It's been nearly 40 years since John Wayne passed away, but even now his name stands as shorthand for American masculinity. With a movie career spanning 50 years and over 170 motion pictures, Wayne was a perennial box-office draw...but his fame went far beyond his life as an actor. In the same spirit, this #ThrowbackThursday, we're going beyond guns to highlight an item from the NRA National Firearms Museum "Movie Guns" collection: the frock coat Wayne wore in his final role as J.B. Books in 1976's The Shootist.
The coat itself, courtesy of Western Costume Company, is largely unremarkable save for two things: the typed label inside that simply says "John Wayne," and the sheer size of the coat. Although Wayne was larger than life in many ways, he was also a very imposing man physically. Reputed to have weighed 13 pounds at birth, as an adult Wayne was 6 feet 4 inches tall. In order to showcase the frock coat, our photography staff had little choice but to have 6-foot, 4-inch American Hunter Executive Editor Adam Heggenstaller, the tallest employee in the Publications division, model it (and it's even a bit long on him—as you can see below).
The movie in which the coat appeared, although well-received by critics and audiences, would also have probably been largely unremarkable save for one thing: It was Wayne's last. In a bittersweet coincidence, the film's plot revolves around Wayne's J.B. Books, a gunfighter who is dying of cancer and looking for a faster, more dignified way out. Although Wayne himself was believed to be cancer-free at the time of filming, he had already had one lung and several ribs removed due to the disease and would succumb just three years later. In fact, during filming Wayne became so ill with the flu it was feared that his doctors wouldn't let him finish the picture.
Although in general it's a mistake to conflate an actor with the roles he or she plays over the course of a career, in Wayne's case those lines are quite blurry. He was such an icon of bravery and the frontier spirit that no one batted an eye when he was awarded two of the highest civilian honors the American government can bestow upon civilians: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The latter was awarded to Wayne posthumously by then-President Jimmy Carter, whose inauguration the staunch Republican Wayne had attended as "the loyal opposition."
Wayne himself was well aware of the responsibility he held as a hero to millions of American children. When, during post-production on The Shootist, he saw that his character was depicted as shooting someone in the back, he responded, "I've made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it." And so they did.
Although John Wayne's coat has been returned to its owner, you can see all sorts of props, movie guns and historically important firearms, by visiting the NRA National Firearms Museum. They're open 364 days a year, except Christmas Day; admission is free and NRA Membership is not required.