Wayne took issue with this. “They never drank nor smoked. They never had a fight,” the actor lamented in Zolotow’s biography. “A heavy might throw a chair at them, and they just look surprised.” Wayne famously played some questionable antiheroes along with his white-hat roles, as in John Ford’s “The Searchers.” That 1956 film grappled with — though didn’t completely address — long-brewing questions about violence, racism, and gender dynamics within the genre. Wayne’s Ethan was a revenge-driven antihero who shattered the illusion of the morally pristine cowboy once and for all.
“They were too goddamn sweet and pure to be dirty fighters,” Wayne says of the early film cowboys. He adds:
“Well, I wanted to be a dirty fighter if that was the only way to fight back. If somebody throws a chair at you, hell, you pick up a chair and belt him right back. I was trying to play a man who gets dirty, who sweats sometimes, who enjoys really kissing a gal he likes, who gets angry, who fights clean whenever possible but will fight dirty if he has to.”
Ironically, this portrait of a cowboy sounds just as oversimplified and idealized now as the 1920s cowboys did to Wayne at the time. The Western genre has mostly died out in recent decades as its traditional templates of racism, nationalism, and machismo have fallen out of fashion. When it has returned, it’s been with fresh spins on the cowboy story that reveal facets of the archetype rarely put to screen before, as with Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” and Jane Campion’s “Power of the Dog.” Both of those movies center the stories of gay cowboys, a notion that Wayne himself would likely find blasphemous if his homophobic reaction to “Midnight Cowboy” is any indication.