The right's twisted symbol: John Wayne and conservatives' lost dignity

An amazing new biography of John Wayne really charts the ways in which modern conservatives came to see themselves

Published April 13, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

John Wayne    (AP)
John Wayne (AP)

“Professional American,” wrote Greil Marcus in “John Wayne Listening.” “He wears the mantle of Manifest Destiny easily, happy to represent America to the world, to itself, and to himself.”

Exactly. That explains why John Wayne was the most popular American movie star for decades before his death in 1979 and for years afterward. And maybe even today. A 1995 poll asking “Who is your favorite movie star?” ranked him first, ahead of Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington and Kevin Costner. (He was the only dead movie star in the top 10.)

That’s also why Wayne is the symbol of conservative – that is to say, white – America. As Garry Wills wrote about the big showdown scene in “Red River,” “Here was Manifest Destiny on the hoof.”

Wayne’s legend, or, more precisely, his screen image, means nothing at all to me, strikes no chord of shared dreams. Bogart lived my unlived lives, and Bogie’s world and the Duke’s didn’t even intersect. Which is why I can with all honesty say that Scott Eyman’s “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” is one of the greatest movie star biographies ever written: If someone impervious to Wayne’s persona can enjoy it so much, anyone at all interested in movies should.

Eyman, author of John Ford (“Print the Legend”) and Ernst Lubitsch (“Laughter in Paradise”) bios, manages the rare critical feat of appreciating his subject’s qualities while maintaining distance. “John Wayne’s story,” he writes, “is about many things – it’s about the construction of an image, the forging of a monumental career that itself became a kind of monument. It’s about a terribly shy, tentative boy reinventing himself as a man with a command personality, of a man who loved family but who couldn’t sustain a marriage, and of a great friendship [with John Ford] that resulted in great films.

“And it’s also about twentieth-century conservatism, considered dangerously extreme at the time that became mainstream in the twenty-first century.

“It is, in short, a life that can only belong to one man.”

Eyman is certainly right about that. Gable never had the good fortune to latch onto two directors as great as John Ford and Howard Hawks.  Gary Cooper’s image has been eclipsed by Wayne’s. James Stewart, in his heyday as big a star as Wayne until the mid-1960s and a far more versatile actor as well as a real life war hero, never allied himself with Manifest Destiny.

Clint Eastwood, once regarded as the late-20th-century version of Wayne, has dropped out of the running. “Does anyone expect Clint Eastwood to be America’s favorite star a decade-and-a-half after his death?” Garry Wills asked rhetorically in 1997. I don’t think Eastwood is as popular as Wayne is right now.

* * *

Marion Robert Morrison -- not Marion Michael or Marion Mitchell -- was born May 26, 1907, to Scottish-Irish parents in Winterset, Iowa -- a town of less than 3,000 souls, only two of them black. He never went back, though the Winterset Chamber of Commerce restored the house with period furniture. His parents never got along; his father was amiable but ineffectual, and his mother was regarded by many who knew her as a scold. (They separated in 1921.) By 1914 the family was living in the small town of Palmdale, Calif., on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

Young Marion enjoyed an idyllic adolescence: president of his senior class and the Latin Society, and even on the staff of the school newspaper. He graduated with a 94 average. He haunted the town library to read boys’ magazines and the adventure novels of Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

There were only two drawbacks: When the Morrisons first moved to Palmdale, his father raised corn, giving Marion the job of patrolling their land with a small caliber rifle to shoot rattlesnakes. He later recalled, “I kept my fears to myself.”  Then there was his name. The Morrisons had an Airedale named Duke, and every time  boy and dog passed the firehouse, men would call out to big and “Little Duke.”  Marion grabbed the nickname, sans the “little.”

Duke played high school football and pursued nothing in life, not even girls, with any particular enthusiasm. He drifted into the movie business with a summer job on a Tom Mix movie lot. Soon he met a silent film director named John Feeney, aka John Ford, who needed a prop man. The rest is history, though history took its own sweet time getting started.

Sometime around 1930 a studio head decided that the name Marion “Duke”  didn’t have much heat -- “John Wayne” would look better on a marquee. (This made me think of that scene in “Shanghai Noon” when Jackie Chan tells Owen Wilson that his name is “Chon Wang.”  “John Wayne?” says Wilson. ‘That’s a terrible cowboy name.”)

Richard Widmark famously said, “John Ford invented John Wayne,” but it was Raoul Walsh who gave Wayne his first big role in the 1930 Technicolor epic “The Big Trail.” (“I don’t want an actor,” Walsh supposedly said, “I want someone to act natural.”)  The picture bombed; most theaters couldn’t accommodate the widescreen format.  It was the last A-list picture Wayne made for 10 years.

Ford, surely one of the most perverse figures in Hollywood history – James Cagney thought that one word described him, “malice” --  cut Wayne dead  until 1939. Even when Wayne became the biggest star in movies Harry Carey Jr. thought,  “He was always frightened of Ford … Duke didn’t have to be that scared of him, but he was.”

Eyman does a splendid job of leading us through Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies, from black-and-white to color, from B-movies to A-listers. An account of  Wayne’s penance in low-budget movies is great reading. Of an early hockey film he writes, “If you always wanted to see John Wayne on skates, ‘Idol of the Crowds’ (1937) is the movie for you.” In “Overland Stage Raiders” (1938) Wayne had the great Louise Brooks for a leading lady. (It was her last film.)  Eyman is also good on late career clunkers like “The Conqueror” (1956), in which Wayne was cast as Genghis Khan: “One of those unusual pictures that really are as bad as their reputation would indicate … the world’s biggest Ed Wood movie.”

Finally, in 1939, Ford dropped his mysterious grudge and gave Wayne the role that would change his fortune, the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach.” Eyman calls  it, correctly I think, “more than a piece of movie history; it becomes American history.” Even Pauline Kael, who was less susceptible to Wayne’s image than I was, wrote of “Stagecoach”  that “ [it] had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art.”

But, as Garry Wills points out in “John Wayne’s America” (published in 1997, reprinted by Touchstone), Wayne did not become a superstar until the release of Howard Hawks’ “Red River” in 1948.  Upon seeing it, Ford is reputed to have said, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.”  No other major star except Bogart, 42 in 1941 when “The Petrified Forest” and “The Maltese Falcon” were released,  had to wait so long for stardom.

Eyman may cut Wayne down to size a bit, but his warts-and-all approach makes Wayne seem more human and approachable than in previous biographies. For instance, Hollywood’s biggest Republican got a union card in 1929, No. 34854 of Local 37 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators, and was proud of it all his life. And the man who will forever be associated with  westerns didn’t like horses: “I don’t get on a horse unless they pay me.”

One of his favorite albums was Sinatra’s “The September of My Years” (mine, too). George Plimpton once listened to Wayne recite John Milton from memory. He read Winston Churchill’s speeches, and in his library had copies of Tolkien’s books and – this really floored me – Nabokov’s “Lolita.” (Maybe he knew that Nabokov’s politics were similar to his own.)

There are great stories, such as the time Wayne ran into Michael Caine in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel, pointed a finger at him and asked “What’s your name?”

 “Michael Caine.”

“That’s right. I saw you in that movie – what was it called?”


“That’s right.”

Wayne put his arm around Caine, told him he was going to be a star and gave him some advice:

“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too fucking much. Also never wear suede shoes.”

“Why not?”

“Because one day I was taking a piss and the guy in the next stall recognized me and turned towards me and said, ‘John Wayne – you’re my favorite actor!’ and pissed all over my suede shoes. So don’t wear them when you’re famous, kid.”

Wayne didn’t like French movies: “All they do is get in and out of cars.”  (Reminds me of Yogi Berra’s evaluation of “Two for the Road” with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn: “They got in the car, they got out of the car. They got in the car, they got out of the car.”)

He once used the N-word with Roscoe Lee Browne, telling him, using other words, that he was the first black man he'd met with a sense of humor.  But he refused to make an appearance in Mel Brooks' “Blazing Saddles” because “I could never be in a movie that used the N-word.”  His favorite actors were Cary Grant, Barry Fitzgerald, Victor McLaglen, James Garner, Robert Redford and George C. Scott; he also admired Paul Newman, with whom he exchanged jesting letters on politics. (I’m with every name on that list.)

Wayne thought the movie made from Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly, Last Summer” was “Polluting the bloodstream of Hollywood.”

* * *

“Wayne’s physical and emotional strength,” Eyman writes, “were always matched by an equivalent control and sense of purpose; at the beginning of his career or at its end, he never made a clumsy gesture.” But the memory of his power as an actor was dulled by two decades of mostly undistinguished and indistinguishable westerns. Wayne’s own self-deprecating opinion of himself was “A stagehand who got lucky.”

He certainly was lucky. As late as 1940, Ford still thought of Wayne as a character actor and even in 1948 was still co-starring him. In “Fort Apache” (1948) Wayne was still sharing screen time with another of Ford’s favorites, Henry Fonda. Most of the roles that he is remembered for came when Wayne was either pushing or past 40: In “Red River,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “Rio Grande” (1950), he played older men. Up to 1949 the biggest hit in which he didn’t have to share top billing was “Sands of Iwo Jima,” by which time he was 42. (His performance as the Marine Sgt. John Stryker got him his first Oscar nomination.)

In his greatest role, Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” (1956), he played a racist psychotic. Wayne had a horror of doing anything that might alienate his fans, but it’s doubtful that he would have chosen to play the characters in “Red River” and “The Searchers” on his own. Wisely, he listened to directors who knew him and his capabilities better than he knew himself.

Wayne’s attitude toward the roles he played was “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t like ambiguity.” Yet there was an element of mystery at the core of Wayne’s best performances, particularly in his Ethan Edwards. “The mystery at the heart of the character’s darkness,” writes Eyman, “forces the audience to sit up and wonder, to make its own best guess about what comes next, and just about what Ethan is capable of.”

These were not “standard” John Wayne roles. Neither was his only great performance outside a western, in Ford’s “ The Quiet Man” (1952). (Any one who doesn’t think Wayne couldn’t act or had no range needs to watch “The Quiet Man” and “The Searchers” back to back.)

* * *

Steve Travers’ “The Duke, the Longhorns and Chairman Mao” is worth mentioning only as an example of what Garry Wills called “Wayne-olatry.”  It’s a compilation of myths and nonsense that Wills and Eyman, among others, have debunked.

Travers thinks that Wayne refused to enlist in the Armed Forces during World War II because he thought he could “do more good by uplifting morale through the making of patriotic war films.” Wills wrote that Wayne “Stayed out of World War II to try new roles” and that Wayne “was not a model hero in World War II. Humphrey Bogart (who had served in the Navy during World War I) was the leading war hero of the movies … Wayne was in none of the films that made a difference to the war effort.”

Travers seems to believe that Wayne would have been an All-American in football if not for an injury; in fact, University of Southern California coach Howard Jones cut him from the squad. He repeats the absurd story, propagated by Wayne himself, that Republic Pictures would have sued Wayne had he not fulfilled his contract with them and gone to war. (One can only imagine how a movie executive would have been vilified for keeping an actor from serving his country.)

He also believes that Wayne was “an old-fashioned Christian gentleman.” In truth, Wayne was neither a Christian nor a gentleman. He was a heavy drinker and smoker, had numerous affairs, never went to church, and was bosom buddies with anti-Semitic louts such as Ward Bond. Wayne wasn’t a Christian gentleman any more than he was a war hero, he just played them in the movies.

Travers’ book regurgitates crackpot theories propagated by British writer Michael Munn in his 2003 book, “John Wayne, The Man Behind the Myth.”  Munn, whose 2010 biography of Steve McQueen was called “preposterous” by the New Statesman, maintains that both Joseph Stalin and Mao-Tse Tung plotted to have Wayne assassinated. If nothing else, this notion would make a great plot for a Tarantino movie.

Needless to say, Travers sees Wayne as the hero of “Manifest Destiny, today vilified by the Left as a violent conquest of Native Indians.” Sorry, there’s more to it than that. In Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s  “Our America,” published earlier this year, we are reminded “Manifest Destiny” was invented by journalist John O’Sullivan, writing in the 1840s “in the context of an attempt to justify the war against Mexico” – a war, lest we forget, opposed by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee and John Quincy Adams (who wrote of his country’s “two deadly crimes, the leprous contamination of slavery and the robbery of Mexico”).

All of which makes me wonder if the Duke’s image will continue to be one that Americans can unite behind. Jimmy Stewart will always be our national symbol of representative democracy in action; 100 years from now Bogie will remain the symbol of resistance to fascism. But what are we to make of the narrow visions of American history propagated by representative Wayne movies like “Red River” and “The Alamo”?

“The chief cause of conflict between settlers and the Mexican government,” writes Fernándo-Armesto, “was black slavery.” “The Alamo” contains a ludicrous scene in which a freed slave chooses to remain in the fort and dies protecting his former master.

More problematic is a scene near the beginning of “Red River” in which Wayne guns down a caballero who tells him he is trespassing on “Don Diego’s land.” “That’s too much land for one man,” spouts a grizzled Walter Brennan, which, by the way, is a hell of an attitude for free market Republicans to take.

To my knowledge, no John Wayne fan has ever questioned the right of Wayne’s Tom Dunson to ride onto another man’s land and kill for it. After all, Don Diego was a Mexican for whom the rules of Manifest Destiny don’t apply.

In addition to being racially offensive, the scene is a historical abomination. In the film Dunson and his companions are moving onto Don Diego’s land sometime in the early 1850s, by which time all of Texas was part of the United States. Mexico had its land stolen by illegal aliens traveling south and west, and nearly all big Mexican landowners were either dead or forced to leave Texas for Mexico.

* * *

In the future, I believe, John Wayne’s star will surely fade. Already he appears to us as an avatar of a past still strongly felt but only dimly remembered. And yet … when I compare him to Clint Eastwood, I can’t help thinking American conservatism has lost something, if only dignity. I can’t image John Wayne making a fool of himself talking to an empty chair at the Republican Convention, in front of a national audience.

In the words of his best biographer, Scott Eyman, John Wayne “embodied self-reliance, but he also embodied generosity of soul and spirit: not common qualities in the latter part of the twentieth century, let alone today.”

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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