This Early Western Star Played The Biggest Role In Shaping John Wayne’s Persona


The name, idea, and image of John Wayne evoke America. He is so synonymous with the concept of heroism that he appeared to be birthed by an entity of American patriotism itself. From a film perspective, away from his dicey politics and social creeds, he is the gold standard of movie stars. While he’ll never be mistaken as a stirring dramatic actor with a versatile range, he understood the power of a sturdy leading man who could sell emotions or ideas through simple gestures. Wayne’s prolific and prosperous collaborations with John Ford and Howard Hawks demonstrated the invaluable power of an actor-director pair. But the Duke’s prowess and generational imprint would’ve gone nowhere without a prominent Western actor preceding Wayne: Harry Carey, the silent star Wayne credits for forming his onscreen identity and persona.

Harry Carey Was the First Prolific Member of the John Ford Stock Company

John Ford and John Wayne made over a dozen films together from the 1930s through the 1960s, including classics such as Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, and The Searchers. Ford’s filmography dates back to the 1910s, which accounts for the number of lost films in his name. During his legendary career, he turned to frequent collaborators, known as the John Ford Stock Company, who were closer to family than co-workers. The average Ford movie includes a cast featuring Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Victor McLaglen, and Maureen O’Hara. One of the most prominent members of this esteemed club, and the actor who became Ford’s first onscreen avatar was Harry Carey, whose son and wife, Harry Carey Jr. and Olive Carey, also became frequent supporting players for the director.

When Ford, a son of Irish immigrants from Portland, Maine, hopped on the train that brought him to Hollywood, Westerns quickly became his calling card. Years down the line, crafting formative Westerns would make him a cinematic icon, but at the dawn of Hollywood, the genre was not respected as the ultimate form of mythmaking and reflection of American history. They were viewed as cheap, disposable B-movies made quick and easy. Ford, who broke into the industry by shadowing his brother, actor Francis Ford, developed a bond akin to a blood relationship with Harry Carey during the late 1910s. The two made quite literally countless films together, as the majority of Ford’s early shorts and silent pictures are forever lost. Carey was the star of Ford’s first surviving film, Straight Shooting. Before linking up with Ford, Carey portrayed cowboys and other Western figures on screen throughout the decade. Even by the standards of the studio system, Ford worked at a staggering production rate. In the definitive Ford biography, Searching for John Ford, Joseph McBride cited that they made seven films together in 1917 and 1918. Ford alone directed a whopping 19 movies in 1919, seven of them with Carey. With a baritone voice and rugged frame, Carey was naturally gifted as a Western star.

John Wayne Mirrored Harry Carey on the Screen

Harry Carey crossed paths with John Wayne occasionally during the latter’s rise to fame, sharing the screen in the 1940s in the films The Shepherd of the Hills, The Spoilers, and Howard Hawks’ Red River. Carey died in 1947, and a year later, Ford’s 3 Godfathers, starring Wayne and Carey Jr., was dedicated in his honor. When speaking to his son, Wayne revealed that his screen persona was indebted to Carey Sr., and watching his movies at a young age proved to be a formative exercise. “I copied Harry Carey. That’s where I learned to talk like I do, that’s where I learned so many of my mannerisms. Watching your father,” an honest Wayne told Carey Jr., recounted in Searching for John Ford. Carey, according to Wayne, “projected a quality that we like to think of in men of the West.” Embodying traditional masculinity was Wayne’s everlasting drawing power throughout his career. It carried over to his personal life, where he pushed staunch conservative talking points and proudly wore his patriotism, despite never serving in World War II. Wayne’s analysis of Carey’s screen presence indicates a nuanced interpretation of the genre. It wasn’t so much that Carey was or wasn’t the consummate Western hero, but he captured the legend or myth of one. Legend-making, of course, is as synonymous with Westerns as pistols and horseback riding.


Carey Jr. stated in an interview that John Wayne “idolized” his father. Specifically, the Duke admired Carey’s honesty and sincerity, and even his choice of fashionable hats in his movies. One anecdote shared by Wayne showed him at his most transparent. Recounted by Carey Jr., Wayne was embarrassed by his image on the screen in his primal years as an actor before connecting with John Ford when making Stagecoach. For inspiration, he searched for a role model. Wayne, according to Carey Jr., found a solution. “I’ll copy Harry Carey,” Wayne said. Carey Jr. believes the Duke cribbed Carey Sr.’s walk and speech pattern — but he was not offended that Wayne mirrored his father’s actions. Instead, he viewed it as an honor to have his father’s likeness cemented in film history.

The Famous Ending of ‘The Searchers’ Is Indebted to Harry Carey

The most touching act of homage was paid to Carey during arguably one of the best endings in film history. The Searchers, widely considered John Ford’s masterpiece, concludes with Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning the kidnapped Debbie (Natalie Wood) to her family. The family spirit has been restored as a result of Ethan’s complicated “heroism,” but Ethan himself is left alone, standing in the doorframe against the backdrop of the empty desert. Wayne grabbed his right arm with his left, evoking the melancholy of a lonely drifter.

According to the Ford biography, Wayne ad-libbed this indelible gesture. The pose was a callback to Harry Carey, who made the same gesture in the closing sequence of Ford’s debut feature, Straight Shooting. Upon performing the arm gesture, Wayne recalled that Carey’s widow, Olive, who starred in the film, wept at the sight of the tribute of her late husband.

The fruitful partnership between John Ford and John Wayne has rightfully endured in the annals of film history. However, the duo’s remarkable achievements stem from the expansive body of work and screen presence of Harry Carey, whose influence towered over Ford and Wayne. Carey, who worked side-by-side with Ford in the early years of Hollywood, guided the young director to becoming a stalwart and visionary of the new frontier that he became decades later. Despite carrying himself like an unflappable force of strength, a young Wayne needed guidance and a role model, and there was no better figure to idolize than Carey, a silent movie star who constructed the image of the Western hero with the poetic beauty of a minor gesture.