From the earliest days of his stardom, John Wayne played a cowboy. The Big Trail (1930) kicked off this great tradition, and when that big-budget epic sank at the box office, Wayne had to accept roles in B-budget (to be generous) quickies. In these, he portrayed Singin’ Sandy (thankfully, another actor’s voice dubbed in the musical numbers) and one of the Three Mesquiteers. Then, as every Duke fan knows, director John Ford saved the young hopeful from kiddie oaters by offering him the role of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). It would be followed by some of the greatest Westerns ever filmed: Red River (1948), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Shootist (1976) all ranking high on that list.
Though Wayne may be best known for his Westerns, he also had some incredible roles as a man in uniform. Ford, the same screen-poet who established the Duke as a celluloid symbol for the American cowboy, helped develop Wayne as one of cinema’s most admired World War II heroes with They Were Expendable (1945). Wayne had already portrayed a WWII combatant in Back to Bataan (1945) and would go on to play one in Flying Leathernecks (1951) and The Longest Day (1962). The only strong WWII script he turned down was The Dirty Dozen (1968), and the decision was made so he could co-direct The Green Berets (1968) to honor the American soldiers fighting in the then-current Vietnam War.
So! All across our nation—from saloons where grumpy old men gather for beer to suburban living rooms where Chivas Regal flows like tap water—Wayne fans love to debate and sometimes even argue: Which of the star’s two faces was the greatest? Which of his roles—cowboy or soldier—best represented his acting abilities and captured the tenor of America’s values?
However fervently differing aficionados may argue, there’s only one correct answer: It’s a draw. In the end, there is no contest, not really. Once again, we can thank Ford. The famed cavalry trilogy under his direction-—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—best showcases how well Wayne straddled both cowboy and military roles. The trilogy combines the best of both worlds, since the Duke plays a cavalry officer serving on the frontier; he’s both a wanderer of the West and a military man, and embraces the values of each. However ruggedly individualistic Kirby York or Nathan Brittles may be, they (just like the man playing them) know there’s always an obligation to community. The two ideologies form a yin-yang opposition that’s at the heart of this country’s ideology and essential to America’s genius as a political and social system.
It makes sense, then, that prior to his Oscar win for True Grit (1969), the only film Wayne had been nominated for was Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Like so many other of his complex heroes—a beleaguered Westerner in Hondo (1955), an alcoholic airplane pilot in The High and the Mighty (1954), a guilt-ridden Civil War commander in The Horse Soldiers (1959)—Sgt. John M. Stryker presents us with an appealing combination of strengths and weaknesses. On the training field or a battlefront, Big John appears the consummate he-man, rugged and ready. Alone, Sgt. Stryker is consumed with a fear that he may be a failure in terms of his equally important roles as husband and father.
Always, Sgt. Stryker tries to balance a difficult combination of duty to family, duty to country, and career ambition. Like the actor playing him, Sgt. Stryker can only do his best at each while hoping for partial success with all. It’s the American conundrum and it held just as true for 19th-century Westerners as for 20th-century servicemen. In Sands of Iwo Jima, Sgt. Stryker’s dialogue creates a bridge between the two: “Alright, marines. Saddle up! Let’s get back into this war.”
Hard ridin’ cowboy or military man? Other than the costume, they’re one and the same.