They May Tear Down Robert E. Lee, But They’ll Never Get The Duke

I had been expecting the anti-American, anti-male, statue-toppling, historically and culturally ignorant political correctness mob to come after the late John Wayne, known by his friends as “Duke,”  for quite a while. After all, a major airport in L.A. is named after him, he was a controversial conservative at many times during his career, he was frequently vilified by the Left, and in his films he epitomized the virtues, values and legends the United States was built on, and that modern progressives now deride.

Yesterday there was a flurry on social media over a more than 40-year old Playboy interview Wayne gave during one of his many surges of renewed popularity in his career, an epic achievement that saw him remain a top movie star longer than any other actor or actress, even decades after his death. In the interview, Wayne made some ill-advised, even dumb comments, especially about Native Americans: I thought so at the time. Playboy was lapping up the culture wars and people actually paid attention to it then. The magazine always tried to lead its subjects into headline-making quotes, and the Duke complied on that occasion by often sounding like the character he played on screen…you know, from the 19th Century. Wayne occasionally let his real persona peek through his carefully crafted and maintained screen image, but not often. In truth, the real John Wayne, or Marion Morrison, as he said he still thought of himself, was a smart, well-educated, well-read moderate conservative (by today’s standards) who was capable of great nuance in his political views. He was a fanatic chess player who preferred a blazer and slacks to cowboy boots, and, as he proved when the Harvard Lampoon invited him to their Ivy lair to ridicule and ended up laughing with him and cheering, he could hold his own in a debate.

John Wayne is one of a surprisingly few Hollywood actors who qualify as genuine cultural icons. He is in a tiny group that includes Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse and a few others we could argue about, like Fred Astaire. Toppling icons is what radicals and revolutionaries do; it’s essential to their attempts to destroy the culture. I’m pretty sure the Duke is beyond their reach, especially if the best they can  find to try to shoot him down is an old Playboy interview when he was in his waning years.

Hell, I can do better than that. Wayne was far from perfect, and frequently found it impossible to be as admirable off-screen as he was on. What was ultimately important to him was his life’s work, creating a complex, idealized character in his more than 200 films that embodied virtuous, patriotic, American manhood. In his personal life, The Duke was often insecure, rumored to be abusive to some of his wives, hard-drinking and career-obsessed. He always felt guilty about playing so many World War II soldiers, sailors and flyers when he had accepted a deferment from the draft, unlike bona fide war heroes like James Stewart and Clark Cable. Wayne also took a too-hard stance against the artists flirting with Communism during the House Un-American Activities hearings that split Hollywood in two: my old friend Bob McElwaine, who was blacklisted, hated John Wayne with a passion.

Never mind. What matters most about artists is their art, and what they do is more important than what they say in Playboy interviews.  The John Wayne Icon made some serious missteps, notably the domestic abuse that was seen as harmless and amusing at the time, which he inflicts on Maureen O’Hara in “McClintock!” and “The Quiet Man” (though O’Hara gives back as good as she gets, especially in the latter). This is a shame since both films are otherwise excellent.  But those are less than 1% of Wayne’s legacy; in most of his films he is notably chivalrous, respectful and often cowed by the usually strong women his character has relationships with. He also preferred strong women in his personal life: one of his good friends was Marlene Dietrich who, like him, enjoyed camping, chess and arguing about philosophy. Women don’t come any tougher than Lily Marlene.

Contrary to the impression Wayne’s interview might give to someone who was unfamiliar with his films, the Duke was usually sympathetic with Native Americans, and his character was often their ally. In this he mirrored his mentor John Ford, who directed Wayne in many of those films. An exception was Ford’s “The Searchers,” in which Wayne plays an unapologetic and fanatic racist who hates Indians because they massacred members of his family and kidnapped his nieces. But Ethan Edwards conquers his racism at the climax, seeing the humanity in Natalie Wood, who has joined a tribe and taken a chief as her lover, and sparing her. In the two films Wayne produced and directed, “The Alamo” and “The Green Berets,” his viewpoint was far from racist. In “The Alamo,” Jim Bowie’s black slave is a hero, choosing to stay and fight after he has been granted his freedom, and the film humanizes the Mexican soldiers. “Even as I was killing them, I was proud of them,” one of the fortress’s defenders says.

Indeed, Wayne loved Mexico, always preferring to spend his down time between films there (All of his wives were Mexican) rather than in the U.S., where he was swarmed by fans. I sometimes wonder where he would have stood today on the illegal immigration controversy, since all three of his children are Hispanic-Americans. In “The Green Berets,” a Vietnamese orphan is often the focus of the drama. Wayne’s character adopts the boy at the end of the film, as the corny Barry Sadler song soars over the credits.

Unlike today’s noisily-political performers, Wayne did not constantly weigh in on national politics, and he knew the limits of his expertise. In 1968, George Wallace tried to exploit Wayne’s popularity in his third party bid for the Presidency, and offered him the Vice-President slot on the ticket. Wayne thanked him for the honor, but said that he was a Republican, and more than that, knew the difference between portraying a leader and being one.

When I was teaching legal ethics to lawyers in Mongolia, the Mongolians knew almost nothing about American culture, but they knew who John Wayne was. He was “the tall American” who represented the nation’s courage, dedication to protecting the weak and ostracized, and commitment to core ethical values like fairness, duty, loyalty, kindness, parenthood, and love of country. He still is.

I won’t pretend that trying to topple the Duke offends me as much as efforts to vilify Washington, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt; he was, as he was the first to admit, just an actor. Still, Wayne’s body of work  symbolizes what is good and strong about our nation, and the effort to erase it is revolting nonetheless and attempted cultural vandalism,  especially when it is being engineered by millennials who are so, so teeth-jarringly ignorant. The silver screen Duke would have been tempted to punch them in their collective mouths.

And they would deserve it…

37 thoughts on “They May Tear Down Robert E. Lee, But They’ll Never Get The Duke

  1. I can understand why they like Wayne in Mongolia: In one of his worst films “The Conquerer”, he humanizes Genghis Khan which is no small feat. Still, the body of his work including “The Searchers” stands the test of time.

    • Yeah, I should have mentioned that. Even though that movie is generally regarded as Duke’s worst, and it had the extra bonus of killing him, along with almost everyone else in the film, who all got cancer from filming where we had been secretly testing atom bombs.

  2. As I stated elsewhere, he was and is, my hero. I have based many of my values on his. A couple of his monologues, one from The Green Berets and the other from The Alamo are good rules to live by.

  3. I suspect any attempt to tear down John Wayne is ill-advised and doomed to failure, at least for another generation or so. In fact, any real effort (beyond the usual handful of crybabies bitching on Twitter for a day or two) to do so will probably end up being a horribly miscalculated over-reach, pushing middle-of-the-road types who care little for politics to sit up and take notice at how far out of the mainstream today’s leftists have moved. “Cultural vandalism” (great phrase, by the way) like this (popular culture, specifically) is likely to attract much more negative attention than easily-ignored squabbling over the same tired old political talking points.

    • It’s doomed because he made too many movies that hold up, and always will. Even if “The Quiet Man” gets dinged, there’s “Stagecoach,” and “Red River,” and “Rio Bravo,” and “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” and “The Searchers” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, and “True Grit,” and “The Cowboys” and “The Longest Day” and “The Shootist.” Then there are all the Duke references in more recent movies, like “Die Hard.” And the indispensable quotes from his films. Maybe eventually all of the old Hollywood stars will be forgotten, but kids who never heard of Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and James Stewart still recognize John Wayne’s name. He’ll be the last to go.

  4. In the interview, Wayne made some ill-advised, even dumb comments, especially about Native Americans: I thought so at the time.

    Just how apocryphal is his reputed remark about the “Indians who were squatting on our land before we got here”?

    • Well, that is clearly the case ipso facto, isn’t it? But Wayne is expressing (if he said such) a rather common understanding. C.f. Hegel:

      Hegel constructs world history into a narrative of stages of human freedom, from the public freedom of the polis and the citizenship of the Roman Republic, to the individual freedom of the Protestant Reformation, to the civic freedom of the modern state. He attempts to incorporate the civilizations of India and China into his understanding of world history, though he regards those civilizations as static and therefore pre-historical. He constructs specific moments as “world-historical” events that were in the process of bringing about the final, full stage of history and human freedom. For example, Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe is portrayed as a world-historical event doing history’s work by establishing the terms of the rational bureaucratic state. Hegel finds reason in history; but it is a latent reason, and one that can only be comprehended when the fullness of history’s work is finished: “When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. … The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”

      [The Owl of Minerva is a Greek reference to Athena, which is the goddess of wisdom and love. ‘We can only come to understand wisdom after having taken up the mistaken perspectives’; i.e. the significance of wisdom comes only after we’ve made our mistakes, and when it’s too late to not make them. As such, we can only know them as mistakes.]

  5. I found the Interview and, well, I took a few Machiavellian liberties with it!

    May 1971

    PLAYBOY: For years American Indians have played an important — if subordinate — role in your Westerns. Do you feel any empathy with them?

    WAYNE: I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. But you must see: the nature of power is that power reaches out and grabs what it wants. Then, it invents justifications and rationalizations for what it has done. It presents these justifications to its children in the schools and in this way children absorb the lie and — what is more relevant — come to understand the use of the lie-mechanism. The foundation of all *patriotism* is, if the truth be told, in a mess of lies & truths. Now, if there is a core lie, a fundamental lie, just think of all the different sub-levels where ‘the lie’ is necessary, is spread, is taught. The Lie is interwoven with our very selves! We live in and also through lies! Those who tell the truth . . . resign themselves to live separately . . . in monasteries. And truth-tellers are shunned and killed. Still (laughs) I would bury them and ‘read over them’ . . .

    PLAYBOY: Weren’t the Indians — by virtue of prior possession — the rightful owners of the land?

    WAYNE: Look, I’m sure there have been inequalities. If those inequalities are presently affecting any of the Indians now alive, they have a right to a court hearing (laughs). But what happened 100 years ago in our country can’t be blamed on us today. But there is more really. The Indians entered N America in various waves during and after the last Ice Age. They were just as involved in what I might call *the human battle* as we are still. The whole purpose of human life — of communities, of states & nations — is to gain tangible physical power through domination of *space* and resources. In the most blatant manner this will occur through direct invasion and conquest and the invading people murder the victims or enslave them. This is the historical model. This is simply a *fact* of human history and of life. There is not a *sugar-coated* way to present this truth except in direct, honest terms — to an adult in any case. Now, we like to think that we have better models and I suppose we do. More subtle. Less obvious. We may not directly conquer and occupy land, nor wipe out populations and replace them, but the same general force is in effect. Or perhaps I can say the same *trajectory* of necessity and striving continues forward. Don’t you see? There is nothing to act against it, and very many good reasons for the same processes to continue, but in different forms.

    PLAYBOY: Indians today are still being dehumanized on reservations.

    WAYNE: Yes, and the universe is exploding, worlds are being created, worlds die, galaxies crash into one another, solar systems are annihilated, and hear on Earth natural catastrophes wipe out people as if they are ants swept before our broom. So what? Those Indians on those reservations can thank the benevolent gods of their people that they still *walk in the sun*. How many people in history have been subject to conquest? A better question is how may people have not. Europe was conquered, essentially, by Rome and its Empire. In some battles the blood pooled inches deep. Pagan European tribal culture was displaced, and death and annihilation occurred when resistance was especially strong. But Europe in all senses absorbed the civil forms of Rome! The conquest made Europe. And just like now in respect to *our little brown brothers to the south*, we dominate them, we destroy political sovereignty but refer to it as ‘bringing democracy’ and other such child’s fables. They — their cultures, their economies — are made to fit as a smaller mechanism into the larger mechanism we control and manage. These are facts. And I illustrate here the contiguous nature of the extension of empire through neo-imperial means and methods. These are simple facts from grown-ups. Children need to hear fairy tales.

    PLAYBOY: Indians on reservations are more neglected than cared for. Even if you accept the principle of expropriation, don’t you think a more humane solution to the Indian problem could have been devised?

    WAYNE: Look, let’s deal is straight facts. The Indians were dispossessed of their lands by treachery, by ruse, by trick, and by murder. This is *the nature of conquest*. They themselves, long ago, did the same. And they celebrated as heroes what they did and what they achieved. There was never any *lamentation* for gaining ‘space’ and the capacity to dominate it — to live! Now, what has happened to us that we turn against ourselves, condemn ourselves, for doing what we have done? We came and we conquered — and in this ‘space’ we have built something unparalleled in human history. The foundation of it rests on murder, crime, death and the suffering of those conquered. Fact. We can tell ourselves (our children) any sort of story about this as suits the moment and their tender ears. But the truth stands there like a stone monument. If you mean a ‘more humane solution’ as having simply annihilated them completely — I know you don’t of course — I think you could just as well understand that they were marched over to barren, desolate lands that were — then at least! — unuseful to us. There is a kind of mercy there. Or maybe it would have taken too much energy to kill them off? But allow to illustrate a point I made earlier: Now, there is great mineral wealth on those reserves of land. Now, we must get access to those minerals. Power decides that this will happen, and all we need is *appropriate mechanism*. This explains of course the FBI para-military wars against the AIM (American Indian Movement), the purpose being to destroy any militant leadership that could oppose access to those mineral rights. Therefore, you see here in exact and precise terms how power functions. It reaches out and grabs what it desires, then it constructs fables and *narratives* to justify what it has done. But these fables are for the weak-minded, for women and children and university students.

    PLAYBOY: How do you feel about the government grant for a university and cultural center that these Indians [occupying Alcatraz] have demanded as “reparations”?

    WAYNE: Sure, why not. Its a fair trade: a useless island in the middle of the Bay in exchange for … the whole nation. That, m’boy, is a white man’s deal!

      • Of course there is. It’s all about not only silencing those you disagree with, but destroying their symbols and their heroes, both to destroy the culture and to prove to the other side that they are worthless and weak because they can’t even protect that which is important to them. That’s why they attack Columbus and want to turn him into a villain, that’s why they perpetuate the myth that Reagan was losing it, and that’s why they now want to trash the originally toxic male.

        • And ‘Conservative America’ has no defense. It is now standing by and watching as the destruction is carried out. Minute by minute, day by day, week by week, month by year by decade.

          The System itself (the political system, the elite rulership of that system, its managers and designers, the global establishment) has engineered this. And Conservatives have participated in it as ‘junior partners to their progressive lords’.

          Is what I say here true or is it false? It is an honest question.

                  • “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900)

                • I fear that to fight this enemy, one must become that which one would fight.

                  Adopting the tactics of your despised opposition tends to destroy what one would fight for.

                  I think it is fair to say that there is very little agreement about who or what is ‘the enemy’. I have the impression at times that angry, unsettled, upset, and also confused people attempt to ‘locate’ an enemy, to identify and in a sense to create an enemy ‘sufficient for their purposes’.

                  For the Democrats it is the Republicans. For the radical Progressives it is the nativist fascists. For the ideological Right (New Right or Alt-Right) it is a *system* that is an enterprise for the molding of culture (social engineering). The radical Left (Anarchist-Socialist) has the odd idea that it is any sort of state power-system which, to their view, is oppressive, hierarchical and non-egalitarian. They have a sort of blind and paranoiac sense that they, as groups but also as individual actors, must ‘throw a wrench into the working of the oppressive machine’ whenever and wherever they see the opportunity.

                  I suppose that there is a longing for a simple, reductive story behind which one stands facing ‘the enemy’. Those kind of stories are essential. They have been successfully used for most of America’s history. The American Civil War is reduced in many ways to a simple narrative. But Power always tends to hide itself behind the façade of false stories.

          • “Whether ‘Tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to resist, and by opposing, end them?” Simply opposing might, indeed, end them, but until we actually do so, we’ll never find out.

  6. I’d include Bugs Bunny among those icons.

    Wayne owned lots of ranches throughout Arizona and appears to have had any number of drinks in every saloon south of Phoenix. There’s a photo of him in the bar at the golf resort we have a house on in Tubac, between Tucson and Nogales. I think he used Arizona as well as Mexico as a get away. He was also reputed to have favored a bar just down the road in Tumacacori, AZ.

    There’s a story (very likely true) at the big firm I worked at in Phoenix that when John Wayne was buying or selling some ranch land in Arizona and showed up at the closing, the head of the firm (himself an Arizona icon) let the secretaries come into the conference room one at a time so they could each get a personal autograph.

    Mrs. OB and I drove to a ranch in Stanfield, Arizona to look at a gas powered golf cart a guy had for sale. The ranch had been owned by Wayne (his heirs liquidated all the Arizona ranch land holdings shortly after Wayne’s death) and the road to the main house was unusually wide and straight. Turns out it was an airstrip Wayne used to fly into when visiting. Other than the extra wide and straight driveway, the only thing aeronautical remaining were the tie-down anchors used to tie down Wayne’s plane when he was on site. The guy said people still showed up at the ranch and would eagerly and dutifully (and reverently) take photos of the tie downs. By the way, the state highway leading from Stanfield toward I-10 near Phoenix is called the John Wayne Parkway.

  7. I logged on today specifically to see if you would touch on this “controversy,” and am happy to find that you have. (Any ethicist who uses Jimmy Durante to make a point is my go-to guy on such topics!)

    The question of whether Wayne was an accomplished actor or not germane here, but his impact on western films and Americana in general is mighty and immeasurable. Perhaps no figure has done more for the modern Western film (inheriting the mantle of both Tom Mix and William S. Hart) than Wayne, though perhaps the genre needed Clint Eastwood to maintain its vitality for the Baby Boomer generation. Searchers of western Americana could do no better than seeking out Wayne’s films.

    What this entire kerfuffle has done for me is more than make me nostalgic for a lost type of movie … but nostalgic for a lost America.

    The left has been undermining our culture and icons ever since my boyhood. Even as a child, I was aware of what was going on.

    I grew up during the Nostalgia Craze of the late Sixties and early Seventies; even as a youth, I realized we were in the midst of enormous social change. (I’ll leave it for the reader to decide whether it was for the better.) But by the time this social change was over, those who grew up in John Wayne’s world were suddenly adrift. There ‘people’ were gone, their way of life, their way of looking at the world – all vanished in just a few short years.

    Again, this isn’t just the differences of time. The Thirties were radically different from the Mad Men era, but they were recognizably the same world. After the social changes of the late Sixties/early Seventies, not so much.
    I mourn that time and that people. There are some of us left (and most of us were the rear guard, like me); and all of us are wondering, what the hell happened….?

    • Keep the faith. I did a five hour presentation on the Western and it influence on the culture for the Smithsonian, and the place was packed, and varied in age. The genre is also rebounding some: even though the remake of “The Magnificent 7” was a disappointment, it was a box office hit. Have you seen “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” by the Coens? It shows that there is still life in the genre.

      Nobody seriously argues that the Duke wasn’t an excellent actor now: the record is too strong in the other direction. Now I read pieces asking why they DIDN’T give him Oscars for “Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers.” Wayne, unlike some others, looks better as time goes on, in part because nobody, not even Clint, can touch him in pure presence.

  8. Just FYI: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs not only took home a Costume Design Oscar but also nominations for Adapted Screenplay and Best Song. All in all, the film appeared on no less than 24 prestigious award lists, both international and professional, such as SAG (Screen Actors Guild) winning Outstanding Stunts Ensemble, and an Art Directors Guild nomination for Production Design. At Oscar level, the UK’s BAFTA had it up for Costume Design as well, and the mighty Venice Film Festival gave it Best Screenplay & a shot at the Golden Lion Best Film). Adelaide (Australia’s fifth largest metropolis) placed it on their International Feature short list, and back in the USA film critics from one end of the country to the other numbered it on their Ten Best.

    The one I think the Duke might have enjoyed most, though, would be the Western Heritage Award for Theatrical Motion Picture. See if y’all agree. (If you can’t afford the popcorn palace, check Netflix, but it really is a movie for the wide open screen spaces.)

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