John Wayne is one of the great screen idols and symbols of traditional American values. But as the documentary John Wayne: The Unquiet American shows, there was another side to the man who helped define what ‘a man oughta do’. By Matt Pomroy
‘There’s right and there’s wrong. You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you’re as dead as a beaver hat.’ It was a line uttered by John Wayne in The Alamo and one of many lines he said during his life – both on and off screen – about making choices and taking a moral stand. Of all the great screen icons, it’s probably Wayne who typified masculine identity more than anyone else – the rugged crusader who stands up for what’s right with true grit, determination and strong ethical fortitude.
Many of his characters in his films (and he appeared in nearly 200 of them) have become symbolic of all that was great about America, both in his definition of old-fashioned frontier spirit and a belief that a man should oppose wrongdoing, by violence if necessary. However, the documentary John Wayne: The Unquiet American questions the other side of him. ‘Courage,’ he once said in his famous low, gravelly drawl, ‘is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.’ It’s a great line but he didn’t actually saddle up when it came to the Second World War, instead continually dodging the draft, and ultimately never going off to fight. It’s contradictions like this that made him such a fascinating, and sometimes infuriating person, as his morals offscreen were a lot more ambiguous than the clear-cut persona of the legend.
‘I’ve played the kinda man I’d like to have been,’ he remarked rather tellingly, and reportedly was wracked with guilt about not fighting during the war. Weighed down by the shame over his decision to avoid conflict he spent the rest of his life as a ‘super patriot’. By the time the Vietnam conflict started, he was more than happy to encourage young men to enlist and fight.
While ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda was the poster girl for the counterculture which opposed the war, so ‘The Duke’ was the right-wing crusader and was happy to bend the truth to suit. In 1968 he appeared in The Green Berets, which was one of very few films to have been released in the United States about the Vietnam War while the conflict was still ongoing, and for good reason. It was little more than propaganda and glorified what was happening in Vietnam, something Wayne himself later admitted. But as a fervent anticommunist and symbol of American ideals he was the perfect man for the government to use.
Australian journalist John Pilger, who reported from the war, called the film absurd and claimed that Wayne had ‘sent thousands of Americans to their deaths’. Pilger may have been exaggerating Wayne’s level of influence, but the man certainly had a fixation about his role as a patriot and opposed anything that was critical of his country – rightly or wrongly.
He described High Noon, the legendary Western staring Gary Cooper, as ‘the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life’. The film was a loose allegory for McCarthyism, which is somethingsupported. And when the House of Un-American Activities Committee ‘investigated’ the perceived Communist influence on the motion picture industry, he helped get Carl Foreman, the liberal screenwriter of High Noon, blacklisted. Foreman had to move to England and write anonymously and was not credited for his Oscar-winning screenplay of The Bridge On The River Kwai until years after its release.
‘I always thought I was a liberal,’ Wayne said. ‘I came up terribly surprised one time when I found out that I was a right-wing conservative extremist.’ Tongue in cheek perhaps, although veteran UK film journalist Barry Norman claims that the worst interview he’s ever had (and he’s pretty much interviewed them all) was John Wayne, at a round-table session. ‘All the American press were just fawning over him, but when I asked questions with more substance, I discovered his politics were somewhere to the right of Attila The Hun and the interview went downhill very quickly.’
It wasn’t just the affable Norman who found his views to be offensive. In a controversial interview with Playboy, the actor was asked about African Americans becoming leaders. He said: ‘I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.’ Whoa, take ’er easy there, pilgrim.
It also transpires the most famous on-screen cowboy of all time had no compassion for native Americans and claimed that ‘there were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.’ Despite these sorts of comments that contradict the iconic image of a man who stands up for the oppressed, Wayne’s star has never dimmed.
His ever-growing status as an American hero, and increasingly influential symbol of American ideals, led to him only choosing roles that portrayed his character in a certain light. This remained throughout his career and even while filming one of his last films, The Shooting, he refused to let his character shoot someone in the back, as the script dictated, because it was a non-heroic way to kill a man. He was John Wayne, the eternal good guy even if some of his off-screen comments suggested otherwise.
Biographies are often overly glossy and offer nothing of interest – if you’ve watched E! channel you’ll know what I’m talking about – but this is well worth a look. His legacy and influence on American culture, and iconography of manhood still endure (and rightly so) but as this documentary shows, the man behind the legend was not so easy to read.•
From Time Out Magazine, September 2007