the spot, the spot “where John Wayne used to live.”

His yacht, however, you can still rent for private use. The “Wild Goose,” is a refitted marine mine sweeper, where after the refitting and purchase, Wayne reportedly played poker with his pals, among which were Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart. I met Jimmy Stewart several times but was always too self aware to make much mention of anything, trying to ignore the elephant in the room out of concern for his moment, his privacy. My sister, however, when once visiting me in California in the mid 1980’s, actually ran up with a grin to Stewart at an event we attended and shook Stewart’s welcoming hand, then stood beside him — both my sister and Stewart beaming — for ensuing photos, then ran back to me, bubbling, “he LIKES it when people talk to him! He really LIKES it!” Hard to know what to do, in these days, and those. So, I wonder what I’d have ever done had I met John Wayne. Probably what I did when I met Jimmy Stewart: stand in awe and try to give the celebrity privacy.

But, about Wayne’s considerable, formidable presence in American cinema — using the nickname, “The Duke,” because he and his family had owned and loved a dog in his younger years by that name and Wayne adopted it for himself later in, I guess, ongoing affection for a lost pal — amazing what I’ve found out about the man, the person, known to us in this world as John Wayne, just by reading the Internet — I’ve found that having his films to view on DVDs brings his mammoth contributions as an artist and person into far greater focus.

“There’s right and there’s wrong,” Duke said in “The Alamo.” “You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you’re dead.”

It is from the films he made, that is how my heart and head know John Wayne. Most of my teen and mid adult life wasn’t spent appreciating John Wayne, the actor — I’ve written that earlier, I realize, and it was age and many cultural variations of Pacific Ocean proportions that created an interest-separation for me in for a time — but the early childhood years, watching Wayne on Saturday morning television, and later again, now having watched (and many times) most of his films, I appreciate and marvel about the man, the actor, the person of John Wayne, his legacy, his message, what he believed in and why, in present just as I did in far less complexity when a child before the Saturday morning television movies. And now, any political quandray in my adult years has to be reconciled with the John Wayne standard: any conflict there and I reconsider what it is I’m asserting, attempting to promote.

Wayne was a close friend of Ronald Reagan, about which for some John Wayne fans there are stumbling blocks to understanding. But, I can understand, within the context of both their lives at the times they knew one another, why these two would be friends, why Wayne would be present, when and where he was, those times, these people. It’s as if Wayne applied a standard, and the rest of humanity tried to measure up. Without John Wayne, no standard to measure by: the wind out of the sails, no Northern Star for navigation. Which is why I think things went so wrong just about then, when John Wayne passed on, in 1979.

Something happened to our country when John Wayne died: some significant ability to make definite meaning, to walk and talk at the same time, in the same direction, something wilted and was choked away, when Wayne died from our world and left our cinema.

What was lost was dignity. Not like Wayne would’ve wanted it that way.

John Wayne as “Ethan,” in the closing scene from “The Searchers,”
Directed by John Ford

Some words about the man:

Red River (1948) was not only an outstanding western (Howard Hawks’ first), it was a landmark in John Wayne’s career. New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote ‘[Howard Hawks] has got several fine performances…topped off by a withering job of acting boss-wrangler done by Mr. Wayne. This consistently able portrayer of two-fisted two-gunned outdoor men surpasses himself in this picture.'”

Some words by the man, some of Duke Wayne’s own comments about the picture (“Red River“):

“Stagecoach established me as a star. Red River established me as an actor. My problem after Stagecoach was I had to go back to Republic to make more standard western series for them. Then all the critics and know-it-alls jumped on my back and said Wayne was no good without Ford.

“The character I played was a direct steal from Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. But when I played that, I believed in my character, really believed everything he did was right. As a consequence he didn’t come off really as a heavy. Originally the part was an old man who falls apart, crying and getting all scared and cowardly, then the kid takes over….Hawks wanted to make me a blustering coward in this role.

“‘You’ll win an Academy Award,’ he said….But I knew that as a man gains more strength of character and more position in life he gets straighter backed and carries himself with a sort of nobility. So I played it as a strong man who was scared. After all, as a man you can be scared, but you can’t be a coward.”

Hear John Wayne (Real Media file, scroll), as Dunson in “Red River,” talking to the cowhands, on RealMedia (takes a minute to access — be patient, is worth the wait).

Some of the John Wayne films available on AMAZON.COM:

“John Wayne DVD Gift Set” (“The Shootist,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “True Grit,” “El Dorado,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”);

“The John Wayne Collection” (“The Cowboys,” “The Searchers,” “Stage Coach”);

“John Wayne Collection” (“Flying Tigers,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” “The Fighting Kentuckian,” “In Old California,” “Rio Grande”);

“The John Ford Cavalry Series” films with John Wayne (“Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande”);

“The Quiet Man;

“Donovan’s Reef”;

“Red River”;


“In Harm’s Way”;

“Big Jake”;


“Rio Lobo”;

“The Commancheros”;

— and, —

Here’s a full list of John Wayne’s films with reference links.

C O M M E N T S : now closed