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John Wayne’s Strange Legacy

A Revisionist View


There was always more to the legend of John Wayne than met the eye. To judge by most of the obituaries, the unifying effect of his long war against cancer had transcended the divisive effect of his long war against communism. His illness was thus regarded as a metaphor for all the problems that plague Western man in his decent from power. With Wane’s passing, we were told by solemn editorialists, the last simplistic American Hero had bitten the dust. This meant that there would be no more Vietnams on the American horizon. OF course, a bemused bystander might observe that Vietnam had more to do with John Kennedy than with John Wayne, and that the newest crop of crotch-thrusting rock stars do no necessarily make more exemplary or more complex heroes than an old gunfighter. But to argue Wayne’s politics, pro or con, is to ignore the considerable achievement of his poetics. Wayne was, after all, a movie actor, not a politician, and his great feat was not to play “himself,” whatever that means, but to fashion a new self from his screen image.

The squint, the rolling walk, the roundhouse right, the clipped cadences of his speech were not granted to Marion Michael Morrison at his birth on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. They were industriously assembled, mannerism by mannerism, through an unusually long apprenticeship on the Hollywood sound stages in the 1930s. Unlike many of his stellar contemporaries, Wanye was far from an overnight sensation. From his walk-on in a Richard Barthelmess vehicle entitled Drop Kick (1927) to his grand entrance as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939),Wayne toiled away in 65 movies, most of which were produced on poverty row for the boondocks and kiddie matinee audiences.

Having obtained his big chance and the screen name “John Wayne” in 1930 with Raoul Walsh’s superwestern The Big Trail, Wayne saw his opportunity for stardom sidetracked for almost a decade. His youth was gone by the time Ford dragged him off to Monument Valley for a second chance. His biographers have written that Wayne was on the screen for almost 50 years, but it would be a mistake to say that his iconic flame burned with equal brightness throughout that period. Ultimately, Wayne appeared in some of the best films ever made in Hollywood–Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home, They Were Expendable, Fort Apache, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, El Dorado–and some of the worst–Tycoon, The Fighting Kentuckian, Big Jim McLain, The Conqueror, The Alamo, The Green Berets. But his overall reputation with the public depended less on the classics and the disasters than upon steady steam of routine but robust romances from the 1940s through the 1970s. I happened to have grown up on the John Wayne of Dark Command, Seven Sinners, The Shepherd of the Hills, Lady for a Night, Reap the Wild Wind, The Spoilers, Flying Tigers, In Old Oklahoma, Tall in the Saddle, and Angel and the Badman. I remember responding to him an relatievely uncomplicated way though he seldom functioned as a conventional hero. He could be accursed or obsessed. In Wake of the Red Witch he drowns at the bottom of the deep so that he can sail forever on the ghostly high seas with his dead sweetheart (Gail Russell). He dies also in Reap the Wild Wind, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Cowboys, and The Shootist–an unusually high number of fatalities for a supposedly optimistic genre figure. And on many other occasions the character he played faced a twilight existence of loneliness and dependency.

An appreciation of the complete John Wayne depends therefore upon a perceptive familiarity with the varieties and paradoxes of his career. The Goldwaters and the Nixons among his admirers have merely appropriated snapshots of Wayne as the Rugged Individualist to promote their own political fantasies. Wayne’s most enduring image, however, is that of the displaced loner vaguely uncomfortable with the very civilization he is helping to establish and preserve. He is not a Wild Mind of the West seeking ever new frontiers, but he wanders much of the time nonetheless. At his first appearance we usually sense a very private person with some wound, loss, or grievance from the past. At his best he is much closer to a tragic vision of life than to a comic one. Shortly before Wayne’s death Ralph Richardson remarked in an interview that the “Duke” projected the kind of mystery one associated with great acting. Jean-Luc Goddard once observed that as much as he despised the reactionary politics of John Wayne, he could never help but be moved in John Ford’s The Searchers by the emotional sweep of the awesomely avuncular gesture with which Wayne gathers up Natalie Wood, after having given every indication that he wished to kill her for defiling his sacred memories of a little girl accepting his medal as a token of his chivalric devotion to her mother. In this, his greatest film, Wayne acts out the mystery of what passes through the soul of Ethan Edwards in that fearsome moment when he discovered the mutilated bodies of his brother, his beloved sister-in-law, and his nephew. Surly, cryptic, almost menacing even before the slaughter, he is invested afterward with the implacability of a figure too much larger than life for any genre but the Western.

Still, the notion of John Wayne as a great actor sits strangely wit most people. Wayne himself would have scoffed at the suggestion that he belonged in the same category with, say, Laurence Olivier, whom he greatly admired. Toward the end of his life Wayne acknowledged the high-brown veneration accorded him by serious cineastes her and abroad. “I was just the paint for the palettes of Ford and Hawks,” he once remarked with rueful modesty. This may have been true at the time of Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and Hawk’s Red River (1948), but by the time of Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) and Hawk’s El Dorado (1967), they needed him more than he needed them. To great extent he had become his own auteur.

There is another factor to be considered, however, in Wayne’s apparent self-denigration as an actor. The supposed authenticity of his personality could have been compromised by the stigma of self-consciousness. Carole Lombard once noted disapprovingly that Gary Cooper had become “feminine” in his narcissistic absorption with his own looks. A noted ballet critic once spoke approvingly of the rollicking sensuality of Wayne’s posterior wiggle. The suspicion that such a maneuver might have been contrive with the actor’s full awareness of its effect could do much to destroy the Duke’s credibility wit the mass of moviegoers one five continents on the screen without any cultural preconceptions we are reminded of a long dance across disconcertingly natural background. As with Buster Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock, the kinetic and dynamic qualities of the medium itself have coalesced with a determined talent to produce images of genius.

Many theater people still believe that the only truly “serious” acting is performed on a stage, and within this circle Wayne is of course artistically nonexistent. Certainly no one ever suggested that Wayne’s acting range extended to Restorian fops and Elizabethan fools. (Dustin Hoffman got a big laugh at a Village Voice Off-Broadway “Obie” award ceremony a few years back with his imitation of Wayne’s undertaking a stage performance of Hamlet in London.) But as Olivier himself has demonstrated on too many occasions, the assumption of an infinite “range” contains its own pitfalls. A trick accent, a beard, an eye-patch, old-age make-up–these are the accoutrements of acting to many people And that is why the worst acting is so often mistaken for the best, particularly on screen, where being transcends pretending, and just standing there can often be more effective than doing something.

Wayne was dismissed not only because he lacked the wide classical range of the great British actors, but also because he lacked the emotional depth of the great method actors. Wayne was thus less than Olivier on one level, an less than Brando on another. Indeed, nothing could be more alien to Wayne’s temperament and upbringing than the Freudian-Stanislavkian mix of the method. Instead of reaching back into his past to dredge up the feelings that would bring his characters to life, Wayne followed a relatively Jungian process of building up a new persona into which he gradually grew. He had never been a real-life Western hero like Tom Mix, nor even a real-life cowboy like Gary Cooper, but rather a druggist’s son in pinched middle-class surroundings. From an early age he found a more satisfying existence on the movie screen, and he labored long and hard to pain himself on that magical canvas so that is would seem that he had always inhabited it. In the end Wayne himself was just about all that was left of the Old West in our imagination.

The discretion of graveyard ettiquette aside, there remains strong, influential, and even understandable pockets of resistance to the Wayne legend on grounds other than the obvious political ones. Women, Easterners, Intellectuals, Gentle Souls Dedicated to Non-Violence, and even Scholars of the Real West were never the strongest champions of either Wayne or the Westerns in which he appeared. Many of his detractors have never seen his best films; many have never patronized Westerns as a matter of course. Much that has been written causally about the Western is remarkably ill-informed with respect to the almost dialectical diversity within the genre. Take weapons, for example. Relatively “liberal” types like Henry Fonda and Paul Newman have been consireably more conspicuous than Wayne in the manner of flaunting virility and swaggering about with six-shooters at the ready. Newman in particular exploited the Western to express his own anarchic spirit. By contrast, Wayne embodied the brutal, implacable order of the West less with personal flair than with archetypal endurance. He was more likely to outlast them, and from Stagecoach on he never hesitated to use the rifle, and instrument more efficient and more realist, if less phallic, than the six-shooter.

Apart from appreciative essays by Joan Didion and Molly Haskell, there is little evidence to suggest that Wayne was as well-liked by women as by men. He lacked the curiously calculating little-boy-lost quality of a Gable or a Cooper, and his clumsy exasperation was often mistaken for bullying. From time to time in his career he ventured into relatively straight boy-girl projects in order to broaden his appeal. The results seemed discouraging at first glance. Wayne clearly lacked finesse, subtlety, and patience, the indispensable tools of womanizing on the screen. Of his performance opposite Jean Arthur in A Lady Takes a Chance (1943), James Agee wrote “...John Wayne suggests how sensational he might be in a sufficiently evil story about a Reno gigolo...” and on his playing opposite Claudette Colbert in Without Reservations (1946), Agee was similarity clear-eyed: “Messrs. Wayne and Defore have kinds of hardness and conceit, in their relations with women, which are a good deal nearer the real thing than movies usually get.”

Marlene Dietrich, his co-star and reported flame in Seven Sinners (1940), The Spoilers (1942), and Pittsburgh (1942), recently complained in print that Wayne had never read a book in his life. And despite his having been married to three Spanish-speaking women, he never learned more than a few words of Spanish. “I guess I never listened to what they were saying,” he once confessed candidly, but not without a trace of self-mockery. Yet warmth and devotion are amply present in his screen liaisons with Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man and The Wings of Eagles, with Angie Dickerson in Rio Bravo, and with Patricia Neal in In Harm’s Way. Like Faulkner’s hero in Knight’s Gambit, he improved with age, and he learned before our eyes both how to feel and how to project a deep and abiding love.

But there is no getting away from it. John Wayne was not one of us, if by “us” we stipulate the kind of people who read and contribute to The New Republic. John was the Other. He had graduated by 1939 from the trivial pulp Westerns and adventure romances in which cardboard heroes wrestled with stock villains. In the grown-up Westerns of subsequent decades villainy was supplanted by evil, and Wayne confronted evil directly with ruthless, unblinking violence. The liberal imagination steadfastly resists the idea of incorrigible evil, and the absolute and vengeful morality it spawns in the persona of John Wayne For my own part, I am not in the habit of socking my enemies in the jaw. I snipe at them in print instead, and feel singularly unheroic in the process. John Wayne was therefore something of a graceful and beautiful fantasy figure for me, but he was also and remains still the test of my own negative capability as a film critic. It took me a long time to appreciate him as an actor, and now I hope to make amends by explaining his subtler virtues to the stubbornly unbelieving.

Andrew Sarris is the film critic for the Village Voice and the author, most recently, of Politics and Cinema (Columbia University Press).