John Wayne

Ross Schnioffsky and Richard Thompson

in Cinema and Media Studies

ISBN: 9780199791286
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
John Wayne

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John Wayne’s film career began in Hollywood silent films in the late 1920s and, in one sense, ended in 1976—a half-century later—with his last film, Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976). Wayne died three years later, having become not only an actor, but also a film director and the head of his own production company. By then he had also become a major cultural figure, a carrier of myth, an icon of a certain Americanness, and this iconic status continues today; he and his work continue to be cited, commented upon, analyzed, and evaluated, as this article documents. He acted in different genres but became identified mainly with two: the Western (he spent the 1930s making quickie B Westerns) and, with the advent of World War II, military and quasi-military films. When this identification began, those genres were generally dismissed as sophomoric and were not taken seriously; with the rise of serious film studies in the 1960s and 1970s in Europe and North America, these genres and Wayne’s contribution to them became valued. After World War II, as the hegemony of the major studios began to fade, Wayne was one of the first actors to form his own independent production company, which eventually became Batjac Productions. He had always learned everything he could on set about all aspects of filmmaking. As an actor, Wayne was a thoughtful craftsman from early in his career (something overlooked by commentators until much later). In the postwar period, he chose roles that increasingly complicated his characters—retaining his earlier outward strength and independence, but now adding a very dark, sometimes tragic set of contradictions, first, in Red River (1948) and then The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), and other films. The rise of authorship criticism enhanced this acknowledgment, emphasizing his long collaboration with John Ford and his key films with Howard Hawks. His acting performances began to attract serious attention: Writers began to investigate Wayne’s representation of masculinity, including his characters’ relations to both male and female sexuality. From the late 1940s, Wayne, now a major public figure, became politically active, first, in the anticommunist days of the Hollywood blacklist and, later, in other conservative causes (e.g., the Vietnam War). His controversial public political stances became a separate issue, overshadowing his other work. Wayne’s work continues to be justified by the amount of writing currently devoted to it.

Article.  14026 words. 

Subjects: Media Studies ; Film ; Radio ; Television

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