There’s been a lot of talk these last few days about the 30th anniversary of Star Wars – a perfect storm of the modern obsession with nostalgia and George Lucas’ self-perpetuating hype machine. Many of the people going on and on about the Star Wars anniversary have been talking the film up as the opening of a new era, as if the new era opened is something to be happy about*.
To me there’s a bigger event to be noted this weekend, and it’s the centennial of John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26th, 1907. John Wayne wasn’t just an actor; he’s become iconic, and his name has come to mean not just the guy who made 150+ movies, some good, some great, some terrible (“I read someplace that I used to make B-pictures. Hell, they were a lot farther down the alphabet than that,” he once said. Although he was really complaining about R and X rated movies, to be fair), but to also mean something mythologically American.
That was the part that always troubled me as a kid. I came to John Wayne late in life, mainly because I had grown up bleeding heart liberal and believing that Wayne was the embodiment of evil imperialism and racism. The only John Wayne movie I could quote was True Grit, and that’s because dialogue between Robert Duvall and Wayne opened the MDC song John Wayne Was A Nazi. “John Wayne slaughtered our Indian brothers/ Burned their villages and raped their mothers/ Now he has given them the white man's lord/ Live by this, or die by the sword,” went the song, written to celebrate Wayne’s death**.
It wasn’t until I saw The Searchers that I began to get Wayne. It took his performance as Ethan Edwards, a character that seemed to confirm my every suspicion about the actor, to give me the in I needed. Other Wayne classics – Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, They Were Expendable, Hondo – filled in the blanks for me. Wayne worked tirelessly throughout the 30s, churning out formula Westerns one after another, but it wasn’t until he hit middle age that something clicked. That something was his friendship with John Ford, who cast him as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, the movie that made him a star. It’s a great role for Wayne – the outlaw with a heart of gold – but even after starring in so many serials and rote oaters, the actor’s obviously callow. Still, when he’s introduced, as the camera rushes in on him, his charisma is obvious.
Charisma was a big part of what made Wayne such an outsized presence in his films – he’s always the center of attention in a scene, even when playing against heavyweights like Henry Fonda. There’s also an ease and a comfort; Wayne never seems to be acting, just being. He perfected that style in the later years, and in the final three decades of his career he blossomed into a truly fine actor. He was able to use his own iconic status and slyly undercut it or judiciously play it up – True Grit is, in the end, not his best film on its own, but with Wayne playing the over the hill Texas Ranger – the ‘one eyed fat man’ from the opening of that MDC song – it acquires a depth no other actor could bring. His Oscar for the role was, in many ways, a lifetime achievement award, but seeing John Wayne play that vulnerable is impressive.
I acquired an admiration for Wayne through his films, but it wasn’t until I learned about his life that I really came to respect him. Many of you reading this won’t understand why, because what it was that I like about him is how he dodged the draft and yet made so many militaristic films that inspired young men to die in wars; how he made his legend on horseback but didn’t particularly like the animals and preferred being on a boat to being on the range; how his films and some of his personal statements reveal a deep racism and yet every single one of his wives was Hispanic. Like the country he’s come to symbolize, Wayne ran deep with contradiction, and the image he projected was often directly influenced by his own failings and fears.
Wayne didn’t just skip out on WWII – he had lawyers go before the draft board and have him reclassified as 2-A, meaning his service was deferred in the support of the national interest. Many of his contemporaries and co-stars, like John Agar and Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, went to war, leaving Wayne to ascend to stardom when Hollywood needed leading men. Wayne was always ashamed of this, and later become a hyperpatriot and big supporter of the war in Vietnam (his atrocious propaganda film The Green Berets was financed by the Pentagon). I can get behind that – hypocrisy is something I really understand, and it’s something that’s familiar to me from reading American history. We always want to be a better nation than we really are.
Even still, I think it’s too easy to be harsh on Wayne’s films from a political point of view. He made his share of movies that would make any right-thinking modern person squirm in discomfort, but he also made films that have incredibly modern points of view. Fort Apache is a movie that George W Bush should have been forced to watch before starting the war in Iraq (although at least Henry Fonda’s dipshit commander led his men into battle and paid the ultimate price for his stubbornness t). Ethan’s racism in The Searchers is a cancer on his soul. And while I can’t really stand Wings of Eagles, Wayne’s depicition of a crippled pilot turned screenwriter is incredibly sensitive.
Sensitive isn’t actually a word you’d usually associate with John Wayne, and that’s what made his sensitive moments work all the better. The scene in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where Wayne, in old age make-up, gets his retirement watch is heartbreaking, and played almost totally off his face and body language. In Three Godfathers Wayne has a small breakdown after coming across a woman dying in the desert, about to have a baby. The way he wanders off and sits roughly down, his back to the camera, is more affecting than any onscreen waterworks. "Speak low, speak slow, and don't speak too damn much,” he said to young actors.
This past year John Wayne, who has been dead since 1979, was placed third in a Harris Poll of the country’s most popular film stars. It’s hard to think of any modern actor who will be so beloved 28 years after his death. During the Cold War Stalin ordered John Wayne assassinated, but died before the hit could be carried out. Khrushchev rescinded the order. That speaks volumes to what Wayne represented and meant in his prime years.
I don’t agree with John Wayne’s politics – he was hard right in his later life, although a self-professed socialist in college, and he voted for Roosevelt – and I’m not a fan of all, or even most, of his films. But as I get older and come to understand a little bit more about the country in which I live, I am a big fan of what he stands for. Decency and honor, individualism and determination. The great John Wayne characters are men who make their own way and live with the consequences of their actions, men who are not religious but are at their best when they’re communing with the natural world, men who do what they think is the right thing at the time and do it decisively. John Wayne’s heroes are not cruel. They’re headstrong but willing to change. In his last film, The Shootist, John Wayne plays a gunfighter who is dying of cancer, a situation that mirrored his own life at the time. There’s a famous bit of dialogue in that film that sums up the strength and meaning of John Wayne, American: “I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”
John Wayne's all over TV this weekend, but the best place to see him is Encore Western's 100 Hours of John Wayne marathon, going on right now. Click here for the schedule.
*To me the anniversary of Star Wars should be viewed like the anniversary of the first atom bomb test – impressive and awe-inspiring, but having a destabilizing effect on the rest of our lives.
** Still not the meanest ‘We’re glad a celebrity is dead’ song. The Meatmen’s One Down Three To Go, about the murder of John Lennon, takes that prize. Great song, by the way.