The Cannes Film Festival showcased a restored version of Hondo (1953) in 3-D. Newspapers and many bloggers dutifully doffed their hats. And Patrick Wayne bulldozed a gas station in Winterset, Iowa, to make way for the first dedicated John Wayne museum. According to a recent Harris poll, the Duke remains America’s third most popular movie star, no matter that he passed away in 1979. It’s been three decades since his last film, The Shootist (1976) yet he’s consistently ranked in the top ten since Harris started polling 13 years ago.
This love affair goes back a long ways. For 20 years, between 1945-1975, he only dropped out of the Motion Picture Almanac’s annual top ten box-office stars list twice; between 1950 and 1970, he was usually in the top three. For many Americans, we may surmise, John Wayne is the consummate movie star, the image they would choose to project for themselves: The American Ideal. And this was how he was seen everywhere. According to Garry Wills, when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the US in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, he made two special requests. He wanted to visit Disneyland, and he wanted to meet John Wayne.
He was tall (6’4”) and big (225 lbs), and it was obvious from the beginning he was leading man material. Again and again, you find yourself looking up at Wayne, whether it’s in that famous Dean Martin POV shot at the beginning of Rio Bravo (1959), or any number of Monument Valley vistas where Duke seems as imposingly permanent as the landscape. Dimitri Tiomkin said he loved writing scores for Wayne pictures, “His shoulders are so broad he can carry a massive score.” His first credit—and the film that literally made his name—was the starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, shot in 70mm “Grandeur,” in 1930. He went on to make more than 170 films as an actor—not even the Wayne estate is sure exactly how many—and he played the lead in over 140 of them. It seems unlikely that record will ever be bested.