One of the greatest American heroes in the history of the cinema has been and will always be Marion Mitchell Morrison, otherwise known as John Wayne, the Duke.
Just three-and-a-half hours north of Kansas City, travelers are able to visit Winterset, Iowa, a little town in Madison County, Iowa that is well-known as the birth place of the Duke and for the Bridges of Madison County.
A tour of the little house is just off the John Wayne Drive not too far from the town square. Here, tour guides direct guests through the little house room by room with some time-period authentic furniture and a room simply full of photographs and memorabilia of the Duke and his friends.
The tour guides also inform the visitors that the Wayne family is still very connected with the learning center and home to represent it in the best possible light.
Around the corner on the main thoroughfare, John Wayne Drive, stands a bronze statue of the Duke on a pedestal. He is dressed in the most familiar garb that his fans would remember complete with cowboy hat, boots and scarf. Aissa Wayne, the Duke’s daughter, dedicated the statue during the birthday celebration in 2010.
Standing at the foot of this impressive statue, visitors get the sense of his power as a man and the strength of his character. Even more than 30 years after his death, he is still one of the most influential individuals that helped to shape our country. The museum and learning center are continually busy and many stand for minutes at the statue viewing this inane force of nature.
Visitors from all over the world gather to see where this man, who became such an American icon, landed his first role and ended up in the newspapers!
John Wayne was born May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa in a little four-room house near the center of town.
Even at his birth, he made headlines in the local newspaper. When his mother was about to give birth, a doctor, which turned out to be a woman, was called to the bedside and immediately understood the mother’s trouble.
Little baby Morrison was a thirteen-pound baby!
From both sides of his family, Wayne was of Scots-Irish and Scottish descent and brought up as a Presbyterian. He had a younger brother who was named after the famous Irish patriot, Robert Emmett.
While Wayne was a small youngster, his family moved to California. His father soon realized he and his family did not want to be farmers and he opened a pharmacist business similar to the one he had in Iowa.
Ever year, visitors come to Winterset and celebrate in the John Wayne Birthplace Celebration.
Wayne got his nick-name, the Duke, through the love he had for a pet dog. Some local firemen saw him walking his dog one day and fondly said, “There goes little Duke and big Duke.”
As a young man, Wayne attended University of Southern California (USC) and studied pre-law and was there under an athletic scholarship until an injury forced him to leave school and look for work. Tom Mix, a famous western movie star of the silent era, got him work in a summer job in the prop department. Within a short time, he was doing bit parts in the studio under the direction of John Ford, one of the most famous directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Wayne discussed in one of his television interviews his first real meeting with the already notable director. Ford asked him what he wanted to do and Wayne responded that he wanted to learn to direct. Ford then asked him to kneel down in a football position and kicked him knocking him down. When Ford asked him to kneel in the position again, Wayne then kicked Ford back before he could do it again.
The two became long-term life-long friends despite Ford’s irascible and impossible attitudes at times. He also felt a strong resentment that others had given Marian Morrison his new name, John Wayne.
Wayne’s first break came in the movie, The Big Trail. Although this was considered a failure and box-office flop, The Big Trail showed Wayne as a true American hero and would feature some of the best photography of the early age directed by Raoul Walsh. It would also be a foreshadow on what characterization would outline Wayne’s film career for the rest of his life.
Principals in film
Although Wayne was a heavy drinker in real life and tough as nails, he was determined throughout his life to show up the best of the American spirit and honor of decency. He never allowed too much filthy language in his films or obscenities or indecency. He was ever mindful of “John Wayne, the Duke, an American” that other Americans could look up to.
When offered roles like Patton or Dirty Harry, he turned them down because they were not John Wayne roles.
Throughout his life, he was tormented by critics that such a “great American hero” never served during World War II. Many never understood or refused to understand that by the time of the war, he was physically unfit from all his stunt work and was refused release by his studio. Nevertheless, the guilt he felt stayed with him all his life even though his service to the American spirit on screen won many a battle for the morale of this country.
Wayne portrayed various different and unusual characters even though most of them were in western motif. Many fans, still today, believe he should have won an Oscar for his role in The Searchers or Red River and even The Shootist, his last film, but Wayne only won one Oscar for his role in True Grit.
Wayne and his family were also threatened by communists who thought killing a man like John Wayne would delineate the American spirit. Wayne publicly thanked his long-time friend and co-worker Yakima Canutt for helping to save him and his family when they threatened him here in this country. Several times, when he was overseas, he was threatened as well, but according to the book, John Wayne, the Man Behind the Myth, the communists grew to respect and admire him almost as much as the Americans do.
There are many other notable films that could be mentioned regarding Wayne and his career such as Donovan’s Reef, McLintock!, Hellfighters and Hatari, all more or less adventurous comedies, or Rooster Cogburn, Cahill U.S. Marshal, Big Jake, and Chisum which immortalizes an end to a long time cowboy.
However, in final remembrance of Wayne’s most amazing career as an American patriot, none was so good as The Alamo and The Green Berets. During a time of great conflict in the American love of country and for our service men and women, only Wayne stood up to showcase the American spirit and the purpose behind the controversial Vietnam War in The Green Berets.
This film continues to be one of the more popular films of that era.
Death and Honor
John Wayne died June 11, 1979 from stomach cancer. On May 26, 1979, less than a month before his demise, he was formally recognized by the United States Congress for his benefit to the true American spirit. Many notables in Hollywood and the political field testified to the validity in presenting him with this medal.
A copy of the medal, which was presented to his family in March 1980, can be found at the Winterset museum.
The medal says the one thing that represented John Wayne by who he was, what he was, and what he stood for: “John Wayne, American.”
Other attractions in Madison County, Iowa
Bridges of Madison County
The Wildwood Hills Ranch
Madison County Twisted Vine Brewery
Madison County Historical Museum
Bevington-Kaiser House, 1856 (part of the Madison County Historical Museum
Enjoy this article written by Bettse Folsom?
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