Long Live the Duke
John Wayne: Gone for 30 years, and still with us.


Thirty years ago today, John Wayne died. Yet Americans continue to identify him as one of their favorite actors. To commemorate his life, we’ve asked a panel to discuss the man, his movies, and his legacies.

Any movie with John Wayne in it is better than every movie without John Wayne in it. That’s a cinematic law. I mean, if I had to decide whether to jump into the ocean to save the last copy of Brannigan or The Godfather / Gone With The Wind gift set, I would probably have a scotch in my stateroom and think about it a good long time.

I guess my favorite is Stagecoach. No, Fort Apache. No, The Quiet Man. Or maybe the part of The Searchers that doesn’t have all that misbegotten domestic comedy in it. I love the ginormous fistfight at the end of The Spoilers. I love the fact that he chased Commie spies for the House Un-American Activities Committee as Big Jim McLain. I believe the scene in Red River where he says “I’m not gonna hitcha,” and then punches out Montgomery Clift may be the high point not only of cinema history but of human evolution.

But I guess there is a special place in my heart for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because it explains everything a boy needs to know about life in only two hours. That cuts Hamlet’s record in half.

– Andrew Klavan’s new thriller for young adults is The Last Thing I Remember.

John Wayne was larger than life, an unapologetic patriot, and an outstanding actor who left behind a timeless film legacy. The Alamo, which he directed, is not a great film, but a good one – and it remains an insightful look into the gentle, gracious soul of its creator, a man who recognized the dignity of everyone: a blind woman who refuses special consideration, a slave whose first decision as a free man is to stand and die for liberty, and, most unexpected, Santa Anna’s soldiers. (“Speaks well for men that so many aren’t afraid to die, because they think right’s on their side. Speaks well of them.”)

Many things define John Wayne: how he moved and spoke, his artistry, his politics, and his Americanism. But the Duke’s permanent hold on our hearts comes from something within him, something unseen — the depth of his humanity.

– John Nolte is the editor of Big Hollywood.

Duke Wayne suffered through a hard-bitten childhood, three failed marriages, and having his fortune frittered away by incompetents. For decades he was shamed by the steadfast refusal of Republic Pictures to let him enlist during WWII. As an old man he was plagued by depressions, a missing lung, a hated toupee, and a burgeoning waistline. His death from cancer was sheer agony.

Yet, throughout, he remained kind, generous, and humble. A well-read student of history and politics, he preferred chess and sailing to riding horses, and with singular genius used the 20th century’s greatest art form, in his words, to mythologize rustic America’s “intimate flashes of greatness, of nobility, of humor, of fineness of the inner soul.” At the peak of his powers, achingly empathic performances in films like Sands of Iwo Jima left battle-scarred postwar audiences weeping openly in their seats. The resulting bond between sincere actor and grateful country has proven unbreakable.

Wayne once said, “Westerns are folklore, just the same as The Iliad is. . . . It takes good men to make good westerns.” The towering screen legend was, in real life, just a man. But he was a good man, and that’s what made him a great American.

– Leo Grin writes on all things cinematic at Big Hollywood.



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