What History Has Taught Me: Brian Downes

Brian Downes,Museum director.

Executive director of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa, since 2008, Brian Downes oversees the only museum in the world dedicated to the motion picture star. He admits, “The biggest risk I have ever taken was leaving the security and enjoyment of a 35-year career with the Chicago Tribune to lead the development of a museum,” adding that it was also the “best thing I ever did.” He poses here with the site’s nearly eight-foot statue donated by the Wayne family on the actor’s 100th birthday, in 2007; the museum opened in 2015.

My earliest Old West recollections are watching The Lone Ranger on ABC and returning to those “thrilling days of yesteryear” with Clayton Moore. I really loved that guy! After that, it all came together with 1962’s How the West Was Won. I was just a boy, but I marveled how 50 years of epic nation building could be condensed into a magnificent movie lasting less than three hours.

My favorite novel ever is Lonesome Dove. I  believe Larry McMurtry’s novel stands alongside the best of Mark Twain. It is the “Great American Novel on horseback.”

Don’t get me started on revisionist history, because it’s so sickeningly dishonest. For example, “Buffalo Bill” Cody did not kill all the buffalo, and Americans did not slaughter millions of American Indians. It’s utter nonsense, yet so many accept those fantasies as fact.

Nobody will believe it, but, since grammar school, I wanted to be a museum guy. My brother did not object when I turned our bedroom into a mini-museum containing cheesy souvenirs from trips to historic sites. Even today, my guests comment that my house is more a museum than a home.

The problem with most Westerns today is the same for most movies today—they largely lack the sentiment and storytelling of the Old Masters like John Ford. In order for a movie to be great—or even good—the audience needs to truly care about the characters. An outstanding example of quality storytelling is 2017’s Wind River, a modern-day Western that champions love and loyalty, and clearly defines good and evil.

My daddy always told me: embrace your identity—your heritage, your lineage, your country and your religious faith­—because, in the end, that’s all you’ve got.

Before I die, I want to give Red Steagall a personal tour of the John Wayne Birthplace Museum. Not since John Wayne have I admired any Westerner more than Red. In my younger days, he offered me solid advice and encouragement. His friendship is among my greatest treasures.

In my eulogy, be sure to write, “He adored his family, he loved his country, was loyal to his friends and treated everyone exactly the same. But now he’s in Ireland.”

The dumbest Western ever made has to be 1965’s Cat Ballou, which also happens to be among my all-time favorites. It’s a rotten shame that history has virtually ignored my idol, Kid Shelleen, who was the greatest gunslinger of them all.

One Old West character I never tire of is “Buffalo Bill” Cody. He was America’s first superstar and, as John Lennon said of Elvis, before Buffalo Bill, there was nothing.

My favorite place in the entire West is Monument Valley. I once spent a couple of days there with Harry Carey Jr., where we enjoyed his last horseback ride together.  Nobody could tell a story better than Dobe. Overlooking John Ford Point, he said of his former movie pals, “They know we are here, and they are glad.”

What’s the deal with Science Fiction Westerns?  Give me a break. A good Western should stand on its own. It’s about human emotions and the landscape; it does not need the distractions of spaceships or aliens.

History has taught me that history is what it is. It doesn’t change. Accept it, move on and strive to do better. In the words of John Wayne, from 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, “Never apologize, Mister. It’s a sign of weakness.”

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