hero? And what has one got to do with the movies? The answer to that question - which is really the question of how the mass media influence popular perceptions of the heroic and the Hero - is a complex one as are any significant questions that examine the relationship between mass media and the culture that produces, absorbs, reflects and reifies them.
This paper examines one person who as much as anyone became the emblem of a hero in the 20th century because of the image that he portrayed on the big screen: John Wayne or The Duke. To say that he was a hero because of the roles that he played is not to imply that he was not himself a good person. But we remember him today, and remember him as a heroic figure not because of his actions as an individual but because of the characters that he took on. It says something important about our culture that today, nearly a quarter of a century after Wayne's death, we still remember his roles whereas few of us can probably name a single one of the paramedics, firefighters or private citizens killed in the attempt to save others during the attack on the World Trade Center. Even though most of us would acknowledge that these people are the true heroes - for what, after all, could be more heroic than risking and losing one's life to save the life of a stranger? - and that actors merely represent heroes, it is the actors that we remember.
This paper examines first of all the life and the work of John Wayne, looking at some of the films on which his reputation as a virile hero is based before turning to a more general consideration of the role that the mass media have in shaping our notions of the heroic.
Marion Michael Morrison
John Wayne, born in 1907 in the nation's heartland, died in Los Angeles in 1979 after a career in which he made over 150 feature films. Born Marion Michael Morrison - although there is some confusion over his original middle name - he is now known by millions by his screen name of John Wayne - for what actor could ever hope to be seen as truly manly with an androgynous name like Marion? - or by his nickname of the Duke. In most of his roles he was either a cowboy or a soldier, a man short on words but long on courage.
Wayne actually began working at Fox Films when he was still a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (and playing the manly sport of football). While working in the prop-room at Fox, Wayne met Director John Ford, who befriended him and by 1928 was giving him small roles in his films. Wayne's first leading role, however, was not in a Ford film but rather in the 1930 Raoul Walsh movie The Big Trail. This was the first of a series of low-budget movies that he would star in, averaging 10 B. movies a year for the next decade.
Among the 150 films he would appear in would be a number of those directed by John Ford, including:
Fort Apache (1948)
Red River (1948)
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Rio Grande (1950)
The Searchers (1956)
The Wings of Eagles (1957).
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
The Shootist (1976).
Wayne's reputation as a hero depended not only upon feats of strength in his movies but also for his depiction of the potential strength of friendship among men. One particularly good example of this is Rio Bravo, which can be seen in many ways to be the quintessential buddy Western.
Although designed in many ways by Director Howard Hawks as a "John Wayne" movie, Wayne himself gracefully cedes much of the movie's core to Dean Martin and Ward Bond. The heart of the movie is the way in which these characters trust and depend on one another, and this aspect of this movie and so many of his other films is no doubt one of the primary reasons that Wayne's reputations as an intelligent hero is so enduring. Unlike so many of the brave characters that one sees today (who are willing to risk death for themselves), Wayne's movie characters understood that heroism is not only the ability to be brave, but the courage to put one's fate in the hands of one's companions. Despite his reputation for virility and strength, Wayne often played a character who was not afraid to admit when he needed help.
We see this ability to blend the image of the lone hero facing down death and the man not afraid to ask for help in movies that Wayne directed as well as starred in, such as The Alamo - in which he did both. In many ways, soldier movies and soldier roles were a better match for the particular ethos of courage and heroism that is associated with Wayne because the soldier both faces death alone and also acts as an integral part of a unit, while a cowboy is much more of a true loner. It was Wayne's ability to convey this soldierly sense of courage - a combination of independence and dependence - that was no doubt in many ways responsible for his popularity among the generation of viewers whose life had been defined by their experiences in World War II.
Film scholar Syd Field summarizes this image of Wayne, especially in The Searchers but also in his other films:
My image of John Wayne has always been as the classic western hero, strong, rugged, silent, following a code of honor and moral behavior that represents all the best virtues of the old West. Wayne's screen image is a mythic, heroic figure determinedly following his path to achieve what is right, noble and just, while still remaining true to his beliefs. The Searchers starts out this way, and it's pretty clear that the search is what defines his life and gives it meaning.
An essential part of Wayne's image as a hero also relies on the fact that he presents a face to the world that is uncompromising. This is an essential aspect of heroes in much of the Western tradition, the idea that a hero does not change with circumstance but is always essentially himself (or, sometimes, herself).
The first thing I noticed is that John Wayne's character doesn't change. There is no transformation in his character; he's exactly the same at the end of the movie as he was at the beginning. Wayne's image, as a man of action, is heroic precisely because he does not change; he refuses to give up, bend or alter his ways until his mission is accomplished; to find and rescue the kidnapped girl. And when he does find her, we don't know whether he's going to kill, or embrace her. Finally, in a dramatic scene, he relents and embraces her. At the end, when the family enters the house to celebrate their return, Wayne remains outside the doorway, a desolate, homeless drifter doomed to wander "between the winds."
We see this consistency of character not only within a single film but also across his entire life's work as an actor when we look at The Shootist, Wayne's last film. In this movie, we see Wayne playing an aging gunfighter who is trying to find some peace at the end of his life even as he struggles to accept the fact that he is dying of cancer. And yet, even as he tries to find solitude and quiet, a gang of killers stalks him for a final fight. Throughout the film, Wayne shows us a character who is immutable, for whom even death makes no essential difference.
How Do the Mass Media Create Heroes?
Certainly one of the reasons that we consider Wayne to be a hero is that he played heroic parts - and never did anything unforgivably unheroic offscreen. But we also consider him to be a hero for reasons that are distinct from the specific roles that he played and his own persona but that have to do more generally with the ways in which the mass media - including, of course, film but also television, radio and print media as well - shape our definitions and understandings of the heroic.
We may begin our examination of how the mass media affect people's perception of heroes and heroism by examining a few basic precepts, the first of which concerns the actual power of the mass media. While it is true on the one hand that the mass media are usually less important in helping people to form beliefs and attitudes than their immediate social environment when (including friends, family, co-workers), they are still significant. The mass media undeniably have the power to focus the attention of the public on certain…