Saturday, August 30, 2014


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

“Don't ever for a minute make the mistake of looking down your nose at westerns. They're art--the good ones, I mean. They deal in life and sudden death and primitive struggle, and with the basic emotions--love, hate, and anger--thrown in. We'll have westerns films as long as the cameras keep turning. The fascination that the Old West has will never die.” ~ John Wayne

It really isn’t surprising that when people think about iconic western films, the name John Wayne comes to mind. Truth is, despite the fact he died in 1979, many of the westerns starring Wayne are now considered classics. As for the man whose nickname was “Duke”, he continues to be listed each year among the Harris Poll’s Top Ten All-Time Favorite Movie Stars.

John Wayne made over 175 films across a variety of genres. I must admit ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952) is one of my all-time favorites and a ‘must see’ every St. Patrick’s Day. But what I love most are his westerns, many of which were directed by his good friend John Ford.

Who can forget the first time they saw the breathtaking panorama of Monument Valley in a John Ford western? To this day, whenever I see a photo of the sandstone buttes, especially the famous left and right mittens, I expect to see John Wayne somewhere nearby on his horse.

For many people, especially those who live in other parts of the world, western films provided their first visual of the American West. And John Wayne was the iconic tough-guy western hero.

Many of us grew up watching his films on television. His first generation of movie fans (which included my grandparents and parents) saw those films when they were first released as the main attraction in movie theatres. Today, younger generations see his now ‘classic’ films on DVD as well as the occasional airing on television (yet another reason why I love the Turner Class Movie Channel).

[Pictured: John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River]

I have many favorite John Wayne westerns, including early films such as Red River (1948), Stagecoach (1939) and The Angel and the Badman (1947). But my two absolute favorite Wayne westerns were both directed by John Ford in beautiful Technicolor.

The first one is 3 Godfathers (1948), stunningly filmed in Death Valley, California with such authenticity you feel the scorching heat. Wayne stars as one of three outlaws trying to escape capture by riding into the desert. Nothing seems to go right for these good-hearted bank robbers. Not only is one of them wounded, they run out of water and lose their horses in a blinding sandstorm. Determined to survive, they continue on foot. Hoping to find a watering hole, they come upon a stranded pregnant woman and help deliver her son. Grateful for their help—and aware she is dying—the woman names her son after the three men and asks them to see her newborn to safety.

I absolutely love this film. I love John Wayne’s character, Robert Marmaduke Hightower, and the life and death journey he takes toward redemption. Harry Carey, Jr., and Pedro Armendariz make up the other two godfathers, and Wayne’s frequent co-star and real-life friend Ward Bond plays the sheriff hot on their trail.

I should note that the amazing cinematography was done by Winton C. Hoch, who also worked as cinematographer on my other all-time favorite John Wayne-John Ford western, The Searchers (1956).

Director John Ford masterfully captured the spectacular panorama of the American West, and also encapsulated a frightening period in America’s history and the realistic struggles encountered by pioneering men and women who moved west. Wayne’s performance is brilliantly disturbing and compelling. As Ethan Edwards, the bigoted Civil War veteran, he is determined to seek revenge and rescue his niece from the Comanche Indians who murdered his brother along with his family. Yet what drives Ethan most is hatred, bigotry, and what he believes is the only way to end his niece’s suffering and disgrace.

[Pictured: Jeffrey Hunter and John Wayne in The Searchers]

Interestingly enough, I saw an interview with John Wayne’s son, Patrick (who also appeared in the film as Lt. Greenhill, a young Cavalry officer). Patrick was questioned about The Searchers and his father’s reticence about playing someone like Ethan. According to Patrick, his father told director John Ford, “I can play as mean as you want, as long as there is something redeemable about me in the end.”

[Photo: Portrait of John Wayne by Everett Raymond Kinsller, Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City, OK]

It is interesting to note that John Wayne never played the ‘perfect’ hero. The men he portrayed on film were tough, flawed men who made mistakes. They drank whiskey and enjoyed poker as well as a good game of chess. They loved the land and the flag. They didn’t sugarcoat anything, but said what they meant and meant what they said. They didn’t go looking for fights, but they didn’t back down when someone challenged them or sought to harm someone else. To the depths of their being they had a code of honor. They sat tall in the saddle and said more with a grin or narrow-eyed glance than some long, drawn-out conversation going nowhere. They were men who believed in God, country, and family. And you just knew that when the going got tough or you were in trouble, you wanted that man on your side.

What loyal audiences realized during the fifty year film career John Wayne had, was that he was very much like the man they saw on screen. Although there were many who didn’t agree with his politics or personal viewpoints, he respected their right to their own opinion. To those that worked with him, he was always professional, always prepared, always kind and respectful to every cast and crew member.

To the public, he appreciated their support and wanted to provide them with quality films they could enjoy. He once said: “I don’t want ever to appear in a film that would embarrass a viewer. A man can take his wife, mother, and his daughter to one of my movies and never be ashamed or embarrassed for going."

He also never walked away or ignored a fan who wanted to speak with him or have an autograph. He maintained fans were the reason he’d achieved success and the ability to provide for his children, and he would not ignore them.

[Photo: John Wayne in The Angel and the Badman]

But what I think says most about this man is his family, and the enduring love and respect his children have for him and their determination to honor his memory.

Through the continuing efforts of his children (and now grandchildren), the John Wayne Cancer Foundation is a leading force in cancer research and has established amazing diagnostic and treatment protocols for various types of cancer. The Foundation also provides programs for emotional support and education to those suffering from cancer, as well as their families.

How many of us have known someone diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, I have lost many loved ones to the disease, including a sister, aunt, and parent. And I know many more fighting like valiant warriors every single day to beat it, including children. For the person dealing with this disease on a daily basis (and their families), the John Wayne Cancer Foundation along with its Research and Education arm, the John Wayne Cancer Institute, offers support, education, and vital opportunities toward finding a cure. In fact, one of the programs implemented by the John Wayne Cancer Institute is a Surgical Oncology Fellowship Training Program to “train surgeons of tomorrow in the latest techniques and technologies for treating and researching cancer”.

Another interesting fact is the breakthrough “Sentinel Node Biopsy Technique”, a standard used worldwide for treatment of melanoma and breast cancer was developed by the John Wayne Cancer Institute.

[Photo: John Wayne, The Shootist]

One life can touch another in so many ways. It could be through our work, our vision, or how we raise our children. Ultimately, there is no greater testament to a person’s life than how they are remembered, and the positive influence they might have had on another human being. As a result, for me, the legacy of John Wayne isn’t just the wonderful films he made for generations to enjoy, but also the manner in which he lived his life and raised his seven children, giving them not only love but understanding about the importance of philanthropy and helping others.

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” ~ John Wayne

John Wayne was first diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964. Surgery to remove the diseased lung and several ribs proved successful. However, fifteen years later, cancer returned. John Wayne died in 1979 of stomach cancer. After losing their beloved father to the devastating, insidious disease, Wayne’s children vowed to continue his fight and battle cancer through measures to diagnose, educate, treat, and find a cure. A remarkable family, to be sure.

Thank you so much for stopping by today. If you have a favorite John Wayne film you’d like to share, please do so. As a special treat, below is a fan video I saw on Youtube that you might enjoy. And, please, if you would like to learn more about the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and what you can do to support their ongoing efforts, please visit: ~ AKB


  1. Ashley, what a great post about one of my very favorite actors! I didn't know about his foundation and am glad to learn about it, and to know his family is keeping his memory alive in that way, as well. I can't tell you how many times I walked by that portrait of him in the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum when I worked there and admired it. There was a long entry-way filled with portraits of movie and television stars and they were all just wonderful, but of course, JW was one of my favorites.

    I think my favorite movies he was in were The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and while I loved the ones he did with Maureen O'Hara (so many great ones!) I loved The Shootist, even though it's a sad one. He had "it" right up to the end.


    1. Thanks, Cheryl. Oh, I love JW, too. He was so wonderful in The Shootist and really should have won the Oscar for it. And anything with him and his old friend, Jimmy Stewart, was wonderful. I loved that JS played his doctor in The Shootist. And Liberty Valance? Another classic. I also heard JW beqieathed much of his western art to your museum. I need to make a road trip to do research on the Arbuckle Mountains and want to visit the National Cowboy Museum, too. Maybe in October. I would love to see you. We could visit, talk JW, writing, and see the museum together. ((Hugs))

  2. Ashley, you named my two favorite John Wayne films: The Quiet Man and Red River. I can honestly say both of those movies influenced my writing. The trail drive portion of my second novel, Dashing Irish, is a direct homage to Red River. And you know how I love everything Irish. The beautiful settings in the Quiet Man color my vision of Ireland to this day.

    I did not know about the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and Institute. What a wonderful testament to the man who stands as a hero for so many, not only for his movies, but for his strong, dignified character.

    Thanks for your wonderful post!

  3. Thank you, Lyn. The historical realism of John Ford westerns are very inspiring from a writing perspective. And in how characters lived. Patrick Wayne said in an interview that John Wayne worked at his craft and what his 'character' was supposed to know, whether it was being able to saddle a horse blindfolded, ride like the wind, or rope a calf. There is a scene in one of his films where JW has to shoe a horse and is doing the whole task with skill and ease, all the while he is in an important scene where he has dialogue with (I think) Geraldine Fitzgerald and the emotion of the scene has to be on point. He felt if you are going to play a cowboy, you better learn to ride and rope. Think of his famous scene in True Grit with the reins between his teeth as he is riding and firing. And he had only one lung, too. Wayne made things look effortless in his films because he was professional but also because he knew the characters he played should know how to do these things and do them well. The realism of his films and the accuracy of how they portrayed that time period really are impressive. Anyway, thanks for your comment.

  4. John Wayne will be remembered for his films, and even more for the depth of character he possessed. He is the personification of an American.
    I loved him in True Grit and The Quiet Man. I even liked him in movies that were less serious like McClintock.
    A lovely post honoring an American icon, Ashley.

  5. Thank you, Sarah. I agree, and hope his legacy and patriotism for this country and its history will continue.

  6. Ashley, that would be wonderful! Let me know when you're planning to head out this way!

  7. Definitely, Cheryl! ((Hugs)) Oh, I just read Maureen O'Hara will get Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the next Academy Awards. About time!

  8. After "The Quiet Man" the movie "Three Godfathers" was one of my favorite. Great post as usual.


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