THE FACE OF John Wayne is probably as familiar to Americans as the faces of Washington and Lincoln; certainly his function was simpler and more graspable. No need for him to found or save the Republic, or free its slaves; his task was to whup something, whether a man, a group of men, a wilderness, an industry of a national enemy. An added function was to demonstrate, through the manner of his licking, that the complex, the difficult, even the near-impossible were indeed doable.

Wayne performed these tasks with an authority sufficient to convince even the most hopeless fumbler that almost any circumstance (except maybe women, if women are a circumstance) will yield to the application of physical skill and moral purposefulness. What is needed is simply an unflinching will, a capacity for struggle, an appetiet for adventure and a passion for getting the job done - all qualities useful in the winning of the West or the conquering of the continent, endeavors for which Wayne's films provide a kind of retrospective.

It is worth noting that, in 146 movies filled with violent death, the shadow of mortality seldom touched John Wayne. In those few films in which the character he is playing dies, one takes the death with a nod, not grieved because not convinced. Such deaths are merely the most patent dramatic conventions, necessary to a particular story but no threat to the continuity of our experience with John Wayne, who would be there, we felt confident, tall in the saddle as ever and still walking the way he walks, in another picture soon.

Thus Wayne himself became a character, one who transcended all but a handful of his roles. In recent years the character was, indeed, getting older, but there was no diminishment either of his appetite for life or his ability to beat circumstance.

Some years ago Peter Bogdanovich and I wrote an end-of-the-West Western meant for Wayne and at once discovered his reluctance to have anyone prepare even a symbolic period for his career, or a symbolic period for the Old West, either. If the Old West is no longer there literally, it should at least be there in his pictures, and he should be there, too, galloping around in it, licking whatever is there to be licked and reminding people of the way we used to live before we started living the way we live now.

Even at 72, John Wayne continued to go about his task of trying to lick something. This time it was a very literal fight, locked in a battle for the third time with an opponent he called "the Big C." The Big C - cancer - relieved him of a lung several years ago, more recently his stomach, and this week his life.

Susan Sontag, a woman as authoritative in her way as Wayne has been in his, cautioned recently in a brilliant book ("Illness as Metaphor") against attaching metaphors to diseases, particularly cancer. In her view, the metaphors not only encourage a grossly inaccurate concept of what the disease is, but often make those who suffer from it feel guilty for having it in the first place.

Whether John Wayne was affected by the self-incriminating nature of cancer metaphors is impossible to know, but in speaking of it he himself fell naturally into the imagery of battle. He licked the Big C once and he tried to lick it again, a simple plan of action that the millions who have loved his movies, and loved him in his movies, were happy to hear.

Not that licking the Big C is really simple, or that Wayne of all people supposed anything of the sort: An opponent that can rob one of a lung and a stomach is a heavy opponent, heavier than the heavies he has licked (almost monotonously) in his pictures - heavier, even, than immortals like Victor McLaglen or Mike Mazurki.

Still, licking whatever was there to be licked was, all along, John Wayne's job, one he has held for almost 50 years, if not out-acting then simply out-living most of his companions or rivals in that great image-strewn alley where the real and the imaginary merge like rivers to form the American consciousness, a Big Muddy if there ever was one.

It is evident that John Wayne took both pride and pleasure in his work. His feeling for making pictures amounted to dedication, the kind of dedication a craftsman ought to feel for his craft.

The sort of dedication is not possible unless the craftsman believes the craft to be valuable; thus, apart from the fact that John Wayne liked to make pictures and fit both with the king of pictures he has made and the men he has made most of them with, he surely felt that his work has a value to those who receive it. Perhaps, whether of not he read Faulkner, he would agree with him that the artist has a duty - a duty to compose works that uplift men's hearts and help them throw off despair. As an actor, his means of effecting this aim was to select projects that offer some uplift, while rejecting those that do not.

However genuine his devotion to his craft, though, Wayne established himself in the mind's eye of the nation at least partly through certain accidents, such as the way he moved. His potency in American myth is to a degree the result of an extraordinary consistency of manner: Something of the Ringo Kid is recognizable in Rooster Cogburn, and something of Rooster was anticipated in the Ringo Kid. The characters he plays are sometimes more than, but never less than, Wayne.

Some very good directors, and likewise some very bad ones, used him. The best of these directors, John Ford and Howard Hawks, juxtaposed him against our landscape and our past in brilliant ways, producing much the best films in the Wayne canon.

What is in a way more interesting is that the bad directors, doing their worst, were unable to diminish him by much. His authority - of visage, stance and movement - survives them and enabled him to bring a sense of heroic dimension to stories that are otherwise shallow and silly. When Ford and Hawks dramatize that authority in stories that are not shallow, such as "The Searchers" or "Red River," the result nudges the mythic: not simply because John Wayne looks the way he looks, but direction with story, landscape and history.

In my view, the overlooked element in this fusion is the ultimate one - history. Wayne made many films that were not Westerns, but it is not these films - not even the good ones, like "The Quiet Man" - that have rooted his image so securely in the American consciousness.

In a fond and perceptive essay published in 1965, Joan Didion observed that several directors of the '30s, seeing Wayne, "were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost." By way of follow-up, she quotes a remark Raoul Walsh once made about Wayne: "Damn it, the son of a bitch looked like a man."

At the conjunction of those two remarks - a man who looked like a man, and a nation with a sense of loss - lies the never very mysterious secret of John Wayne's enduring appeal to the American public. By looking a certain way, and behaving a certain way, he helped to fulfill America's passionate love for its own past.

This love has focused, like most of Wayne's Westerns upon the immediate past: that is, the 19th-century, in which Americans have invested a wealth of emotion that is perhaps even yet not quite spent. By holding the center so firmly, in so many pictures spread over so many years, Wayne helped to convince Americans that their unreasoning love for a vanished time and a lost but possibly stronger and simpler way of life is not love invested in a fraud. By being the visible embodiment of a 19th-century ideal of manliness he has convinced many that their passion for times past is well directed and worth indulging a little longer.

In short, his pictures have reinforced a widespread, perhaps national, desire to believe in the simplicity, the goodness, the strength of American life as presumably lived on the Western frontier in the 19th century. Sober histories may have described the greed, the confusion, the injustice that actually prevailed during the winning of the West, but these histories have, since the birth of film, been competing with endless sequences of pastoral and heroic imagery - images that reach the masses with a potency denied to written history.

People welcome whatever evidence makes it possible for them to continue to cherish their favorite fantasies - even, if need be, the evidence offered by run-of-the-mill films - pictures made to make money.

The filmmakers were seldom noble, their efforts only in rare instances esthetically commendable - rare, at least, if one considers the thousands of miles of footage of rocks, hills and racing stagecoaches that have streamed through America's movie projectore since "The Great Train Robbery of 1903." The vast corpus of Westerns cannot be said to have offered or promoted a realistic depiction of the winning of the West, or of the efforts made to live in it once it was won.

A few directors, among them Ford and Hawks, have tried for a rather painstaking realism of detail, but this, when achieved, has not kept their pictures from being, in essence, heroic romance. A number of directors, working since the 1950s, have decided that the end of the Old West should be photographed as Gorky might have done it had he been a cameraman, turning their backs on glory and showing the wind, the dust, the dirt, squalor, loneliness and failure that were part of the marrow of Western life all along.

But the fact that we don't get a literal rendering of the Western experience from Westerns is perhaps no more to be lamented than that we have not got a literal rendering of the sack of Troy from Homer. "The Iliad" is invention, not reportage, and so are Western- the great corpus of them might be regarded as a body of somewhat crude folk-poetry, analogous in a direct way to the mass of Arthurian legend. This corpus - call it the Matter off the West - is mostly repetitious and predictable, but at its height it had, for moments here and there, a certain epic grandeur.

In timing, the Western is a fortunate genre. The great national experience on which it comments - the westward movement - ended just as technology was getting ready a new art, one perfectly suited to such commentary.

The movement of the American people across the continent was indeed the stuff of epic; but it came too late for the literary epic - there was no Milton to write it - and was too scattered and long drawn out a process for the falk epic. Fortunately, among came the silver screen and Thomas Ince and William S. Hart.

One might without too much recklessness postulate that a prolonged, complex and national experience like the westward movement creates - in the people who survive it or who came a generation late and wonder about it - a need for the epic, for having the experience recreated by artist and singers in such a way that the late-comers can have it to remember and cherish. Such a need perhaps explains the eager and sustained response to Westerns, a reponse at least tinged with historical curiosity.

Of all the actores who have stalked through Westerns, from William S. Hart to Clint Eastwood, John Wayne was clearly the one most suited to satisfy America's hunger for the epic. His role all along was that of the Leader.

It took a while, admittedly, for his face to catch up with his body; in his pre-40s pictures his look is sometimes startlingly soft, as if he has not quite lost a certain spirtual babyfat. This is true as late as "Stagecoach." But by the late 40s, the period of "Fort Apache" and "Red River," he has visage of an epic hero. And, had he been more inclined to sword-and-sandals, he could have played any of them: Hector, Roland, Cuchulain, the Cid.

His involvement with Westerns made for a happy union of actor, subject and form. Novel had come too far, become too slow and dense and middleclass to deal effectively with the process of Western settlement; Fielding's concept of the prose epic had been left far behind by the 19th century, and novelists had shown themselves to be more comfortable with characters who had been settled for a while than with those who were doing the setting.

Film is faster and less dense, capable of being both vivid and simple. By showing, literally, the vastness of the West, it could suggest the scope of the effort it took to conquer it. That stagecoach winding out of Monument Valley is an image from the vocabulary of epic, affecting one like the memory of the plains of Troy or the pass at Roncesvalles in which Roland stood to turn back the Saracens.

John Wayne is the perfect figure to stand in the pass: Not from him will we get the sense that it was at this pass that the trail was lost. He projects that enviable coherence that we have been persuaded was common in olden times, and this despite the fact that in his greatest films he is presented neither as a man to be envied nor as a man wholly admirable.

The Wayne character is lonely, a failure at families, and frequently ruthless. Certain great scenes, such as the one in "The Searchers" in which his sister-in-law helps him with his coat before sending him out after the Comanches - her gestures bespeak her love, and Ward Bond, drinking his coffee a yard away, resolutely refuses to see it - remind us that the force of some of his films depends upon our glimpsing what Wayne lacks.

But what gives the lack pathos is the character's overwhelming ability - a word much favored by the cowboys I grew up with, themselves all close students of Wayne's work. "Damm, don't he have ability ," one might say, after watching him perform some single feat of horeseman- or herdsman- or marksmanship. Ability is the cowboy's work for grace in performance; for a man to have ability, great physical skills must be at the command of a defiant and unbreadable will. The defiance will be directed mostly at the corruptions wrought by modern times, the forces that try to keep a man from being himself and doing his work.

In pictures such as "The Searchers" or "Red River," the fact that Wayne is involved in epic endeqvors, spread over vast distances and, in the former case, many years, gives his ability an epic quality. If the search for the stolen child is the more poignant, dealing as it does with a common frontier tragedy, the cattle drive is the more genuinely epic; those drives would have appealed to the bards, had only they occured in bardic times.

In speaking of Wayne in these grandoise term, one is at the same time aware that all along he has been an actor, doing a job, reading lines from scripts he didn't write, being told what to do by directors who probably hadn't read Homer or Virgil or (in a few cases) anything except the same script Wayne had read. Both Wayne and the directors would no doubt deny any responsibility for acticulating the inarticulate longings of a nation; when questioned on such matters they usually take refuge the best way they know how.

This response is probably honest, if not fully discerning, for what in fact they have articulated is a long cycle of pictures delineating a heroic age; and the cycle has now largely satisfied a need for one sort of American epic, or for an epic about one sort of America. The Westerns constitute a collective epic, with many heroes, but with John Wayne clearly the dominant hero.

In the minds of a large portion of his audience - an audience that has aged with him - he is a kind of Western Arthur, the man who can yank the sword from the stone if the sword happens to be stuck. The cords of mortality have bound him, too, but it is a fact one is not likely to remember when he fills his hands with guns and takes the bridle reins in his teeth.

Cowboys - wild romantics who like to think ofthemselves as hard-bitten realists - pay his epic qualities the most sincere of compliments by exempting him and alone from the need for realism. Though bitter critics of the technical inaccuracies in Western movies, as they see their craft constantly degraded, they never extend these criticisms to Wayne.

Ask if he is not perhaps holding his reins in the wrong hand, or mishandling his rope , or driving his cattle too fast, and they will look at you blankly, if not hostilely. If there are discrepancies in his behaviour, they have noticed, they will quickly think of reasons that will explain why he did it the way he did.

After all , it isn't just some fiddle-footed actor one is presuming to criticize: It is the Diuke. It is not merely that he is being allowed to be wrong: If he is wrong, then all that they would like to believe about their past also might be wrong.

Though it is an odd eminence for a boy from Iowa to have attained, what John Wayne did is as secure as tradition, for those who are its heirs, is far above realism. The magic of the movies, as exemplified in Westerns, may seem an insubstantial place upon which to lean such a weight of myth - even with Wayne, like Atlas, holding it up - but, for better or worse, the timing was right, and there she leans. CAPTION: Picture 1, no caption; Picture 2, Wayne whupping Forrest Tucker in "Chisum."