Tribute: “El Duque”

Slideshow tribute I put together to honor “El Duque”. Photos are from a camping trip I made out west with my son Tomas in the summer of 2008. Film score; “True Grit” (1969).

Like millions of other Americans over the past 50 years and more, I grew up with John Wayne in my living room and neighborhood movie house. I never could imagine him in suit and tie, or at awards ceremonies, or in casual slacks and polo shirt appearing on a late night talk show or being interviewed at a southern California marina while having lunch and signing autographs. To me he was always traveling somewhere in the Old West, dust-covered, squinting in the bright, afternoon glare of a scorching Arizona sun; or bundled up in layers, toughing it out in the frigid high country of the San Juans; or on horseback, the point man, leading a group of soldiers, cowboys, or pioneers as they splashed thru a sparkling, sun-dappled creek beneath towering oaks and sycamores somewhere down in Durango, Mexico.

true-grit-(1969)-large-picture                                       On location in Colorado, filming “True Grit”, 1969

As a teenager I had conflicting feelings about this larger than life American titan. I didn’t like his politics, didn’t like his stand on the Vietnam War, and sure as hell didn’t like how Navajo, Cheyenne and Mexicans were portrayed in some of his movies. He was perhaps the most striking symbol of an older, conservative America, “the establishment”, that I distrusted and felt opposed to. He probably didn’t like my politics either. But personal whims aside, I still loved his movies. And I loved him too, and found myself rooting for him, wanting to identify with him. Maybe, like “El Duque”, I could display a quiet, honest strength and be measured with my words, as opposed to flapping my lips and getting into embarrassing situations all my life? And yet I sensed even then, in the seventies when John Wayne was in the last years of a long and storied life, a nostalgia of seeing him in decent, innocent movies of an earlier era, including the grainy, black and white flicks that entertained thousands of moviegoers in the “picture palaces”  of the thirties and forties.

west of the divide

Early leading role, 1934. Only a few years removed from his days working as a prop boy moving furniture or playing a corpse in “The Deceiver” (1931). Still not a household name yet, he wouldn’t achieve stardom for another five years when he starred in John Ford’s classic western, “Stagecoach”(1939). 

Hondo 1953                                                Still from “Hondo”, 1953, Skull Valley, Utah

What’s different about John Wayne versus most movie stars is that everyone knew he was just acting but it didn’t matter, they bought into whatever he did because on and off the screen we viewed him as one and the same person. We loved and admired what he represented, even if it was a flawed America. Everyone can make their own judgement but for me the good in his movies outweighed the bad (and the ugly, hint, hint!).


                                    Still from “The Searchers”, Mexican Hat, Utah, 1956

To a very real extent, he made me proud to be American.  Only now, with the passage of so much time can I look back and reflect, and realize how much I miss the big man; especially when I recall hiking in the Uncompahgre Wilderness, or walking in a desert canyon in the Chiricahuas,  or camping in a pine forest on the Kaibab Plateau. For me, those beautiful Western landscapes are inseparable from the man on the screen.

Photo at top of post: last scene from “The Searchers”.  IMG_3181

Uncle Jumbo’s house, Keyser West Virginia, he’s a lifelong fan and watches his movies just about everyday.IMG_3172

IMG_3174Folks at the IGA food market in Fort Ashby ain’t shy about showing off The Duke!


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