John Wayne, Man and Myth
By Pat Dowell
Sept. 25, 1995
From the Citadel to the LAPD, John Wayne's name is still invoked to describe a certain attitude toward right and wrong, male and female, America and the world. It's been 16 years since he died of stomach cancer, but he still stares out of pages in this week's magazines, the slightly skeptical, somehow naked eyes gazing forth from ads for collectors plates. There's a cottage industry in John Wayne memorabilia, and his movies are reshuffled every Christmas into new combinations of classics boxed for video gift-giving.
It was inevitable in the refreshed conservative atmosphere of this country that Wayne would surface as a subject for celebratory scholarship. This movie star and cultural phenomenon, one of the most politically potent symbols produced by Hollywood, has long been the subject of partisan wrangling, and biographers Randy Roberts and James S. Olson join right in. Professors at Purdue and Sam Houston State universities, respectively, they start their prodigiously researched life of Wayne-the best yet to appear-by setting up a straw man called "the cultural elite," a mythical entity that is conveniently monolithic and eager to play the villain for whatever slight their subject has endured in the annals of history.
The cultural elite is a handy excuse in their book for many of the setbacks Wayne experienced as his career wound down after 1960, when that elite came into a maturity that the authors contentedly record as brief. "During the last years of his life, when his country flirted temporarily with liberalism, John Wayne appeared out of step," they write, and they aren't kidding.
No matter how dated that sentence may look in a decade, "John Wayne, American" will still be consulted on the facts of the actor's life and career. Despite their manifest political bent, the authors have been diligent, thorough and fair in their research; they have addressed all the small questions, such as the curious odyssey of his names, and the big ones, most notably why America's ideal soldier never saw service in World War II.
Wayne was not born Marion Michael Morrison in 1907 in Iowa, as so many reference works routinely claim, but Marion Robert, nicknamed Bobby. His mother, Molly, an implacable woman married to a sweet ne'er-do-well, took her firstborn's name away and gave it to a second son, who enjoyed lifelong preferential affection. Marion found his middle name changed to Mitchell, until he himself altered it to Michael on school records. He was dubbed Duke by local firemen after the family dog. It was at the start of his movie career, when the ex-football player was plucked from the ranks of extras to appear in a western epic, "The Big Trail" (1930)-a movie everyone thought would make him a star-that a producer transformed him into John Wayne. For a man who later in life made a cult of straightforwardness, it was an oddly corkscrewed path to an identity that was eventually carved indelibly into the American scene.
Part of that identity was, of course, his image as a man in uniform. Wayne later claimed that a football injury had kept him out of World War II, but Roberts and Olson track down the probable truth through government records and correspondence.
After "The Big Trail" flopped, Wayne spent nearly 10 years of drudgery in the B-western trade, until stardom came at last in the John Ford film "Stagecoach" in 1939. To enlist in 1942 meant to risk all his new-found fame and growing wealth, and besides, as a father in his thirties, he was entitled to a deferment. Many in Hollywood waived their deferments, but the poor kid whose dad had tried to dirt-farm the Mojave Desert couldn't take the chance. Other actors did risk all, and some lost, returning to the public's indifference. Some of them were supplanted by Wayne himself, who took his deferments until service became a moot point, a fact he was ashamed of for the rest of his life.
Roberts and Olson suggest that Wayne's subsequent anti-communist fervor, which became the most notorious aspect of his persona, was his way of compensating, of making sure he joined the battle this time. The authors indulge in some unnecessary and unbecoming mopping-up for their subject in both eras, pointing out that Wayne was not alone in ducking World War II. Yes, he did what others did or tried to, but those others weren't necessarily so quick in later years to urge other men to risk their lives in war. Wayne was.
As for the era of blacklisting in which Wayne took such an active role, the authors write that he "was a provocative, outspoken but non-ideological conservative who only reluctantly entered the political fray in 1949 when that fray was impossible to ignore." In other words they think he was right, not right-wing.
In fact, they point out that Wayne was often more generous than his colleagues, arguing for rehabilitation for some communists when his actor pal Ward Bond, for example, was smugly wrecking careers (Bond emerges in these pages as a malicious lout). In this as in so much else, Wayne was a walking illustration of the rough fit between image and reality, ideology and practice, that is so much a part of the American character. He was a champion of family values who couldn't seem to stay married, and while he tried to quash the display of leftist politics in film, he worked to get his own rightward ideas onto the screen, and sometimes succeeded. During the Vietnam War he concocted that bane of '60s liberalism, "The Green Berets," which proved very profitable propaganda.
He was outspoken off screen as well, and it is a delicious minor irony of his career that at least once he had to pay for it as he had made others do. In the '60s, the authors recount, Wayne was offered the role of narrator for the television show "The FBI Story." J. Edgar Hoover, after a background check on Wayne, refused to approve him. Wayne's erstwhile membership in the John Birch Society was the reason, even though he had given up on the organization after it denounced fluoridation of water supplies as a communist plot.
In later years Wayne seemed a superannuated symbol of ancient American values, but "those who hope to understand America must understand John Wayne's appeal," Roberts and Olson write, and they are correct. They provide much of the raw material here, and if this is not a truly insightful book, it is a savvy one and a vivid story so jampacked with detail that it even credibly explains how cancer develops and radiation therapy works.
Wayne is hardly in need of the strenuous artistic vindication they mount, however: Critics routinely cite "The Searchers," John Ford's 1956 frontier drama with Wayne's raw and illuminating performance as an Indian-hater, as one of the greatest of all American films, not to say westerns. Much better critics than these two have explored Wayne's on-screen personality and skill as an actor. Some are quoted in the book, as well as some who drew a bead on Wayne, like Pauline Kael. Reviewing "McQ," one of Wayne's two attempts to outgun Dirty Harry (a role he had turned down) and possibly the nadir of Wayne's late career, Kael was disgusted by his clumsy borrowings from Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. "Incompetence like this prostrates me," she wrote. "I got so stoned on the boringness I forgot to get up and go home."
Wayne made plenty of fine films as the perfect John Ford hero. It was Ford who understood the conflicts within Wayne, that tension between a man's duty to his community and his ultimate loneliness as a keeper of patriarchal law. For 25 years, John Wayne stayed in the box office Top 10 by acting out that conflict, while in the world beyond the movie theater the society fashioned and ruled by men like him was fracturing into something altogether different. Or was it? Perhaps, as Roberts and Olson insist, the changes Wayne fought against were a brief aberration. History will tell, and the phenomenon of John Wayne will remain a cultural touchstone in sorting it out.
The reviewer reports on movies for National Public Radio and reviews them for the Army, Navy and Air Force Times.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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