Early in the Great Depression, an aspiring actor named Marion Robert Morrison caught the eye of Hollywood director Raoul Walsh. Walsh saw something in Morrison, and decided to cast him in his first lead role in 1930’s The Big Trail. Unfortunately, the movie did not do well. As a matter of fact, it flopped badly and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, one good thing came out of it: the lead actor, on the recommendation of Walsh and the studio, had changed his name to John Wayne.
During the following years, John Wayne toiled in obscurity, with roles in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. However, his fortunes improved in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford saved him from a dead-end career by offering him the lead role in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, during which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend.
5. John Wayne Was in an Abusive Relationship With His Mentor, Who Used to Berate Him for “Skipping Like a Goddam Fairy“
Although the working relationship between John Wayne and director John Ford was long and productive, Ford seldom spared a kind word for his protégé. Wayne worshipped Ford: “My whole set up was that he was my mentor and my ideal! I think that deep down inside, he’s one of the greatest human beings that I have ever known“. By contrast, Ford was savage in his mistreatment of Wayne and bullied him at every opportunity. That bullying helped create one of the most iconic pieces of John Wayne’s public image: his cowboy strut.
As Stagecoach was being filmed, Ford seemed to dislike everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and berated him: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated the way Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate. So effeminate that he once exploded at him: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddam fairy?” That really hurt Wayne. It stung him so bad, as a matter of fact, that he changed the way he walked for the rest of his life.
4. While Everybody Seemed to Rush to Serve During WWII, John Wayne Rushed to Avoid Serving
Stagecoach’s success secured John Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among top drawer elites such as Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star. Then late that year, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. John Wayne’s conduct during the ensuing conflict forever after shaped his self-image and self-perception of his manhood. His reaction to and regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life.
America’s entry into WWII triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory. As the United States armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do everything he could to avoid serving in the military.
3. The Fact of the Matter is that John Wayne Pulled Strings to Avoid Serving During WWII
When America was thrust into the Second World War, John Wayne was in his early 30s – not exactly a youngster, but still a man in prime fighting age. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist, including athletes, movie directors, and Hollywood superstars. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who was in his 40s when he enlisted. Another was Jimmy Stewart, who had to pull strings and get waivers in order to join the military (he was underweight).
Unlike Jimmy Stewart or Clark Gable, John Wayne pulled strings and got waivers to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark subsequently risked their lives on bombing missions over Germany. Wayne limited his contribution to USO tours, entertaining troops overseas. As a matter of fact, even that limited contribution to the war effort was done with the ulterior motive of avoiding military service. As Wayne once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“.
2. US Marines Derided John Wayne’s Fake Machismo and Booed Him Off the Stage During WWII
After WWII, many bought into John Wayne’s carefully crafted image of manly toughness. However, America’s actual tough guys, the country’s fighting men, did not buy that image. As one wounded Marine veteran described a wartime incident: “after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii … Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us.
Before the film, the curtains parted, and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandana, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said ‘Hi, ya guys!’ He was greeted by stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left“.
1. John Wayne Became a Superpatriot to Atone For Having Ducked Service During WWII
John Wayne never got over the humiliation of having been mocked and booed off the stage by US Marines during WWII. As a matter of fact, he ended up developing a serious guilt complex for having not only refused to sign up to fight during the war but for having actively gone out of his way to avoid fighting. It was key to the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also played no small part in his starring in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career.
The psychological storms raging within must have been something, as Wayne played manly heroic characters on screen, whom he wished he had been like in real life. Four years after WWII, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“. Despite having avoided service during WWII when he was of age to do so, Wayne enthusiastically encouraged others – especially during the Vietnam War – to serve in the military.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading