This week marks the 50th anniversary of the release of THE LONGEST DAY, the D-Day classic starring John Wayne. Wayne, the embodiment of the Western movie hero, died at age 72 on June 11, 1979, three years after American Film™ printed this appreciation by film historian Jeanine Basinger, an AFI Trustee. We asked Basinger, author of “The Star Machine” and “A Woman’s View” and film studies professor at Wesleyan University, whether her sense of Wayne and his place in film history had changed in the years since the article’s publication.
“To me, his presence in the frame is as dynamic and powerful as it ever was,” said Basinger. “John Wayne starred in movies that are about America. He took it upon himself to become an emblematic American presence in westerns and war films.” Basinger pointed out that movie actors today do not have the benefit of a system that could put them in five movies a year and shape their public image. “Wayne’s reputation was already undergoing positive consideration when I wrote the article,” she recalled.
“I don’t think he’s been critically diminished, but neither has his reputation improved. As a teacher in the classroom, though, I am aware that he is more legendary than ever to my students who love RIO BRAVO and RED RIVER.”
According to Basinger, Wayne hasn’t been the focus of criticism lately, while actors like Spencer Tracy and Dana Andrews are the subjects of new books. We asked her which, if any, contemporary film stars have filled Wayne’s boots. “Clint Eastwood is the new #1,” she replied. “He’s more than a male movie legend as an actor; he’s a producer, director and composer, an American icon and an international icon, as well.”
Basinger believes the image of the male hero has changed in movies, “but not beyond recognition. Hollywood tends to recycle things, so whether it is Cagney or Brando or Cruise, the image is likely to come back into vogue. Of course, today’s actors have different goals; they want to play different kinds of roles. John Wayne understood being an American icon.”