Film & TV

John Wayne’s Heroes and Anti-Heroes

John Wayne in The Searchers (Warner Bros.)
Imperfect in life, he played imperfect men who are nonetheless worth looking up to, even today.

Whether or not John Wayne’s statue ought to be removed from the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Ca., whether or not the eponymous airport ought to be renamed, and whether or not Wayne’s exhibit at the University of Southern California ought to be excised from the film school’s illustrious legacy, the characters John Wayne played in his timeless Westerns ought to be defended — as symbols.

The characters Ringo Kid, Ethan Edwards, and John T. Chance are important for conservatives because they embody longstanding principles and traits traditionally defended by conservatives: masculine virtues (namely, grit and stoicism) and the Christian conception of mankind, which holds that we are fallen and flawed but capable of striving toward improvement and ultimately redemption.

Some of Wayne’s characters stumble upon their dilemmas unwittingly, seeking to capitalize on the moment for selfish reasons. They change and develop, however, to varying degrees. Ringo Kid’s character arc, for example, is more gradual and nuanced than that of Ethan Edwards, who, far, far from being heroic, changes on a dime in a single scene. Regardless, Wayne’s heroes and anti-heroes encapsulate the above-mentioned traits and serve as vessels for ideas currently under assault.

In John Ford’s Stagecoach, Wayne plays the outlaw, Ringo Kid, for his career-launching role. At first glance, Ringo seems untrustworthy — another depraved loner entangled with the law, a prison escapee. But as the story progresses, we learn that Ringo had been falsely accused and that he ditched prison to avenge his brother and father, who were murdered by the antagonist, Luke Plummer. He’s truly a figure that cancel culture would never permit to exist.

Ringo finds romance, too. He proposes to Dallas, an equally flawed character, and displays empathy, the willingness to love unconditionally, and the perseverance to build a better life for himself and a partner. His arc is one of profound change. At first full of vengefulness and hatred, by movie’s end, he embodies Hemingway’s famous trait of “grace under pressure.” He stoically comes to terms with his past, while refusing to accept a dim future.

In The Searchers, another John Ford Western, Wayne plays the wretched, callous, and vengeful Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who embarks on a quest to rescue his nine-year-old niece, Debbie — after Comanche Indians raid the Edwards homestead, kill the adults and the male son, and kidnap the girls. Wayne’s character in this Ford classic, a less sympathetic anti-hero than Ringo, still displays a semblance of grace in the climactic scene that takes place six years after the Indian raid. Debbie, now 15, tells Ethan she wishes to live with the Comanches, as a wife to the Indian who led the raid on the Edwards homestead. Despite Ethan’s earlier vow to kill her rather than see her live as an Indian, he spares her life. Ethan pays a price for his vengefulness — perpetual isolation, as suggested in Ford’s famous final shot — but he also commits an act of forgiveness, thereby achieving some kind of redemption.

Wayne reprises another classic Western role in Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, when he plays the Sheriff John T. Chance. Authoritative and dignified, Chance takes a courageous high-noon stand against immoral bandits who threaten to upend the peaceful order of the town. His refusal to bend the knee to lawlessness stands as a shining example even today, when our most powerful leaders sometimes ignore or even curry favor with the violent woke mob.

At times, Wayne’s characters are commonsensical and gritty, rugged and unrelenting, much like the landscape they inhabit. In some cases, they’re frightening and obsessive; they ride the line between wicked and decent in a fascinating manner that makes for great drama. But through each character arc, Wayne the actor convinces the audience that even a flawed person possesses the capacity to change — for the better, and for the good of others.

Yes, Wayne, the man himself, said disgraceful things about blacks. He held repugnant views about Native Americans. If this is his public reckoning, if his legacy as a person has been sent to the guillotine — in an extremely uncharitable fashion — then the vocal minority in the Golden State will see to it that Wayne is never publicly honored again.

But there is spiritual legacy that can live on through Wayne’s characters, that cannot be touched (as of yet) by cancel culture. Young men such as I can look up to and even celebrate Wayne’s characters as models of masculinity, however imperfect, in an imperfect world. In the public square, in a time when the very idea of redemption and traditional masculinity has been slandered in the name of wokeness, to preserve this legacy is to keep a torch lit. Plenty of young men understand that radical leftists purposefully conflate traditional masculinity with “toxic masculinity” for their own ideological ends. There is still hope for the cultivation of virtues that have carried forth from generation to generation, from forebears, to grandfathers, to fathers, to sons.

As Ringo says in Stagecoach, “well, there are some things a man just can’t run away from.” A defense of John Wayne’s legacy on screen as an artist is one of those things — as is the masculine ideal toward which his characters strive.

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