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…