If John Wayne had been alive, he’d have been 100 on May 26. In his absence, a grateful movie-world is celebrating his birth centenary in a host of ways. JANARDHAN ROYE
Photo: The Hindu Photo Library
Symbol of the Wild West: John Wayne’s appeal has not waned.
“As far as I’m concerned, Americans don’t have any original art except Western movies…”
WELCOMING visitors at the airport in Orange County , California, is a statue of a strikingly tall tough hombre in a Stetson, folded long sleeves, buckskin vest, and a right hand ready on the draw. This is the man who lived in the area for many years
and made it his home.
When in late 2006, the reputed on-line Harris Poll asked American adults, between 18 and 26 years, to name their all time favourite 10 stars, many overwhelmingly pitched for this cowboy figure.
John Wayne, who hadn’t made a movie since 1976 and is now embodied in the statue, was again in the eclectic but far younger company of such stars as Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Will Smith, Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson. Riding tall there in the listing at No. 3. Not bad for a star who died in 1978.
Says Time film critic, Richard Corliss, “Forget the youthquake. What America really loves is… old. Whatever Wayne represents — the Old Testament God, a Mount Rushmore face with a permanent scowl, the craggy soul of Fro
ntier or Sunbelt America — he has made the list in each of the Harris poll’s 13 years, and he’s figured in the top three slots eight times.”
That’s quite an achievement considering that the last movie he made was Don Siegel’s “The Shootist” (1976). Already diagnosed with cancer Wayne played a cancer-ridden gunslinger who spends his last days looking for a way to die with “minimum of pain and a maximum of dignity”. Two years later he died.
In a career that spanned more than 200 films over 50 years, John Wayne was noted for his rugged roles in classics such as “Stagecoach” (1939), “Rio Bravo” (1959), “McLintock” (1963), “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), “The Sons Of Katie Elder” (1965), “El Dorado” (1966), “Hatari” (1962), and the Oscar-winning “True Grit” (1969).
Man of action
“He had a handsome and hearty face”, writes author Richard Shephard, “to express much emotion but gave the impression of a man of action, an outdoor man who chafed at a settled life. He was laconic on screen. And when he shambled into view, one could sense the arrival of coiled vigour awaiting only provocation to be sprung. His demeanour and his roles were those of a man who did not look for trouble but was relentless in tackling it when it affronted him.”
How long will the John Wayne legend hold movie buffs? Son Patrick Wayne says, “What I find interesting is there’s a whole new generation of John Wayne fans. They do the Harris Poll in the U.S. every year about who they think are the top actors. My Dad has been in the top seven, usually the top three. None of those kids was even born when my Dad passed away.”
So what makes John Wayne such a tall figure in the movies? Physically, he was imposing: a rangy 194cm who could throw a mean punch when the script demanded it. If Wayne was around on May 26, 2007, he’d have been 100. In his absence a grateful movie-world is celebrating the anniversary in a host of ways.
In Newport, Orange County, there has been a screening of his most famous movies. At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956) and “Rio Bravo” are being screened.
In his ‘real’ home town, where he was born, Winterset, Iowa, there is a massive celebration in the genre that made him a household name in the movie-world. The 100th birth anniversary events in Iowa include parades, release and screening movie classics DVDs, The John Wayne Century Collection along with a film symposium, recreation of the Old Wild West, country music, rodeo, cowboy clothing and collectibles shop, Western movie stunts — trick riding, steer roping and gun spinning, trick shooting and lariat artists, cowboy grub, and salons with swinging doors where customers can roll up to the bar counter and order shots of bourbon.
When Wayne burst through the swinging doors of a salon, all conversation froze, even the salon piano stopped. Card players, cowboys shooting the breeze, and everybody would survey the tall hombre. In the silence, invariably a heavily made-up blonde sizzler woud sidle up to him with a “Buy me a drink, cowboy?”
Well, life off the screen wasn’t too different. Patrick Wayne said, “We’d walk into a room of 100 people and everybody would stop talking and turn around and look at him. He had an incredible presence in real life. But, he also had a very disarming way about him and could make everyone feel comfortable in the room. He was an incredible guy.”
Today 29 years after his death, that magnetic public presence marks John Wayne and his movies.
For more information see: www.johnwayne.com, www.jwayne.com or www.johnwaynebirthplace.org
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