John Wayne wasn’t one for making an antihero out to be a good guy. He specifically accused the gangster movie genre of being a bad influence on the country as a whole. And as a major player in Hollywood, the Duke felt he had a responsibility to the moviegoing public.
It’s important to note that John Wayne wasn’t opposed to gangsters being depicted in movies at large. The problem he had was with movies portraying those thuggish gangsters as heroes. It was a responsible view to hold, and it fits, given his history in the Western genre of filmmaking.
In an interview at the 1970 Academy Awards, John Wayne elaborated on this point as he discussed the state of the movie industry at the time.
“I remember when they were making so many gangster pictures. And making heroes out of thugs,” Wayne said. “They suddenly- not suddenly, but they finally realized that it was bad for the country. They were still making a great deal of money with these things. But they chopped them off like that. Because they realized that it was not good for our country.”
In contrast to the flawed morals typical of many gangster movies, Westerns often explore ideas like righteous justice. For example, it’s okay for the hero to be on the wrong side of the law as long as the actions they take are justified morally. And while heroes in Westerns had their flaws, the movies generally end with the characters redeemed.
John Wayne thought that making bad people out to be heroes was a dangerous prospect. Even in the world of fiction. People, especially children, can be easily influenced by a cool character in a movie, good or bad.
John Wayne Saw the Film Industry Shift to a Financial Bottom Line
To John Wayne’s larger point, he saw movies turning into products for the studio bankers to cash in on. And while, yes, movies have always been a business proposition, Duke cited a lack of integrity in the filmmaking process of the day.
“Now we have people who are well known in the business talking for a business that is controlled by stock manipulators at one studio, bankers as far as the independents are concerned,” Wayne continued in the 1970 interview. “And these are not the people that are really dedicated in thinking of a 20, 30-year program. They’re thinking of today, this minute. And I don’t think it’s too good for our business.”
In the interview, John Wayne seemed troubled by the direction in which the movie industry was headed. He called out gangster movies to demonstrate how he felt the industry corrected itself away from the glorification of immorality at one point, and that perhaps it could do it again.