The image of the western is often epitomized by a lone stoic figure amidst an inhospitable backdrop: one man against the world. This depiction of rugged individualism would define the genre’s concept of the masculine ideal, what a “real” man is supposed to look and act like. But interestingly, this man, often portrayed by John Wayne, is perpetually out of joint with his surroundings: as idealized as he is, something doesn’t quite fit. Although modern westerns like The Power of the Dog attempt to deconstruct the disconnect between this genre staple and a sense of emotional reality, the internal conflict between a man and his own expression of masculinity has long been a feature of the western. In this way, the western is as much defined by the conflict of man vs. the masculine ideal as it is man vs. nature or civilization vs. savagery.
At the end of The Searchers, Ethan (John Wayne) has returned his kidnapped niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) to the remnants of her family. She is escorted into the homestead, but the shot lingers on Wayne, framed in the doorway. He pauses briefly and, unable to join them in their domestic space, walks away from the door, clutching his arm in an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability. Despite his love for his niece and nephew, the qualities that have allowed him to survive in the old West are exactly the ones that make him unsuited for a family life. He has long since killed off the parts of his character that could be considered soft or weak, but the fact that he lingers in the doorway betrays that, for just a fleeting moment, he wishes he hadn’t. Even John Wayne isn’t John Wayne, masculine ideal, at least not all of the time.
In the classic western, John Wayne is often paired off with a gentler, more feminine man. Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) in The Searchers, who accompanies him on the odyssey to rescue Debbie, but has a romantic relationship with Laurie and longs to return to the homestead. Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a refined East Coast lawyer who learns the ways of western justice from Wayne’s Tom Doniphon. Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) in Red River, an orphaned boy on the verge of manhood who has been Wayne’s character’s ward since childhood. Even in Wayne’s final performance in The Shootist, as an aging gunslinger who learns that he has terminal cancer (a sad parallel to Wayne’s own health, as he would die from stomach cancer just a few short years later), he chooses as his last act to serve as a mentor for Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in the art of gunfighting.
Within the narrative, each of these roles exists as an opportunity for Wayne to serve as an elder statesman of the West, teaching his tender-hearted co-stars how to live up to this idealized version of masculinity. But as a part of this larger on-going conflict of masculinity vs. femininity, they operate as an externalization of the internal battle that Wayne’s character himself has undergone: to root out the aspects of his nature that fail to live up to the vision of a rugged hero that is demanded of him in these films. It’s a mark of how unrealistic this goal is that he frequently fails to turn his co-stars into a version of himself. Ranse Stoddard learns a respect for the ways of the West, but he ultimately returns to the East Coast as a senator. Gillom Rogers finishes the gunfight that would kill Wayne’s character, but tosses the gun away in disgust afterwards, realizing the cost of taking a life. Martin Pawley is reunited with his girlfriend and adopted sister, embracing the warm domesticity that they provide in his life, while Wayne embarks again on a lonely journey through the frontier.
This last part is perhaps the most important: where do Wayne’s characters end up in these films? His co-stars frequently get a happy ending, with romantic relationships or career success or, at the very least, some sort of emotional catharsis. Wayne, by contrast, is often left alone or even dead. When his characters become an amalgam of the masculine ideal, they do so at great cost, sacrificing everything else. There’s an attempt to argue that this doesn’t bother his characters: they like to be alone, independent, and free, and if they die, it’s often a noble death that serves to underscore the value of the character’s life decisions. But this isn’t entirely convincing. The fact that his characters so frequently seek out a paternal role, where they function as a father figure or mentor, even reluctantly, shows that in their hearts, they crave emotional connection just like anyone else.
Although the American western is often held up as a representation of traditional masculinity, it often exposes the inherent conflict in such a characterization. Many modern westerns take on the task of addressing gender dynamics and the unrealistic nature of this vision of manhood, but the genre is actually rooted in this exploration. In some ways, the depiction of many of John Wayne’s iconic roles in comparison to his kinder, gentler co-stars is not a romanticization of the lone Western figure, but an indictment of it as a model for maleness.