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How John Wayne Shaped the Modern Day Cowboy

Everyone remembers John Wayne as America’s cowboy. In truth, none have ever portrayed the cowboy with as much majesty and resilience as John Wayne. Although Western movies haven’t been as popular in recent years as they were in their heyday from the earliest black and white short films of the 1890s through the Hollywood color epics of the 1960s, they’re still a genre beloved by many and there are still new Westerns being made today.

As new Western movies are released, many viewers will recognize old themes. Sure, the graphics are more high-tech and the picture quality is clearer, but many of the themes remain the same. If an audience is really paying attention, they might even notice that many of these themes seem to stem from John Wayne himself.

Wayne was a huge contributor to the formative Western years. One particular film of note: Wayne’s 1939 portrayal of Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, was a turning point for Western films. Within the movie, Wayne plays an escaped fugitive who is on a path to avenge his murdered family. After tracking down the murderer and seeking revenge, he turns himself in to the law (and is allowed to escape). As in all of his movies, Wayne’s character is a man of principle. Sure, he defies the law, but only to respond to a set of higher morals. Immediately after, he subjects himself back to law of the land.

But Wayne portrays this archetype in far more than just Stagecoach; in fact, most of his movies featured the same type of cowboy: rugged and a hard-liner, but ultimately a man of moral conscience and clear principles. This is why Wayne never shoots a man in the back - such an act would defy moral principles, even if it would get the job done quicker.

Such a character has become the stereotype for any good cowboy: tough, fair, does what needs to be done, but still respects honest authority. This tradition filled the Westerns of the past and continues in modern times.

Consider on screen Westerns of today: Of course, there’s the remakes of True Grit, The Hateful Eight, and The Lone Ranger. There are also movies like Hell or High Water. In each of these films, when the law is broken, it’s for a greater purpose beyond mere selfishness or anarchy. The law is considered sacred and it is not violated lightly. Moreover, the main protagonists follow Wayne’s lead in creating a man with principle.

As John Wayne put it, “I've always followed my father's advice: he told me, first, to always keep my word and, second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. If I insult you, you can be goddamn sure I intend to. And, third, he told me not to go around looking for trouble.” This advice ultimately shaped not only John Wayne as a man, but also the creation of Western films for generations.

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Thompson, P. (2017, July 20). John Wayne's Influence on the Modern Cowboy. Retrieved from


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