The real John Wayne
Tomorrow is the 106th anniversary of the birth of actor John Wayne, a fitting occasion for me to republish an essay in which I examine his peculiar status as a conservative political icon.
I say “peculiar” because the Duke, as a symbol of manhood, patriotism and American virtues, was all artifice. He wasn’t a cowboy. He wasn’t a war hero. None of the words or actions for which he is best remembered were his own. They were the products of writers and directors, special camera angles and lighting and theme music. It was all Hollywood. None of it was reality.
This isn’t to say Wayne had no talent as an actor. He did (although it was slow to develop during his career in “A” movies after a decade of working in “B” westerns). But his only Oscar came late in his career for his performance in “True Grit,” which bordered on self-parody.
The off-screen John Wayne is not the one so many Americans remember with such great fondness, if they’re aware of the real man at all. His off-screen utterances rarely made headlines or amounted to anything especially interesting. His personal life was somewhat dysfunctional. It included three marriages, lots of womanizing and adultery and his insistence that a pregnant Pilar Palette, who would become his third wife, get an abortion because he was not yet divorced from his second wife.
Even Wayne’s big-selling spoken-word recording of the poem “America: Why I Love Her,” which was released in 1973, was, in several ways, artificial. The words weren’t his. They were written by John Mitchum. And Duke’s voice was technically processed to make it sound better. Moreover, the poem was almost totally devoid of tribute to American principles or history. Instead, it was mostly an ode to nature: (“Have you seen a Kansas sunset? Or an Arizona rain? Have you drifted on a bayou Down Louisiana way? Have you watched a cold fog drifting over San Francisco Bay?”)
Still, the recording was a hit because, by then, Wayne had become an established symbol of patriotism, heroism and true manhood. A profession by him of love for his country — or its geographic wonders, anyway — was bound to be popular.
He’s still a symbol of bravery and patriotism, still widely hailed as the embodiment of American virtue. But why? The question is especially perplexing in light of certain uncomfortable truths about him that go well beyond the fact that the only military action he saw during World War II was make-believe stuff on the silver screen. The cold reality is that he studiously avoided military service. He decided that his career was a higher priority. It was a decision that would haunt him the rest of his life and would damage his relationships with some of his friends, most notably his principal mentor, film director John Ford.
Biographer Garry Wills tells the story in his book “John Wayne’s America: The Politics of Celebrity”:
There was tremendous pressure, in public and in private, for Wayne to join them [other actors of his age who served in World War II]. But if he did, his opportunity [to become a truly big film star] might slip away forever…Wayne was prepared to do anything to avoid such a fate. He wrote tortuous excuses to John Ford, who had rushed into military service. He had his studio contrive ever-new exemptions for him… As he told the daughter of his friend and fellow actor, Paul Fix: “I better go do some touring [of military bases]–I feel the draft breathing down my neck.”…
Wayne’s fans have tried to make excuses for his absenteeism from the war. They even bring up the mythical “football injury” that supposedly cost him a scholarship 14 years before the war…They point out that he was 34 in 1941, still married to his first wife, with whom he had four small children — enough to get an exemption in the war’s early years. But other stars were as old or older, and some of them had children. Clark Gable was 41 when he entered the service, Tyrone Power 40, Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery 37, Jimmy Stewart 33, Ronald Reagan 32…
[Wayne’s] excuses were varied and contradictory. He wrote to Ford that he was trying to fill out the proper forms to enter the military, but he had no typewriter on location; that he left forms with [friend and fellow actor] Ward Bond, who couldn’t fill them out; or that his wife, from whom he was separated, would not let him get essential documents he had left at home. In short, the dog ate his homework.
To others he claimed that Herb Yates, the head of Republic, threatened that the studio would “sue you for every penny you hope to make in the future” if he walked away from his contract. But no studio took action against the actors, directors, and cameramen, all under contract, who went to war…
In later years, Wayne had a new excuse. He told Ford’s grandson, Dan, that he would have been only a private in the military (an absurd supposition), so he could have more influence through the war films he did as a star…But Wayne’s identification with World War II came mainly from movies made after the war…Wayne was in none of these films that made a difference to the war effort…He was making it clear that if single-minded careerism would get him there, he was bound to make it. This cost him the chance to serve his country at its time of greatest unity against worldwide foes. Some in Hollywood never forgave Wayne for that. Part of John Ford never forgave him…This is a man who called on other generations to sacrifice their lives, and called them ‘soft’ if they refused…
Though Wayne’s personal character came to approximate the roles he played on-screen, they could never merge in this area. There was nothing in his actual life to resemble the blank bullets he shot at fellow actors in feigned combat. He would forever be the warless “war hero.”
Wills also tells of the time that John Ford’s wife, Mary, wrote of Wayne to her husband: “It’s a damn shame that with a war going on he has to think about his lousy stinking tail.”
Historian William Manchester, in a 1987 article in The New York Times Magazine, recalled an encounter with Duke during World War II:
After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there…. Each evening Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit…He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya, guys!’ He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left.
But that was years before Duke played the role of Sgt. Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” which cemented his image as a war hero.
And now, more than 60 years after that film was made and 34 years after Wayne’s death, there is still cause to wonder why this fake war hero is hailed to this day as a model of Americanism, especially by conservative Republicans.
I have a theory: Social conservatives, more than liberals, tend to embrace myths and make-believe. They distrust realities that don’t jibe with their fairy tales. They’re more inclined to dismiss scientific evidence of evolution and global-warming. They’re more inclined to see the world in simple terms of good and bad — with no ambiguities — just like in John Wayne’s movies.
Social conservatives aren’t likely to subscribe to this philosophy from Adlai Stevenson, the late governor of Illinois and twice a candidate for president: “Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”
Social conservatives generally see the American flag as more sacred than the U.S. Constitution. That’s because the flag is about emotion, while the Constitution is about complicated concepts that require courts to interpret. We get no freedoms from the flag, but we are supposed to treat it with almost religious reverence. We get our American system — freedoms and all — from the Constitution, but nobody’s going to get upset if I carelessly throw a copy of it in the garbage.
In that same sense, the popular image of John Wayne is about emotion rather than complicated concepts. He seemed manly because he wasn’t very complicated, at least in his roles on the screen. In his movies, he didn’t play lawyers or judges or politicians or professors. Rather, he played cowboys and marshals and soldiers and other kinds of men who took no guff from anybody and didn’t have to study legalistic footnotes to decide what was right or wrong.
It’s funny how social conservatives, for all their vaunted disdain of Hollywood, are more likely than liberals to embrace actors as politicians. Ronald Reagan is only the most prominent example. Consider the situation of six years ago with actor Fred Thompson. Here was a guy whose positions on the issues were unknown to most Americans, but for months polls showed him leading seven of the 10 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. It was simply a case of some people liking the Fred Thompson they had seen in movies and on television.
People also generally liked the John Wayne they saw in movies. They liked him so much that they substituted him for the real John Wayne.