Last Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of America’s favourite hero, a man who remarked, after being told that Emperor Hirohito wanted to meet him: “I thought I killed the entire Japanese army.”
Gunfighter, roustabout, soldier, pilot, vengeful sea captain, he always acted the role of the hero, and John Wayne, almost 30 years after his death, remains the only dead actor to top opinion polls of favourite film stars.
John Wayne might have been a movie star but he was also a draft dodger, despite a patriotism so fierce both Stalin and Mao put contracts out on his life — knowing his assassination would be a blow to American democracy.
Wayne cravenly allowed himself to be deferred as a married man, until his wedding flamed out spectacularly after a torrid affair with another woman.
Then he was temporarily declared fit for service, but mysteriously, his status was changed to 2-A (deferred for reasons of national interest).
Not volunteering to fight in the “good war” like other Hollywood legends, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, and William Holden, forever shamed Wayne, and is probably why he became so in favour of the Vietnam War in his later life.
He believed: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” a line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of his greatest films.
Wayne recognized he was a weak actor.
So he always played the same role — John Wayne — only altering it slightly in each film, purposefully creating his own legend, practising so hard his look and walk and quick draws and horse riding that stuntmen still use horsemanship moves he developed.
His invention of the All-American man is so pervasive it’s become a psychiatric diagnosis — The John Wayne Syndrome — the man who will never reveal his true feelings.
His film legacy led many Americans to believe the mythology of the Wild West and the warfare he invented and often contemplated with some bemusement, not entirely believing in it himself.
So we have sad figures like American president, George W. Bush swaggering around spouting unfortunate lines such as “bring’ em on,” or giving Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Baghdad by high noon, and later, hanging the executed dictator’s pistol on his wall.
President Bush was correct when he announced: “I don’t do nuance.”
This sounds like a paraphrase of John Wayne who once said with all seriousness: “Some people tell me everything isn’t black and white. But I say, why the hell not?”
An interesting fact about Wayne is that he was smarter than he looked. For instance he soaked up major career-lifting roles in Hollywood killing the Japanese and German enemy while many Hollywood stars were fighting in the actual war.
He didn’t dodge military service out of fear, but for career advancement.
He was notorious for racist and sexist and war-mongering comments.
He was also notorious for his courage.
When confronted by an angry crowd of 300 protestors waving a Viet Cong flag in his face, he became so angry he chased a pack of them down an alleyway. It would never have occurred to them to actually stop and fight John Wayne.
And he was as tough as he looked.
His boozing buddy Ward Bond once teased Wayne that the big man couldn’t knock him out even if they were both standing on the same sheet of newspaper. Wayne agreed to the bet.
Ward Bond then laid down a newspaper in the doorway. When Wayne stepped on it, Bond shut the door and laughed on the other side. Wayne hauled off and punched right through the door, knocking Bond out cold and winning the bet.
He also was given the Harvard students’ Brass Balls Award. And to their shock showed up to collect it, riding atop an armoured personnel carrier, amiably dodging the fruit and garbage thrown at him.
He strode out to the podium to face an auditorium of enraged students protesting the war by asking derogatory questions. He answered them with so much wit and aplomb that they ended up applauding him as he left.
John Wayne was very aware of his image, not only how to manipulate it, but how to regard it.
When he was asked to play a role in Blazing Saddles, he replied: “I can’t be in this picture, it’s too dirty … but I’ll be the first in line to see it.”
After winning the Oscar for playing the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, he quipped: “If I’d have known this was all it would take I would have put the eye-patch on 40 years ago.”
Women often walk out of the room when his films are on television. Maybe because he once said: “Women have the right to work wherever they want, as long as they have the dinner ready when you get home.”
Despite spending his life opposing communism, he could also outrageously declare about the confiscation of native land: “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
He helped America view the world in black and white in an age where all its tomorrows have become shaded by its misbehaviour as a nation.
But then this complex legend had more nuance than he’d ever admit.
In his last years he was at the side of Jimmy Carter, America’s most radical democratic president since Roosevelt, and supported the Panamanians’ right to self-government.
His gravestone was marked with this moving remark from an interview: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
John Wayne was born 100 years ago into a world he thought was black and white, where chivalry and honour and “manhood” mattered the most.
It took him a lifetime of yesterdays to learn the world had colour and nuance. Let’s hope his many admirers learn more quickly.