With his clout and connections, Ford could have given Duke the break he deserved, instead of letting him drift from one B-movie to another. When pressed as to why he did not, Ford said he Duke was not yet ready: he looked “callow. ” He wanted to have some “pain” written on the innocent face (Wayne 34). In later years, when John Wayne was acting roles normally reserved for younger men, his continued box office success seemed to vindicate Ford’s early prognosis. The years spent by Duke playing forgettable parts in B-movies prepared him well for the demanding roles that lay ahead.
Already an expert rider and shooter, he proceeded to change the way fight scenes were choreographed for the big screen. He had met a famous stuntman and rodeo champion nicknamed “Yak” who taught him stunts like falling and changing horses in mid-run. Together they created moves and came up with angles that would make barroom brawls and other fight scenes believable, unlike those typically shown which looked implausible and frequently elicited laughs from the movie audience.
Even when he was well-established, Duke was to perform most of his action scenes, refusing to take a double (Wayne 29). In 1939, the big break finally came to Duke: as the Durango Kid in Stagecoach. John Ford decided he had waited long enough. Stagecoach had been a pet project of his but no producer wanted to try another big-budget western, believing the genre had faded. Universal Pictures agreed to fund it but with a very limited budget. Stagecoach was a turning point in Duke’s career. He was 32 years old, and had been given nothing since The Big Trail except occasional B-movie roles.
Stagecoach was a huge success, but instead of giving Duke other meaty starring roles, he was given a string of B-movie projects by producers intent to cash in on his newfound popularity. After finishing seven of these, he was given the role of a Swedish seaman in The Long Voyage Home, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill; the film was again directed by John Ford. From then on, his stardom was assured. In his prime, Wayne was 6’41/2” in height and weighed 225 pounds. He had turquoise eyes, the familiar squint, and a deep drawl.
In 1952, during their first meeting in a Peruvian jungle, his third wife, Pilar, found in Wayne “something elemental, a sense of great strength” which was appealing (Wayne 63). Ford recalled: “There was something special about Duke even then . . . Sure, he was callow and untutored, but he had something that jumped right off the screen at me. I guess you could call it star power. ”(22). His demeanor has been described as “those of a man who did not look for trouble but was relentless in tackling it when it affronted him” (Biography).
In retrospect, John Wayne’s enduring popularity may be attributed to the fact that he personified the American ideal. Proud, freedom-loving, and adventurous, Americans liked their heroes to be strong and unpretentious like John Wayne – a man who kept to his own business but capable of rising up to any challenge. His lines in The Shootist, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them” was typical Yankee response to an injurious wrong.
Used to seeing the stereotype good guy in the white steed, movie fans saw in Wayne’s rugged looks something real and down-to-earth. He was perfect for the role of rugged frontiersman in How the West Was Won and other classics. He too, had the air of someone who could be counted upon when the going got tough, a sense of indestructibility that has often provoked the remark (taken either as a tribute or an affront, depending on one’s bias) when one is faced with seemingly insurmountable odds: “Who do you think I am, John Wayne? ” Legend has it that Duke never backed down from any challenge.
During the shooting of Wings of Eagles where Wayne played the role of a Navy pilot, John Ford slyly asked him to perform a sequence calling for his transfer while strapped to a flimsy seat, the so-called bosun’s chair, from one destroyer to another via a cable. Wayne did not complain, not knowing that the aerial ship-to-ship transfer was dreaded even by seasoned sailors. But he calmly proceeded to act his part, pretending not the least bothered by the gut-wrenching ride over a swirling sea.
The following day he received this message from the Navy Department: “Dear Mr.Wayne- we are pleased to record this latest addition to naval lore. To the immortal expression, ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,’ we now add your own memorable words, ‘get me out of this son of a bitch! ’”(Wayne168-169). Wayne spoke the American language well. Once, asked by a reporter about his rumored plan to run for president, Wayne said, “Bullshit. ” When asked to give a definite comment, Wayne told him to use the word. The following day, this news item appeared: “When Mr. Wayne was questioned about the possibility of running for national office, he replied ‘B—–t! ”(Wayne 162).