Why John Wayne Still Ranks Among Today’s Most Popular Stars

Several months ago, the Harris Poll released its annual list of our ten most popular movie stars. Notably absent from the list were Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Brad Pitt (though Angelina squeaked on for the first time, tied for last place with Morgan Freeman).

Ranked ahead of current box-office draws Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, and just behind Denzel and Clint at the top of the heap, we find John Wayne. Notably, his is the only name from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the only name that has appeared on every top ten Harris list over the past fifteen years.

On May 26th, John Wayne would have turned 102. Though he’s been gone thirty years, his movies-and his outsize character- refuse to fade.

Not surprisingly, the Duke is more popular with seniors over sixty, and he plays best in the West, and among Republicans. But still…think of all the great actors from that vibrant period when Wayne was making pictures: Bogart, Grant, Brando, Newman, to name just a few. In their own time, it could be argued that each of these names were hotter than Wayne’s, and yet, they don’t make the list. They seem part of the past, while the Duke stubbornly lives on.

What accounts for this actor’s uncanny endurance? Other better actors played cowboys, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. Other bigger stars like Clark Gable and Gregory Peck played soldiers. But around the world, whenever John Wayne played a cowboy or a soldier, he was America. Wayne’s persona- its bigness, roughness, but also its decency- literally came to define our heritage. And to a surprising degree, it still does.

Wayne himself would never have predicted the longevity of his image, and would be incredulous if he knew about it. During his lifetime, he was no stranger to setbacks and self-doubt. After a failed early shot at stardom in 1930’s “The Big Trail”, the Duke had to toil in “B” western potboilers for nearly ten years before director John Ford gave him another chance at the big time.

And then- even when he’d made it, over the years he was repeatedly told by Ford, his frequent collaborator and mentor, that he simply couldn’t act. He took the abuse stoically. Though his range was limited, he could indeed act, and after Wayne’s memorable performance in “Red River” (1949), even Ford had to admit it, though not to his face.

One might reasonably assume that Wayne’s right-wing politics would also work against the popularity he still enjoys. Although (ironically) he accepted Gary Cooper’s Oscar in 1952, Wayne supported the McCarthy Communist witch hunt, and railed against the classic “High Noon” for being un-American. (Indeed, several years later, Howard Hawks and Wayne would make “Rio Bravo” as a “patriotic” response to the earlier film).

By the time he won his sole Oscar for 1969’s “True Grit”, he was still an outspoken hawk, openly defending the Vietnam War, and to prove it, starring in 1968’s chest-thumping “The Green Berets”.

Predictably, he was distinctly old-fashioned in his views on gender and race as well. But there was an open, bluff quality to Duke Wayne that made people forgive and even respect him. He was principled without being self-important, supported the right of others to differ with him, and mellowed considerably after his first serious brush with cancer in 1964.

He even had a well-concealed sensitive side. His lifelong friend Claire Trevor, who co-starred with him in “Stagecoach”(1939), once showed me a touching poem he’d written on the death of her step-son, with whom he’d been unusually close. The verse was heartfelt and moving, the work of a man capable of deep feeling. I have never forgotten reading it.

For someone who reputedly couldn’t act, John Wayne certainly made a lot of great movies. I’m going to list a few of his lesser-known titles that are personal favorites of mine. Please add your own top Duke picks, along with any thoughts you have on what keeps his star burning so bright.

The Long Voyage Home (1940)- After the success of “Stagecoach”, John Ford was eager to display his new find again. Here, Wayne plays simple Swedish seaman Ole Olsen, who finds himself on a merchant ship at the start of World War 2, surrounded by a nervous crew. The ship is carrying badly needed ammunition to the British, making it a highly desirable target for German U-Boats. There may also be spies aboard.

Boasting stunning cinematography from Gregg Toland, who’d go on to collaborate with Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane”, Ford’s film generates tension mixed with a subtle melancholy. Anchoring this unheralded sea picture is the brilliant Thomas Mitchell as old salt “Drisk” Driscoll, ably supported by character actors Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen, among others.

They Were Expendable (1945)- Director Ford again delivers a powerful human tale of hope barely sustained during the darkest days of World War 2. This is the story of the PT boats during those tough, early days in the Pacific. Skipper John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his right hand man, Rusty Ryan (Wayne), have difficulty convincing the navy brass of the PTs’ value to the war effort.Eventually, these nimble craft play a vital role in turning the tide, allowing General MacArthur to keep his promise to return there.

Montgomery (father of Elizabeth from “Bewitched”, and an actual decorated PT boat skipper) is superb as the embattled but stoic Brickley, with Duke an ideal counterpoint as the rough-around-the-edges Ryan. Donna Reed also makes a bewitching love interest as the nurse who falls for Rusty.

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)- In this second of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, Wayne ages considerably to play Captain Nathan Brittles, a career frontier officer facing imminent retirement, a prospect that fills him with dread, as his only family is the army. However, one last mission confronts him: an Indian uprising is brewing, and with a small team, Brittles must escort his superior’s wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) out of harm’s way.

“Ribbon” still registers, thanks to an emotionally layered performance from Wayne, combined with Victor McLaglen’s comic turn as a tippling top Sergeant, and color cinematography that turns Monument Valley into an animated Remington painting (netting cinematographer Winston Hoch an Oscar). A young Ben Johnson also stands out as Sergeant Tyree, a brave soldier very much in the Brittles mold.

Hondo (1953)- The best John Wayne western not directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks, “Hondo” showcases the Duke in his prime. Hondo Lane (Wayne) is a cavalry rider who encounters Angie (Geraldine Page) and her young son homesteading near Apache territory. Hondo warns her that the Apaches are on the war path, but she refuses to clear out. When Hondo returns, hostilities have started, and he must protect the family, while holding a terrible secret.

Helmed by John Farrow (Mia’s dad), the film is stunningly photographed on location in lustrous technicolor, with a trim story brought to life by a luminous Page in her film debut, and Ward Bond (Duke’s real-life crony) as Hondo’s friend. Also look for James Arness in a pivotal role- he’d soon make his career in Westerns on TV’s long-running “Gunsmoke”- and Wayne himself would introduce the first episode.

Hatari! (1962)- Sean Mercer (Wayne) heads a group of game-hunters in Africa who capture animals for zoos. Sean’s sense of order is upset when his trusted driver (Bruce Cabot) gets hurt, and even more so when chic female photographer Dallas (Elsa Martinelli) arrives to shoot a magazine spread. Will Sean keep Dallas safe till she can take her pictures and go home?

Good-natured Howard Hawks outing was a nice change of pace for Wayne, with its jocular tone and gorgeous on-location shooting. (Don’t miss those thrilling wild animal chases.) “Hatari” boasts deft ensemble playing from Cabot, Red Buttons, and Hardy Kruger, who make up Mercer’s core team. And we can well understand how Martinelli’s Dallas would get under Sean’s thick skin. A catchy Henry Mancini score completes this exuberant, diverting picture, ideal for all ages.

The Shootist (1976)- For his swansong, Wayne teamed with “Dirty Harry” director Don Siegel for this elegiac story of a dying gunman who longs for a noble end, but must contend with vultures intent on feeding off his reputation and gloating over his impending demise. Renowned for his six-shooting prowess and high body count, J.B. Books (Wayne) rolls into Carson City to look up trusted friend Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart), who confirms Books has terminal cancer. Hoping to end his days quietly, Books retreats to a boarding house run by widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and son Gillom (Ron Howard). But with Books’s violent past, can this old legend go gently into that good night?

Here the aging star is by turns courtly, stoic, and world-weary playing off Bacall’s rigid but ultimately sympathetic widow. And from that opening montage of old Wayne films, you realize you’re watching a movie not just about the demise of the Old West, but also about the end of one actor’s legendary career.. Thus, “The Shootist” can’t help but be poignant. Predictably, the Duke does it proud…to the very last shoot-out.

A featured movie blogger on The Huffington Post, John Farr lectures on timeless film and is editor of www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com, a website and blog that celebrate over 2,000 of the best features ever made, old and new, domestic and foreign.