I was browsing through the fall catalog of a mail-order house that sells movies on videocassette. Though the 123-page booklet was mostly divided up by subject matter - "Action," "Great Couples," "Family Movies" - a dozen or so famous names were given sections of their own: Clark Gable and Robert De Niro had a quarter-page each, Alfred Hitchcock a column, Audrey Hepburn a page. But only one star got two whole pages all to himself. Tom Hanks? Bogart? Fred Astaire? Nope. It was John Wayne.
Sixteen years after his death, the most popular movie star of the century remains exactly what he was throughout the second half of his life: a universal symbol of what America means to itself. Maureen O'Hara, his favorite leading lady, put it best: "To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor and a very fine actor. John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it to be. And he is what they hope it will always be." Even those critics who loathed Wayne's right-wing politics (and there were plenty of them, especially in the '60s) sensed that he had somehow become greater than the sum of his roles.
You'd think that such a man would long since have inspired a shelf of good books. But there are no decent biographies of John Wayne, no first-rate critical studies, no richly detailed catalogs of his work: only a handful of variously inadequate celebrity chronicles and the ghostwritten memoirs of a wife, a daughter and a mistress.
Not that anything else is really necessary; in the long run, few things are less significant than the offstage life of an actor. Still, it's good news that Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, a pair of history professors, have joined forces to write "John Wayne: American" (Free Press. 608 pages. $27.50), a lively, well-researched biography that takes its subject seriously without descending into the claustrophobic swamp of academic self-consciousness. One comes away from "John Wayne: American" with a clear sense of what Wayne was all about - and why it matters.
The paradox of John Wayne is that of all great actors: he drew his identity from the words of other men. To be sure, Wayne was a well-read and articulate man in his own right (it is nice to learn from Mr. Roberts and Mr. Olson that he loved the poetry of Walt Whitman), and at least one of his best-remembered lines came straight from the horse's mouth: "I had the Big C, but I've beaten the son of a bitch." But the John Wayne of cinematic and cultural legend was a collective creation, the product in large part of the ++ brilliantly imaginative direction of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the screenplays - good, bad and indifferent - of a hundred anonymous craftsmen. Even a piece of landscape went into the melting pot: Monument Valley, the 30-mile strip of Arizona studded with sandstone towers where so many of Wayne's westerns were so memorably set.
Yet none of these things alone, and no combination of them, could have brought the Ringo Kid, Ethan Edwards and Rooster Cogburn to indelible, three-dimensional life. It took a man of flesh and blood, halting speech and rolling walk to charge them with the vital spark. And once John Wayne fully grasped the meaning of the character he had become, he homed in on its essence and never again deviated from it. "I was trying," he said, "to play a man who gets dirty, who sweats sometimes, who enjoys kissing a gal he likes, who gets angry, who fights clean whenever possible but will fight dirty if he has to. I made the Western hero a roughneck."
It's revealing that Wayne himself fixed on the Western hero as the archetype of his public image. He played many other characters, from circus owners to airline pilots. For an entire generation of American boys who grew up in the '40s, he was less a cowpuncher than a war hero: John Striker, the nail-chewing Marine sergeant of "Sands of Iwo Jima." (Ironically, Wayne did not serve in World War II - as a father of four, he automatically received a draft deferment - and spent the rest of his life wrestling with guilt over his decision not to enlist.) But time has sharpened our focus on the Wayne image, and it is his classic Western films - "Stagecoach," "Red River," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers," "Rio Bravo," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "True Grit," "The Shootist" - that now define his place in America's collective imagination.
Wayne and his directors chose and shaped his roles carefully and with a clear understanding of the ideas they sought to project. As Roberts and Olson make clear, these ideas are considerably more complex than is generally recognized. In particular, the Wayne characters in "Red River" and "The Searchers" are angry men who stand in the dark shadow of obsession. Wayne's understanding of these characters was more clear-cut. Asked about the ambiguities in the role of Tom Doniphon, the hero of "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," he replied, "Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don't like ambiguity. I don't trust ambiguity." But his own lack of doubt made the characters richer still: in "The Searchers," his greatest movie, Wayne is a mountain of wrongful certainty shrouded by looming thunderheads of madness.
It is impossible to watch "The Searchers" without realizing that Wayne was a far more gifted actor than most critics of his day gave him credit for being. Though his range was limited, he brought real depth to his studies of lonely men on horseback, and as Mr. Roberts and Mr. Olson point out, he got better as he grew older: "His hair fell out, his waist thickened, his face became lined and weathered. But the changes seemed to make him even more appealing. His face took on a chiseled, Mount Rushmore quality, as if it had been around forever."
Only an actor
Yet none of this fully explains the mystery of John Wayne. He was, after all, only an actor: To call him a hero is to devalue the meaning of the word. So why, Messrs. Roberts and Olson ask, do we treat him that way? "Why were medals struck, and airports and schools named, for this actor? . . . Why does his portrait still adorn the walls of truck stops, gas stations, pool halls, sports bars, saloons, garages, gun shops, auction barns, hunting camps, tool sheds, rifle clubs, and auto parts stores - wherever men tend to gather?"
Mr. Wayne himself knew the answer: "I've played the kinda man I'd like to have been," he told a reporter five years before he died. That was the point. It wasn't so much the particular values extolled by the men he played: it was their character. They were men whose word was their bond, men of courage and determination and honesty - and justice. The kind of men we all wish we were, in other words.
Of all the lines John Wayne spoke on screen in his 50 years as an actor, the ones I like best, and know by heart, come from J. B. Books, the cancer-ridden gunman of his last movie, "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." Words to live by? Maybe not. Life was probably never that simple, not even in the Wild West. But when John Wayne said them in that craggy, awkward voice, with the stirring music of Elmer Bernstein playing softly in the background, they weren't just lines from a script: they were an aria from an opera called "America."
* Terry Teachout writes about music for Commentary, ballet for the New Dance Review, books for the New York Times Book Review, opera for Opera News and jazz for the Wall Street Journal. His latest book, "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy," will be out in paperback this November from Vintage.