Movies - TV
John Wayne Set Out To End The Era Of 'Phony' Western Heroes
It's been nearly half a century since John Wayne last donned his iconic stetson hat, but the actor’s name is still synonymous with America’s collective image of the Wild West cowboy. Westerns existed on screen even before Wayne made his cinematic debut in the 1920s, and the actor wasn't particularly fond of the way they tended to be portrayed.
"I made up my mind," Wayne told Maurice Zolotow for his biography "John Wayne, Shooting Star," "that I was going to play a real man to the best of my ability. I felt many of the Western stars of the 1920s and 1930s were too goddamn perfect." Many on-screen cowboys at that time did have a sense of costume to them, more like playactors than real down-and-dirty cowpokes.
Wayne took issue with this. "They never drank nor smoked. They never had a fight," the actor lamented in Zolotow's biography. "A heavy might throw a chair at them, and they just look surprised." He went on about the early cowboys, saying, "They were too goddamn sweet and pure to be dirty fighters.”
Due to its traditional templates of racism, nationalism, and machismo, the Western genre has mostly died out, save for fresh spins such as Ang Lee’s "Brokeback Mountain" or Jane Campion’s "Power of the Dog." With both films centered on gay cowboys, Wayne would likely find them blasphemous if his homophobic reaction to "Midnight Cowboy" is any indication.
In Zolotow’s biography, Wayne condemns the squeaky-clean cowboys of the era before him. "I didn't want to be a singing cowboy," he said. "It was phony." There's no way of knowing how Wayne would feel about the recent return of movies about cowboys who aren't brawlers, but it sounds as if Wayne was aware of the way he shaped that image in the first place.