May 26 marks the 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth. I’ve already written about two other centenaries this month, Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Oliver, and I could do a similar piece on Wayne. I could but I’m not going to, because for me Wayne is a more personal subject and somehow a brief summing up of his career just doesn’t seem right.
So what makes Duke special? Well my Father was a big Wayne fan and thanks to these two men I fell in love with film and in particular the western. It’s a love that remains strong to this day.
The west of the movies was an uncharted land, filled with danger but also excitement. It was a place where a man lived by his own rules, surely something every kid dreams of, where to quote Wayne, “There's right and there's wrong. You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you're dead as a beaver hat.” In essence many of the westerns I watched growing up were morality plays, and I think they (along with Marvel comics) helped shape my views on right and wrong.
John Wayne films weren’t my only exposure to the western growing up. The late '60s early '70s were the height of the western TV craze and I watched many of them, including such forgotten series as Lancer and Hondo. Nor was he my only exposure to films; I’d watch almost anything, from Shirley Temple to Tarzan. But if Wayne was on TV, we watched it and I’d scour the TV listing magazine each week to see what treats were in store. This was back in the days when there were only three television channels in the UK and movies were a big part of their schedule, getting prime time screenings.
Of course Wayne didn’t just star in westerns. I watched him kill half of the Japanese army, wrestle a giant octopus not once, but twice (okay, one was a squid), get lost in the desert with Sophia Loren, put out oil fires, and catch animals in Africa.