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Monday, November 1, 2021

November 1, 2021: Action Figures: John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart

[Wednesday would have been Charles Bronson’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Bronson and other action film stars and characters. Share your own thoughts on these and all other action figures and films for a popcorn-popping crowd-sourced weekend blockbuster!]

On two Hollywood lives and legacies, and a film that purposefully complicates both of them.

John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, both of whom spent many years in and connected to the Boy Scouts, had remarkably parallel childhoods and young adulthoods in many other ways as well. Wayne (his birth name was Marion Morrison) was born in a small Iowa town to parents of mostly Scots-Irish heritage, raised Presbyterian, played football and participated in debate and journalism in high school (his family had moved to Glendale, California by that time), and wanted to attend the US Naval Academy but ended up pre-law at the University of Southern California instead. Stewart was born in a small Pennsylvania town to parents of mostly Scottish heritage, raised Presbyterian, played football and edited the yearbook in high school, and nearly attended the Naval Academy but ended up an architecture major at Princeton University instead. Both men likewise began acting in a serious way while still very young, with Wayne appearing in his first film at the age of 19 (after losing his football scholarship and having to leave USC) and Stewart joining the prominent Cape Cod theater group the University Players while he was still in college.

Perhaps the only significant biographical divergence between Wayne and Stewart occurred during World War II: while it seems that Wayne wanted to serve in some military capacity, he did not do so, touring the South Pacific with the USO but otherwise continuing to make films (many of them about the war); Stewart, on the other hand, flew numerous combat missions for the Air Force between 1942 and 1945, putting his burgeoning Hollywood career entirely on hold for the duration of the war. While each of those military histories is of course individual and complicated, there’s also at least a bit of an irony in comparing them to the two men’s subsequent film careers and overall Hollywood legacies: Wayne became more and more associated with themes like war, violence, and an idealized form of uber-masculinity, a narrative that still endures to this day; while Stewart became connected to more thoughtful and sensitive alternative images of masculinity and movie stardom, perhaps especially due to the first film he made upon resuming his career post-war, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). While of course life and art almost always diverge, it’s fair to say that in this case both men’s artistic legacies have often been linked directly to perceived aspects of their personal lives and identities, links that their respective wartime experiences at least render more ambiguous and uncertain.

The one film that the two men starred in together, John Ford’s classic 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, interestingly and importantly investigates many of these precise questions and themes. In some ways, Valance relies upon the two men’s stereotypical images: Stewart plays a lawyer and politician whose intellectual identity seems challenged (but whose career has been enhanced) by a famous duel in which he apparently shot and killed a notorious outlaw; while Wayne plays a rough and tumble rancher who was the outlaw’s actual killer and has stoically kept that fact quiet to benefit his friend. Yet on a deeper level, Ford’s film offers a direct challenge to both the Western genre (one in which Ford and his frequent collaborator Wayne worked so often) and the idea that we can trust mythic narratives of identity at all. The film’s most famous line—and one of the more famous in Hollywood history—comes near the end, when a newspaper reporter learns the truth about the shooting but decides not to reveal it to anyone; as explanation he says to Stewart’s character, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a great line, but an incredibly complicated one, and I don’t believe we’re necessarily meant to accept it as the right perspective—or at the very least, it asks us to investigate legends and consider what facts and truths might lie untold beneath those mythic stories. A question that certainly applies to the lives and legacies of both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Next action figure tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these figures and films, or others you’d add to the mix?

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