John Wayne's 100th
Memorial Day weekend was the kickoff to the summer blockbuster movie season. Lines were long with parents and kiddies waiting to see a boozy pirate generously adorned with eyeliner, a comic-book hero in red tights, and a round-headed, round-bodied green cartoon character. But there was plenty of reason to stay home. America's favorite movie hero was born a hundred years ago, and John Wayne movie marathons were plentiful on TV.
With so much bad in the world, people look for heroes everywhere, and especially on the silver screen. But just when you think you've found a hero, the film star acts out on Oprah, or you watch him gush mindlessly over Al Gore's convenient environmental lies. Is it any wonder why John Wayne (born Marion Mitchell Morrison) continues to be picked in the top 10, when Harris pollsters ask the simple question: "Who is your favorite movie star?" In fact, The Duke came in number three in this year's poll, only behind Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks, both of whom had the advantage of actually appearing in new films in 2006.
John Wayne's last film was The Shootist in 1976, the story of aging gunfighter John Bernard Books who spends his last days in Carson City, Nevada dying of cancer. The Books character utters one of Wayne's most famous movie lines: "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I expect the same from them." Wayne would die three years later in 1979 at the age of 72. Despite his passing, Wayne continues to be a huge star, and was voted America's favorite movie star just a dozen years ago, in 1995, a decade and half after his death.
But as popular as Wayne is with the people, the liberal intelligentsia hate him and continue to be infuriated by his popularity. "Thank heaven he's also a laughable political ignoramus," wrote novelist Jonathan Lethem in Salon, "a warmongering hypocrite who never served in the armed forces. Thank heaven he's associated with the western, an easily dismissible film genre. All this gives us the chance to avert our eyes, to giggle or scoff. And we do."
But John Wayne's reputation as a war-mongering, rightwing extremist may be more an invention of the media than fact. Wayne spent his time doing movies, appearing in over 200, not pondering political theory. But he did find the privileged and pampered Hollywood elite, whose lifestyles were made by capitalism and money, to be hypocrites. He put protesting college kids in the same category. As pro-war as Wayne is depicted, Biographer Herb Fagen wrote that Wayne believed America's involvement in Vietnam was ill advised.
Wayne liked to think of himself as a Jeffersonian liberal, according to biographers Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and David Grayson, "subscribing to the principle that government is best which governs least." He told Dean Jennings of the Saturday Evening Post: "I think government is the natural enemy of the individual, but it's a necessary evil, like, say, motion-picture agents."
Unfortunately the Duke hadn't discovered Murray Rothbard, otherwise he might not have thought government necessary, just evil. But movie critic Mr. First Nighter (AKA Rothbard), had not only discovered John Wayne, but was a big fan. Reviewing one of Wayne's last films — "McQ" — for the January 1974 Libertarian Forum, First Nighter wrote, "There is no such thing as a bad John Wayne picture…"
Although First Nighter loved Wayne's performance, McQ was only "workmanlike," due to a slow plot, and no help from the supporting cast. "Diana Muldaur seems to have only one expression: hangdog, while Colleen Dewhurst — billed on all sides as one of the great actresses of our epoch — croaks her way through a terrible performance." Lucky for Rex Reed that Rothbard never decided to review films full time.
While establishment critics fell in love with the movies of Bergman, Bunuel and Fellini, Rothbard believed these movies to be without reason and illogical. Mr. First Nighter described Wayne's Chisum and Rio Bravo as great films, loving the action and that justice prevailed with the good guys winning.
Westerns and Wayne hater, Jonathan Lethem drudges up the old canard "that repressed [homosexual] desire runs through even the dullest westerns, but it's only one important facet among many — and too often pointing it out provides yet another excuse to ridicule and disregard the genre."
So, if western heroes are not depicted spending quality time with their wives, they must be repressed homosexuals? "[F]ilms that use male beauty so potently and depict again and again an emotional world that excludes women yet scrupulously denies the possibility of same-sex desire have a hypocrisy at their core — a hypocrisy that can, paradoxically, serve as a battery, a source of creative energy," Lethem blathers.
Mr. First Nighter sets him straight. "It simply wouldn't do to have a tough hero slugging it out with bad guys, only to return at night to a home-cooked meal by the Little Woman." Thus, our western heroes move "mythically onward across the plains, with women dropping out altogether."
Garry Wills, the author of John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity was anything but a fawning biographer, but admits Wayne's appeal. "He's the solid, dependable person who can hold together a wagon train or a cavalry unit, or Marine detachment. And young men look up to him."
The love of John Wayne is passed down from generation to generation. Fathers and sons watch his movies together over-and-over: Seeing the Duke ride tall in the saddle never gets old. June 11th may be the anniversary of his death, but Marion Mitchell Morrison hated funerals. Thankfully, John Wayne lives on.