For me today is a big “OTD” moment. That’s because, in 1907, my favorite actor, Marion Robert Morrison, was born in Winterset, Iowa. Known to the world as John Wayne, he’s also one of my favorite Catholic converts.
Raised Protestant, Wayne frequently referred to himself as a “Presbygoddamnterian.” But throughout his adult life, many of his close connections were Catholic. His first wife, Josephine Saenz, was a daily communicant and an active volunteer for Catholic causes throughout her life. It was said that she prayed regularly for his conversion. Their children were raised Catholic. Michael and Patrick both graduated from what is now Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
And of course John Wayne’s closest professional acquaintance, and mentor, was director John Ford (1907-1979). An Irish Catholic from New England, Ford (born John Martin Feeney) was not a terribly religious person per se, but a strong Catholic worldview does permeate his films. Loretta Young, for many years the face of Catholic Hollywood, was Michael’s godmother.
John Wayne’s Conversion
At the end of his long bout with cancer, Wayne asked to be baptized a Catholic. In his recent biography of Wayne (the best to date), Scott Eyman interviewed the Duke’s grandson, Father Matthew Munoz, a priest of the Diocese of Orange. Father Munoz says:
My grandmother [Josephine] was very devout and so was my mother. In fact, my grandfather… was very true to God. He always believed in God, but he wasn’t much of a church attendee. I really think my grandfather’s admiration of my grandmother is what made him take that spiritual step and say yes. I also believe my grandmother’s prayers were heard.
Wayne’s funeral Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels, celebrated by his friend Archbishop Marcos McGrath of Panama, was a private affair restricted to immediate family members. But, Eyman writes,
The tribute that might have meant the most to Wayne happened in Durango, Mexico, where Burt Lancaster was on location. When word came that John Wayne had died, the cast and crew paused for a minute of silence. They were making “Cattle Annie and Little Britches.” They were making a western.
John Wayne and the Western
To me, watching John Wayne movies brings back happy memories of Saturday afternoons with my father. (My mother would never watch a war movie of his because, she said, “He never served in World War II and he could have.”)
Many people who say they don’t like John Wayne have never seen some of his best films. Far from a womanizer, his characters were diffident, gentle, even tender towards women. There was no swagger in the Wayne hero, but a quiet toughness that didn’t look for trouble. He was the prime cinematic example of courage, which Hemingway called “grace under pressure.” Director John Milius writes: “John Ford and John Wayne taught us how to be men.”
When you discuss the actor John Wayne (as opposed to the actual person), you’re actually addressing the whole question of why the Western genre matters. In her book Wayne and Ford, Professor Nancy Schoenberger of the College of William and Mary aptly writes:
Why do I love Westerns? Maybe I like to see men trying to do the right thing, often against tremendous odds and often for the protection of women and children, who are frequently as tough and feisty as the men who do the actual fighting. Though mostly written by men for men, the Western lays claim to anyone who loves storytelling because it is an inherently dramatic form– usually a quest narrative that follows the hero’s progression from innocence to experience, ignorance to knowledge, shame to redemption, outcast to community. Sometimes the trajectory is reversed, a fall from grace. These are all human journeys. They transcend any one demographic.
Which John Wayne Movies Should You Watch?
The best ones! I would recommend the following:
- Stagecoach (1939)– A young Wayne’s breakthrough role under the tutelage of John Ford.
- Red River (1948)– Wayne showed his “acting chops” here as a ruthless cattle baron.
- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)– A movie you appreciate as you get older.
- The Searchers (1956)– Regarded by many as the greatest Western ever made.
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)– A subtle meditation on the West itself.
These are great human stories. That’s why I love them. They’re about things that really matter to me, like courage, friendship, community, and doing the right thing. Not a bad list of attributes there!
*The drawing of John Wayne from Fort Apache (1948) is by Pat McNamara.