John Wayne was still young in 1944, only thirty-eight years old. And yet the major elements of his inimitable style were hardening into place. Perhaps no other actor in history has been so cognizant of using his body to express grand themes and timeless mythological underpinnings. Under Ford’s direction Wayne never just stands there, he poses, in ways and with effects that conjure up famous paintings and sculpture. When he fills the frame as Lieutenant Junior Grade Rusty Ryan in They Were Expendable, he becomes every man who ever fought a losing action in a war, who faced defeat with stoicism, who sacrificed for a greater good. In the history of film, John Wayne remains nonpareil in his use of presence to project subtext.
Little of that came naturally to the Duke — in his early films he’s tall and rangy and handsome, but with little of the gravity, focus, and dramatic weight that would come to typify his prime acting years. Those skills, and they were skills, were consciously learned over fifteen years of working with Ford and his old troupe of veteran actors. He watched the way they walked and carried themselves, studied the way they were directed, and began to divine the level of nuance Ford demanded. There’s a funny story from the making of Stagecoach (1939, John Wayne’s big coming-out party as an actor), where Wayne’s character was supposed to be washing his face after a hard day, and Ford started smacking him around screaming, “Christ Duke, wash you face like a man! You’re daubing it! You’re daubing it!” He was trying to teach Wayne that, when you are an actor in front of a camera, your every movement can and should mean something deeper than what is on the surface. The act of washing one’s face can be pedestrian, or it can be a sweeping gesture that evokes strength of character, or a relaxed demeanor, or a gentleness of heart. And those deft movements will unconsciously fire off all sorts of neurons in the brain of an audience.