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John Wayne, movie icon

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Paramount Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video joined last week to honor what would have been John Wayne’s 100th birthday. Paramount has a total of 14 Wayne titles on DVD, highlighted by an all-new Special Collector’s Edition of “True Grit” and three DVD collections: “The John Wayne Century Collection,” “The John Wayne Western Collection,” and the “John Wayne Adventure Collection.”

The man who became the embodiment of the great American western hero was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907. (Fortunately, the nickname “Duke” replaced Marion.) Years later, when the young actor got his first big break in 1930’s “The Big Trail,” the head of Fox Studios rechristened him John Wayne. His legendary career went on to span five decades, boasting several classic performances, including the Oscar-winning Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit.”

As a kid, I read True Grit by Charles Portis. Even then, I knew no one could play Marshal Rooster J. Cogburn, but John Wayne. And for years I have excitedly awaited the arrival of a “making-of” documentary. At last, it’s here. “True Grit: Special Collector’s Edition” includes an audio commentary and several fun featurettes.

Now, I suspect an endorsement of John Wayne as my screen hero may not sit well with some. After all, he often ended conflict with guns or fisticuffs. But, as a kid, my views on character were reinforced by watching the Duke’s movies. Wayne, who never played petty or vindictive on screen, portrayed men who faced down formidable odds, defended the rights of others, showed regard for authority and paid tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Those aren’t bad qualities for a boy to glean from a movie hero.

Along with being a movie icon, Wayne was a vocal Republican, even during the late 1960s and early ’70s when such a demonstrative conservative proclamation could have threatened his boxoffice championship. Though he did not serve in the military, he was always an exalter of flag and country, his war movies and USO trips into harm’s way making him a patriotic symbol. There is also evidence suggesting he may have been a Christian. Indeed, there are many examples of him reverencing the Creator and acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God.

First off, he never denied God’s authority in his movies. Even toward the end of his career when rating codes had slackened, enabling movie stars to profane God’s name on screen, he never did. And in several films, including “3 Godfathers,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “Operation Pacific,” “The Cowboy,” and “Chisum,” he was either seen leading others in prayer or discussing God’s authority. What’s more, on the first day of filming “The Alamo,” Wayne, who produced, directed and starred in the picture, had a minister on the set to pray over the production.

On a segment of “The Dean Martin Show” in the mid-1960s, Wayne made a point of letting the audience know he would make sure his newly born daughter would grow up guided by the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer.

In the early 1970s, a televised interview showed Wayne gathered with his family at mealtime, Duke’s youngest saying grace and ending it in Jesus’ name. I remember thinking as I viewed Wayne bowing in prayer, “Yeah, we’ll see him up there.”

Certainly, it would be naïve to think we know a man by his carefully protected public image, but an acknowledgement of God must have been important to John Wayne for some reason. Since he didn’t need to be reverential in order to maintain celebrity, I must assume these displays were motivated by other judgments.

I know that being a sinner or a saint isn’t a matter of behavior: You can’t be “good” enough to get into Heaven. But Solomon wrote “As in water face reflects face, so a man’s heart reveals the man” (Proverbs 27:19). I think Duke’s actions revealed his heart, and yeah, I think we’ll see him up there.
Phil Boatwright is celebrating his 20th year as a film reviewer. He is the film reviewer for previewonline.org.

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  • Phil Boatwright