Had he lived, screen legend John Wayne would have been 108 years old today, and the fact that he still lives on in many a screen classic underscores the fact that this flatlander from Iowa had a remarkable impact on America as a hero of many films, the best ones being westerns, and over the holiday weekend, a museum was opened in his honor, coinciding with today’s observance.
Today, more than three decades after his passing, Wayne’s legacy lives on in the form of the John Wayne Cancer Institute. Research there is aimed at treatment of the disease that took Wayne’s life, which is the kind of public service on which no dollar value could ever be placed.
By no small coincidence “The Duke” shares this birthday with one of the Old West’s most notorious gunslingers, John Wesley Hardin, of which former Texas sheriff and gun writer Jim Wilson reminded people today on Facebook. A product of Texas – where many of Wayne’s film stories were set – Hardin killed at least a couple of dozen men and was himself gunned down in 1895 in El Paso. Wayne’s final screen performance was about aging and cancer-stricken gunfighter John Bernard Books, who was also shot down in a saloon, but not until after he had plugged the three villains in the film.
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Born Marion Robert Morrison in 1907, Wayne’s family moved from Winterset out to California when he was nine years old, according to a biography. He starred in more than 140 films and appeared in several more early in his career. Among his later roles was as the title character in the Seattle-based “McQ,” and over the weekend, the John Wayne Birthplace Museum opened in Winterset, with tours all day yesterday.
Many might suggest that the country could use a leader with Wayne’s qualities today. The screen tough guy always seemed to have a softer side, but by the end of the final reel, the bad guys were nearly always dead, or in such sorry shape, they wished they were. His best characters seemed to personify what D.H. Lawrence said of “the essential American soul: hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Yet there was also something of Wil Andersen, the tough old rancher in “The Cowboys” that also seemed to lurk in many of Wayne’s characters.
Wayne won a single Academy Award, for his performance in “True Grit” as the one-eyed drunken Marshal Rooster Cogburn. He deserved awards for his roles in “Red River,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers.” After he passed from cancer in 1979, his final film “The Shootist” became something of a cult classic.
It was from that final film that emerged a line of dialogue that Wayne’s characters, and perhaps the man, himself, came to embody; a code that might easily apply to the measure of any man: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
For a fellow who’s been dead for 36 years, John Wayne still entertains millions of people; little boys who want to grow up that way and old guys who wish they had. Not such a bad way to be remembered, eh?
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