American movie icon always cast as hero

By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor

Heroes, manufactured or real, we don’t have enough good ones these days.

Saturday would have been the 100th birthday of America’s greatest hero — John Wayne.

My earliest memories of the Duke come from Portales’ old Varsity Drive-In west of the city. My family never missed a John Wayne flick.

Granted, with a family of five, it was a lot more practical and affordable to wait for the latest shoot-em-up to hit the drive-in.

Mom would make fried chicken, hamburgers or taquitas and we’d all pack up in the station wagon for a night at the movies. Many’s the night I fell asleep to the sound of the Duke’s booming voice.

I can’t think of a single movie that didn’t have Wayne in the strong classic male role, individualistic, rugged and eventually doing the right thing. The only wobble in any of the characters he played was in his characteristic saunter.

Last summer we were coming across Iowa on vacation and I had intention of stopping in Winterset, Iowa, Wayne’s birthplace, but missed the turnoff.

We lived in Ridgway, Colo. where Wayne filmed “True Grit,” for which he won an Oscar. The Duke’s image was pretty large in the little town, with a cafe named True Grit on the boardwalk of the town’s main street. Actually the movie production company built the boardwalk and remodeled the buildings to become Fort Smith, Ark., where the story starts out.

In the Cimarron Mountains that loom in ragged outline above the town, there’s a beautiful mountain clearing the locals refer to as Little Debbie Park. It’s named after Debbie Reynolds from the movie. The mountain park is the one in the scene where Sheriff Rooster Cogburn instructs the character Lucky Ned Pepper to: “Fill your hands you sonofabitch;” then proceeds to charge across the meadow with his horse’s reins in his teeth and a rifle in each hand.

John Wayne’s war movies made him equally as heroic, if not more so. In “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Wayne the movie icon brought perhaps the most iconic battle of World War II to the screen. In the 1968 film “The Green Berets,” a movie that he made to bolster support for the Vietnam War, he was a tough Airborne Ranger with a soft side that only showed in a few scenes.

“I play John Wayne in every part, regardless of the character,” Wayne once said.

Truly, all his roles painted him as a true American hero. Wayne meticulously groomed this image, refusing roles that didn’t measure up to his standards. He even reportedly turned down a role in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.”

“I can’t be in this picture, it’s too dirty…but I’ll be the first in line to see it,” Duke reportedly said to Brooks.

My favorite John Wayne Western is either “The Searchers” (1956) or “The Cowboys” (1972). My favorite war picture of his is hands down, “The Green Berets.”

Interesting John Wayne facts from Wikipedia:

• His famous quote from “The Searchers” — “That’ll be the day.” Inspired the Buddy Holly song of the same name.

• Starting out in the silent film era, Wayne’s first starring role was in “The Big Trail” (1930). It was the first western epic talkie.

• He was given the nickname “Duke” by firemen near his home in Palmdale, Calif. who started calling him “Little Duke” because they always saw him with his airedale terrier “Big Duke.” He liked it better than his given name Marion. A movie director later gave him the screen name John Wayne.

• A Harris Poll released in 2007 placed Wayne third among America’s favorite film stars, the only deceased star on the list and the only one who has appeared on the poll every year.

• John Wayne played the lead in 142 movies.

• Though Wayne became an icon to all branches of the military through his movies, he was never in the military.

• Soviet Union archives show that Joseph Stalin ordered Wayne’s assassination shortly before the Russian leader died.

• Sand from the island of Iwo Jima was used in the concrete that enshrined his footprints in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.