At John Wayne’s death, the President of the United States said that he reflected “the best of our national character.” “In an age of few heroes,” Mr. Carter said, “he was the genuine article.” It was a curious tribute to a man who had spent his life pretending to be other people. John Wayne’s career was a monument spanning fifty years but he was, after all, not a hero but an actor who played heroes. Despite all the martial types he impersonated on the screen—cowboys, sheriffs, military men, seafarers, pilots, hunters—in his private life he did very little that could be called heroic, not even serving in his country’s armed forces in World War II. His studio said that Wayne—thirty-four at the time of Pearl Harbor—attempted to enlist but was rejected because he had four children, a perforated eardrum, and was “overage.” But the nation at war was drafting working-class fathers, often with severe physical defects, up to the age of forty. Clark Gable (six years older than Wayne), James Stewart, Tyrone Power, and many others served. Stewart flew twenty combat missions in the Army Air Corps. (Dashiell Hammett, forty-eight and tubercular, enlisted after Pearl Harbor, volunteered for overseas duty, and was sent to the Pacific.)
A further irony of Carter’s tribute was that, a month after Wayne’s death, on the eve of an appeal to the nation for a “rebirth of the American spirit,” Carter decried the “moral decline” of the country as he saw it reflected in the pages of People magazine: the break-up of families, “the pop heroes, the cultural stars, what sort of lives they led . . . you never see a mention of a husband or wife, always the latest string of relationships. . .” (the words are Jody Powell’s). John Wayne had three wives, three divorces, at least one of which was blatantly scandalous, with violent beatings, mutual charges of adultery. He went on binges with his drinking buddies, smashed up places. One wonders what kind of example Mr. Carter would have thought this was to offer “our young people.”
But if John Wayne had any real importance off the screen, it was as an arch-patriot and outspoken political conservative—the “Jane Fonda of the Right,” as he jocularly came to be known. The quickest way of adumbrating Wayne’s politics is to list the political figures he supported and admired: Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Spiro Agnew, Douglas MacArthur—but also Harry Truman (whom he called the “tie salesman”) because of Korea. He felt no guilt whatsoever over injustices done to blacks or Indians in other periods. He hadn’t done them, he didn’t like whining; he’d give a black man or an Indian a fair shake, and that was it. He thrilled to Israel’s victories on the field of battle (and was very popular with the Hollywood old guard of Jewish Republicans). He had an intense dislike of certain words: “socialist,” “liberal,” even “masses.” “When that Eddie Dmytryk used the word ‘masses’ I knew he was a Commie,” he said. For three key years during the Joseph McCarthy period, he was president of the famous anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Yet when the actor Larry Parks admitted to having once been a member of the Communist party, Wayne said it was “courageous” of Parks to admit it, and hoped it wouldn’t hurt his career. (Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist, addressing a mass meeting of the Alliance as its vice president, declared that Larry Parks would certainly not be forgiven, adding later in private, “Duke is a little dumb about these things.” Parks was not forgiven.)
The contradictions abounded. As the years went by, Wayne, like many another aging conservative, came to feel the country’s movies were going to the dogs: too much violence (he who had played more violent scenes than any actor alive), too much sex. But just when liberals had him definitely categorized as a “knee-jerk” reactionary, and a movie-censorship proposition was placed on the ballot in California spelling out just what was to be allowed in films and what was not, Wayne actively campaigned against it. Another seeming oddity was Wayne’s friendship (and business partnership) with the celebrated Roberto Arias, son of a former Panamanian president and the leader of an unsuccessful invasion of Panama, whose guerrilla tactics, at least, were patterned on those of Fidel Castro. An even more surprising turn was Wayne’s support of the new Panama Canal treaties, after which, for the first time in his life, he received hate mail from the American right wing. In some ways a quintessential American figure, he was nevertheless drawn to the feudal and virile aspects of Hispanic culture. All three of his wives were Latin American (Panamanian, Mexican, and Peruvian). Once, asked to write his own epitaph, he replied in Spanish: Feo, fuerte, y formal, translating it himself: “He was ugly, strong, and had dignity.”
For many Americans who came of age during the 60’s, John Wayne was the hated Vietnam super-hawk. The gross national perception after the collapse of Saigon was that Wayne, who had supported U.S. policy, had been “wrong,” and that Jane Fonda, who had supported Hanoi, was more or less “right.” But rereading the past and present statements of the two standard-bearers in the light of the recent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and Hanoi’s pitiless and extortionate expulsion of thousands of ethnic Chinese “boat people” to live or die on the open sea, puts the matter in a different light. When fellow “anti-war” activist Joan Baez appealed to Jane Fonda recently to sign an open letter to the Hanoi government condemning violations of human rights in Vietnam, Miss Fonda refused in a sharply worded letter of her own, declaring that she did not believe Joan Baez’s charges against Hanoi and that she was shocked that she would take such an “iconoclastic” stand. She questioned Miss Baez’s definition of “repression,” charged that she had aligned herself with the “most narrow and negative elements in our country,” and concluded, “it shocks me that you have come full circle to [the assumptions] that led to the war and the slaughter of one million people.” On July 25, Miss Fonda published an article in the Los Angeles Times angrily affirming that the United States was “partially” responsible for the “conditions that gave rise to the tide of boat people”—while curiously neglecting to mention anyone else who might be responsible. She denied indignantly that she was “unwilling” to criticize the present government of Vietnam—while still, in fact, studiously refraining from doing so. At this writing, Jane Fonda has never publicly modified her wartime impression of the Vietnamese Communists as “angelic.”
John Wayne never modified his position either. “What war hasn’t been unpopular?” he said in 1967. “Nobody’s enjoying this war, but it happens to be damned necessary. . . . Ever since the revolution of 1917, the Communists haven’t compromised once in the family of nations. They’re out to destroy us, and logic would tell us that this [our Vietnam war] is the right course. Besides, we gave our word.” In 1971, Wayne said: “I honestly believe that there’s as much need for us to help the Vietnamese as there was to help the Jews in Germany. . . . At some point we have to stop Communism.” For Jane Fonda, Communists, at least Vietnamese Communists, are angels. For John Wayne, they were ruthless and relentless enemies. The reader will have his own ideas as to which of these two views is sillier.
John Wayne’s patriotism was of an ardor rarely encountered in the latter half of the 20th century. He could stand before the Republican National Convention in 1968 and say he was “grateful for every day of life I have spent in the United States of America.” But where he parted company with most reasonable citizens, and all people of an independent turn of mind, is that he could not bear to have his country or any appreciable part of it portrayed in an unflattering light anywhere, anytime, by anybody, and he placed simple uncomplimentary description, regardless of its purpose, on virtually the same level as calculated subversion. He accused Carl Foreman and Robert Rossen of doing things really “detrimental to our way of life” by, respectively, writing High Noon and directing All the King’s Men (presumably he felt the same toward Robert Penn Warren for writing the novel on which the film was based).
The scenario of All the King’s Men enraged him. To have shown Huey Long as a “wonderful, rough pirate” would have been fine, but, “Every character who had any responsibility at all was guilty of some offense against society! . . . Everybody was a shit except for this weakling intern doctor!” And High Noon was “even worse.” “In that picture, four guys come in to gun down the sheriff,” recounted Wayne. “He goes to the church and asks for help and the guys go, ‘oh, well, oh, gee.’ And the women stand up and say, ‘You’re rats. You’re rats. You’re rats.’ So Cooper goes out alone. It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life! The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it! I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country.” (The irony of the High Noon story is that, in Foreman’s account, the genesis of the whole tale, transposed in the film into the Western mode, was Foreman’s attempt to round up support in Hollywood to resist the anti-Red machinery being mounted by, precisely, the John Wayne people, and finding that his buddies on the Left were deserting him, one by one, leaving him to fight by himself.)
Wayne was very picky about the kind of roles he would play: never mean, never petty, never cowardly, only once even cautious. He so much adored playing heroes that it was sometimes said of him that he was just a “big kid.”
His bravery, certainly, was that of a child: untested. I have been able to identify only three occasions in John Wayne’s life when he carried out conspicuous public actions of a patriotic or altruistic sort of any risk to himself, and this risk was of the familiar mercantile kind, known to any businessman who launches a new venture, and stakes his financial and professional position on its success.
In 1960, after ten years of work and planning, inspired by reverence for what he felt to be the exemplary valor of his country’s early days, Wayne made The Alamo, the story of the 187 Texans who fought to the last man before being overrun by 3,000 Mexicans under General Santa Anna. Wayne directed the film himself, and played Davy Crockett. The film cost $12 million, a lot for 1960. It was the era of “We shall pay any price, bear any burden . . .,” of “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” But with John Kennedy’s words ringing in the nation’s ears, The Alamo played to sparsely attended houses, a critical and commercial failure. Wayne lost $1.5 million of his own money. Perhaps the nation was not willing to pay “any” price after all. Or perhaps The Alamo was too old-fashioned, too remote, too much of a historical pageant.
In 1965, Wayne wrote to President Johnson that it was “extremely important that not only the people of the United States but those all over the world should know why it is necessary for us” to be in Vietnam. He wanted to tell the story of “our fighting men” in Vietnam “in a manner that will inspire a patriotic attitude on the part of fellow Americans—a feeling which we have always had in this country in the past during times of stress and trouble.” The enthusiasm for a Vietnam war film in Hollywood at the time was nil, and, ironically, the original version of Wayne’s scenario was too overheated even for the Pentagon. But in 1967 Wayne finally made his The Green Berets, once again directing the film himself as well as playing the starring role. The New York Times called it “unspeakable,” “stupid,” “rotten,” “false.” A number of other critics agreed. Interestingly, the film turned out to be a sizable commercial success—according to one set of figures, the second biggest hit John Wayne ever made. In this case, altruism paid.
Wayne’s third philanthropic action was of an entirely different order. In September 1964, the actor, who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, learned that he had cancer of the lung. Swiftly most of one of his lungs was removed and he returned home to convalesce. The dread word “cancer” was never mentioned to the press, the conventional Hollywood wisdom of the time being that it would destroy an actor’s “image.” But Wayne got to thinking it over, and three months after the operation held a news conference to announce the truth, that he had “licked the big ‘C” In 1964 cancer was still a shocking subject, and it seemed altogether possible—the link between the performer and the roles he performs being the mysterious thing it is—that the mass public might turn away from a great, strapping, free-swinging colossus of a man it suspected was dying. But Wayne took the risk. “You know how it is in this business,” he explained later, “everybody telling you it will destroy your image. I went along for a while until I got back on my feet and then I thought I owed it to people to tell the advantage of early checkups. Maybe, to give hope to someone who had cancer. If I can help some poor devil—or at least give him hope—then I’m repaid enough.” It might have been John Wayne’s noblest action. In actual fact, the revelation did him no harm at all. Indeed, for the last fifteen years of his life, particularly during the 1970’s when his movies were fading at the box office, it came quite to dominate and enhance the public’s picture of him. As Cary Grant and James Stewart were slipping away, losing their grip on the public’s imagination, John Wayne remained beloved, admired.
For the last decade or so of his life, in fact, Wayne became that comparatively new phenomenon of American society, the ex-movie star as permanent culture hero. At the source of this development are the fragmentation and realignment of the entertainment industry brought about by television. In the pre-television movie world, when the Joel McCreas and George Brents and George Rafts faltered, they were rapidly swept away by the newcomers: the Gregory Pecks, Robert Mitchums, Burt Lancasters, Kirk Douglases. There was very little nostalgia for older stars once they had passed out of favor. “Has-been” was a fashionable word of the period. Richard Lamparski, author of the Whatever Became of . . .? series, says that in those days old stars “were treated very much like lepers were treated in Calcutta.”
But the last wave of performers to attain stardom before television demolished the old movie world were accorded, if not eternal life, virtually life tenure on their celebrity. Who was to displace them? Motion pictures, now playing to only a fraction of the pre-television movie audience, swiftly became the “class act” of the theatrical professions (replacing Broadway). But Richard Dreyfuss and Robert de Niro are known to only a small proportion of the people who knew Gary Cooper and John Wayne. (Has Jimmy Carter seen Mean Streets?, or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz?) As for television, which inherited the mass audience, it has embarrassingly little prestige, even among the people who work in it. It turns out a shoddy product, and overexposes and annihilates new stars almost as rapidly as it creates them. A continuing paradox of television is that, by showing old movies on its late shows, it serves to perpetuate the legends of the “great” stars of pre-TV Hollywood.
One curious upshot of all this is that the nation is endowed with a floating firmament of old movie stars, seen as much in New York and Washington as in California, appearing in gossip columns, publishing their (ghost-written) memoirs, sponsoring political candidates, taken by and large to be persons of lasting importance—particularly by people who no longer go to the movies. Elizabeth Taylor, not worth a penny today at box-office windows, is an ornament of the nation’s capital. The presence of Lauren Bacall at the Washington Redskins football game is an event. Cary Grant and James Stewart address national political conventions. So too with John Wayne. After he ceased being a star, he became—unlike William S. Hart or Tom Mix—a legend, “bigger than life,” as Mr. Carter says, a folk hero. It was an interesting trick, to be hailed as a great performer by people who were not, when it came right down to it, willing to buy tickets to see him perform.
An even better trick was to convince people that the heroic characters he had played on the screen were somehow himself. John Wayne had an absolutely remarkable presence, both on screen and in life, yet he knew perfectly well that acting was “delusion,” and once admitted that “this Wayne thing” was “as deliberate a projection as you’ll ever see. I practiced in front of a mirror.” Did John Wayne, then, think he was a hero? I suppose he was only human. If other people thought so, why not go along?