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American Heroes (John Wayne Vs. Billy The

Kid) Essay, Research Paper

John Wayne was viewed as the embodiment of America?s spirit. He and the fictitious land he roamed is, says Louis Owens, ?The greatest dream of all,? (La Puerta 109). The man was always trying to correct some wrong, avenge a moral crime, save a damsel in distress, or capture the ?bad guy.? He followed his own path, made his own rules, strove for personal justice, and always came out on top (and usually ?got the girl?). Women wanted him; men wanted to be him. In America?s John Wayne heyday, there was not a little boy who didn?t dream of riding the open range as ?The Duke,? on a seemingly divine mission full of passion, honor and courage.

Regardless of Owens? opinionated view of the incredulity of John Wayne?s myth, ?It [John Wayne?s West] is a place where, like F. Scott Fitzgerald?s Gatsby, the white man sloughs off old names and histories, sheds whatever flaws he may bear, and makes himself anew,? (109) Wayne gave the general American public an icon and a world to care about, idolize, and strive for.

Billy the Kid is a very different American legend. In Richard Etulain?s historic/mythic account of Billy the Kid?s life, he is likened to, ?Robin Hood stealing from the rich to help the poor, as a lone individual holding out against the corrupt Santa Fe Ring, Billy was inducted early on into the pantheon of Wild West heroes.? (36). This is more the description of an anti-hero; an outlaw with selfish intentions that just so happen to benefit others.

True, there are many similarities between a myth such as John Wayne?s and Billy the Kid?s. They both had their own personal code of ethics, a ?black and white? view of what was acceptable and what deemed punishment and judgement. Both traveled alone: even when situation bound them to a group of others, they still seemed to carry their own agenda.

I believe the difference between the two figures lies in intent. John Wayne fought for good? someone else?s good. His personal code generally embodied something larger than himself. John Wayne followed ?The Code of the West.? He may have had a hand in creating that code, but he was bound by it. Says Owens, ?The true hero of the American West is beyond mundane law because he is beyond reach?beyond civilization?and he operates not within the laws of man but within those of a manifest God,? (110) the ?manifest God? here is ?The Code of the West.?

Billy the Kid followed no code but his own. His morals were not a part of some greater set of rules. Billy was always looking out for himself before anyone else. Etulain describes Billy as, ?A? graduate of the go-it-alone and the rest-be damned school,? (38).

Unlike John Wayne, Billy the Kid fought for self-gain. He was in search of recognition, fame and the ?almighty dollar? and it didn?t matter whose toes were stepped on in the pursuit. He is an early example of the villain you ?love to hate.?


Etilain, Richard. ?Billy the Kid: Thunder in the West.? La Puerta. Second Edition. Eds. Wanda Martin, et al. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1999. 36-51.

Owens, Louis. ?The Invention of John Wayne.? La Puerta. Second Edition. Eds. Wanda Martin, et al. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1999. 108-118.

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