At the top of a hill on a tall horse sits an enormous broad-shouldered, thin-waisted rider wearing a ten-gallon hat, a red bandana, a denim shirt, and a leather vest. The sun setting over the painted desert below him glints off the tin star pinned on his vest. He sits quietly, rolling a cigarette. The man says little, but what he does say is quoted faithfully by legions of his admirers. For example, he once said, "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them."
This is the figure of a man everybody in America knows, a legend everyone recognizes, an icon as much a part of Americana as the Fourth of July and apple pie, but this man never actually existed beyond the over 170 films he appeared in during his fifty-year career from 1926 and 1976. Unless you have been living on a deserted island for the last eighty years, you know that man sitting on his horse, watching the sunset—he is John Wayne.
He was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, to Clyde and Mary Morrison. His parents had been married only eight months when the strapping thirteen-pound Marion was born, causing a bit of a small town scandal. When his brother Robert was born four years later, Marion’s name would be changed to Marion Michael Morrison.
Both his parents were of Scotch-Irish descent. Clyde Morrison was a handsome, charming man of average height. He was very smart, if not just a little irresponsible. Mary Morrison was a strong-willed, hot-tempered woman. Marion remembered his mother as a women’s libber and the first woman he had ever seen smoke. She came to dominate her husband as well as her boys. Marion attributed his hot temper to her.
When Marion was a boy, he was picked on by playground bullies. He frequently found himself involved in fights, becoming more often than not the loser in the end. “Defending that first name taught me to fight at an early age,” he once remarked.
When his family moved to California in 1911, he earned a nickname. His constant companion was the family Airedale. When he along with his dog passed the local firehouse each day on his way to school, the local volunteer firemen began calling the dog “Big Duke” and they boy “Little Duke.” Everyone in his family, except his mother, began calling him “Duke.” One evening, he showed up at the firehouse with a black eye and a split lip. One of the firefighters, an ex-boxer, began teaching Duke to defend himself. The razzing and bullying stopped when Duke learned to hold his own in a fight. “I really looked up to those guys. They were heroes in my book,” he remembers. Marion used the name Duke for the rest of his life.
Duke applied at the U.S. Naval Academy, but he was not accepted. Instead, he went to the University of Southern California where he studied pre-law and joined the Sigma Chi fraternity. The six-foot, four-inch Duke also played football for the Trojan Knights under the well-known coach Howard Jones.
While attending the University of Southern California, Duke began working for a local studio. Legendary film star Tom Mix got him a job in the props department. In exchange, Duke got him football tickets. Soon Duke was acting in bit parts. A lifelong friendship with director John Ford began. About that time, Duke was injured while surfing “The Wedge” off Balboa Pier at Newport Beach, ending not only his football career but also his college scholarship. As a result, he began working at the studio full time in the prop department and as a bit actor.
In 1930, he got his first starring role in The Big Trail, one of the Western genre’s first sound epics. Director Raoul Walsh, who is credited for discovering Marion Morrison, dubbed him “John Wayne” after the Revolutionary War general “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Duke finally established his screen credentials and began his long career as a leading man. Although The Big Trail was a commercial failure, he continued to make Westerns and serials. He learned to ride horses and picked up other Western skills from the stunt men working at the studios. Wayne became an extremely skilled equestrian and stunt man. Along with famous stuntman Yakima Canutt, he perfected skills and stunt techniques still in use today. Wayne went on to perform in more than 170 films, starring in more than 140 of them.
While Wayne had several controversial aspects to his character and to his politics, the one controversy that persisted is the question of why he did not serve in World War II. In truth, due to his age and family status, he was given a family deferment. Wayne made some calls about enlisting, but he did not follow up on them. He also talked to his friend John Ford about enlisting in his unit, but it seemed that Wayne was always in the middle of a film he wanted to finish first. In 1944, Wayne was reclassified as draft eligible, but his studio arranged to have him reclassified as non-eligible because of his work in “national health, safety or interest.” Wayne never dodged the draft, but he never worked very hard at enlisting. His studio also intervened several times to block his enlistment, even threatening his contract if he enlisted on his own—most likely a bogus claim since no studio had followed up on that kind of threat in time of war. Remaining on the home front, Wayne spent the war years supporting the war by promoting America in films.
Not serving in World War II was something Wayne felt guilty about for the rest of his life, but it was not something the veterans of that war seemed to hold against him. He was as much their comrade in arms as if he had served along side them. They called their can openers “John Wayne” can openers because they could do anything, and the crackers in their C-Rations were called “John Wayne crackers” presumably because they were so inedible a man had to be as tough and burly as John Wayne to eat them. They also called their toilet paper “John Wayne toilet paper” because it “didn’t take shit off anybody.” Even if others were not critical of him, Wayne had problems with his lack of service. His third wife Pilar wrote, “He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home."
John Wayne was without a doubt a flag-waving, right-wing, Republican conservative. His politics frequently were controversial, but Wayne never apologized for his beliefs. He was a staunch anti-Communist believing that Communism was a major threat to the United States. In 1943, he was one of the founders of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. In 1949, he became the President of that organization. He became a vocal supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He played a role in blacklisting the screenwriter of High Noon, Carl Foreman, for the anti-McCarthyist theme of the film. “I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country,” he would say later. While Wayne admitted to playing a role in driving Foreman out of the country, he denied there was any “blacklist.” In his typical unapologetic style, Wayne later said, “There was no blacklist at that time, as people said. That was a lot of horseshit. . . The only thing our side did that was anywhere near blacklisting was just running a lot of people out of the business.”
John Wayne was approached several times about running for public office, but he always declined because he did not believe people would take an actor seriously in public office. That attitude did not stop him from supporting his friend and fellow actor Ronald Reagan in both of his campaigns for governor of California. He also lived long enough to see his old friends Ronnie Reagan and Nancy Davis blazing a trail towards the White House.
When John Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, it was rumored that filming The Conqueror in the deserts of Utah where the government had tested nuclear weapons had caused it. Instead, Wayne publicly admitted the cancer was more likely caused by his five-pack-a-day cigarette habit—a habit that he had begun back when the harmful effects of cigarette smoking were still considered to be a controversial issue. After his entire left lung and four ribs were removed, he survived the cancer, but he never fully recovered from the surgery. He did not want the public to see him in a weakened condition. After the surgery, he walked out of the hospital, smiling, signing autographs, and telling the crowd gathered there that he was fine. But when he got into the car, he collapsed and immediately needed oxygen from his mask.
Less than four months later, he was back on the set. When Wayne was filming a particularly difficult stunt scene in The Sons of Katie Elder in 1965, a photographer snapped his picture as he took oxygen from a canister between shots. Wayne snatched the camera from the photographer and smashed it to the ground. Wayne did not seem to mind people knowing he had beaten cancer, but he did seem to have a problem with anyone seeing what it had taken out of him. During the shoot, he insisted on doing all his own fighting and riding. He often made a show of tossing a few pills into his mouth and washing them down with Mescal. “I’m the stuff that men are made of!” he’d say. John Wayne was back.
Another controversial political view Wayne later held went along with the anti-Communist feelings he had had since the 1940s. He supported the Vietnam War. He was disappointed by the country’s lack of support for the troops and angered at the protestors. As he had done in World War II, John Wayne decided to try to sway the public into seeing the war in Vietnam in a different light. He passed on the film The Dirty Dozen. Instead, he made a pro-Vietnam film, The Green Berets, which endeavored to show Americans what they were fighting against in Vietnam. Mostly because of John Wayne’s name and the fact that Americans still loved a John Wayne war movie, the movie was a commercial success, but it was panned by critics as ridiculously unrealistic. Wayne was too old to play the part of the tough combat leader, a role he might have been more believable in twenty years earlier. The film was preachy with dialog saturated in patriotism—a patriotism that fell on deaf ears in the rebellious world of 1968. John Wayne had made a World War II movie about Vietnam, but times had changed, and Americans did not hear the message.
For the first time, after forty years on the big screen, it seemed as if John Wayne was out of touch, as if his America no longer existed. He was seen as a relic from the previous generation trying to apply those values to a different time. For the first time, it seemed like John Wayne was working very hard to play a part he was obviously too old to play—he was trying to be something he was not.
But John Wayne seemed to figure that out on his own, and he was a long, long way from being done.
Wayne returned to his forte, the great American Western. Americans soon learned that their screen hero’s best work was not behind him. In 1969, he won the Academy Award for his portrayal of the grizzled, whiskey-swilling, rule-bending, one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. But he did not rest on his laurels. He went on to make some of his best known movies, such as Chisum, Big Jake, The Cowboys, Rio Lobo, and The Train Robbers. In 1975, he reprised his Academy Award winning character from True Grit in Rooster Cogburn, starring with another screen legend his own age, actress Katherine Hepburn.
In 1976, John Wayne began filming the movie The Shootist. It is a film about an aging gunfighter, J.B. Books, who learns from the local physician, played by Jimmy Stewart, that he is dying of cancer. Instead of wasting away in bed, the dying gunfighter decides he would rather go out fighting, and, in the process, do the public a great service by taking a few of his old enemies and a few local scoundrels along with him. He arranges a shoot-out in a local hotel saloon.
Wayne’s health had been failing badly previous to his taking the role, and it became worse during filming. He had been having increasing pains in his stomach and flu-like symptoms. The director was becoming very concerned that Wayne might not be able to finish the film because of his long absences from the set—first for one week and then for two. The director had to shoot around Wayne’s lines and to use doubles, fearful that Wayne might not be able to return to filming. But Wayne returned, and the film was finished. Although Wayne did not know it at the time, The Shootist would be his last film. He had terminal stomach cancer. Later, he acknowledged the irony of the script with his own situation.
As Wayne’s condition worsened, Hollywood knew their favorite leading man was about out of time. In 1979, a stream of actors and actresses went to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress that John Wayne should be honored for his great contributions to America. On May 26, 1979, his seventy-second birthday, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Wayne’s favorite co-star from several films, Maureen O’Hara, first suggested before Congress the words that should be printed on the medal. The United States Mint agreed with her. On one side of the medal was John Wayne on horseback. On the other side was his portrait and the simple words Maureen O’Hara had suggested to Congress: John Wayne, American.
John Wayne died less than a month later on June 11, 1979.
John Wayne died less than a month later on June 11, 1979.
Brother John Wayne was a member of the Glendale DeMolay Chapter during his high school days. Following in his father’s footsteps, John Wayne became a Freemason, receiving his Craft degrees in July 1970 in Marion McDaniel Lodge No. 56, Tucson, Arizona. Being a Senior DeMolay, he was also awarded the DeMolay Legion of Honor in 1970. He joined the York Rite Bodies in California and became a Shriner in Al Malaikah Shrine Temple in California.
Todd E. Creason is an author and novelist whose work includes the award-winning non-fiction historical series Famous American Freemasons and the novels One Last Shot (2011) and A Shot After Midnight (2012). He's currently working on the third novel expected to be released in 2014. All of Todd E. Creason's books are sold at major online booksellers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble and are available for both Nook and Kindle.