The Cowboy Patriot

The Cowboy Patriot

Mini Teaser: In retrospect, the film Green Berets serves rather neatly, in conjunction with reviews in the New York Times and other high-toned publications, to illustrate the period's sharp split between elite and mass opinion on the Vietnam War.

by Author(s): Richard Grenier

"The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false . . . that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, through everything and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers in Vietnam or for Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to either of them) but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus. . . . Simplicities of the right, simplicities of the left, but this one is beyond the possible. It is vile and insane."

Thus wrote the film critic of the New York Times about The Green Berets, the movie John Wayne produced, co-directed, and starred in, about Viet Cong murderousness and American heroism in Vietnam. The film, released in June 1968, some months after the Tet Offensive, was one of the year's blockbuster movies at American box offices. In retrospect, it serves rather neatly, in conjunction with reviews in the New York Times and other high-toned publications, to illustrate the period's sharp split between elite and mass opinion on the Vietnam War.

Wayne, somewhat amused by the critical press reception accorded to The Green Berets, commented that the New York Times' critic was "foaming at the mouth" and "going into convulsions." "She and other critics", he said in Playboy, "won't believe the dirty sons of bitches are raping, torturing guerillas. I've been to Vietnam, and I've talked to the men there, and I don't have the slightest doubt about the correctness of what we are doing." He went further, "Anyway, it's my country, right or wrong, and pure as driven snow. Americans are the heroes of The Green Berets."

The picture and the Vietnam War mark a curious high point in Wayne's career. Never was he so hated by Hollywood's political Left-liberals, who decades after he began his career in 1926 had come to dominate the film industry. And rarely was he so idolized by the mass American public. As a result of his undeniable popularity, perhaps, the film industry's attitude toward him took on a certain ambivalence. The very year after he had outraged the sensitive spirits of Hollywood with The Green Berets, he made True Grit, a movie in which he plays an aging U.S. federal marshall who helps a 14-year-old girl track down her father's killer. To general astonishment, one year after his very name had been poison in its halls, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences gave its award for best actor of 1969 to John Wayne. To the outside world, which perchance thinks the Academy Awards are made on the basis of artistic merit, this might not seem so surprising. But for those who realize the role played by political polemics, personal relations, and other extraneous elements in such decisions, it was curious. Perhaps Hollywood didn't hate John Wayne as much as it had pretended, or even as much as it thought it did. Perhaps in some uncanny way there was still something about him that held them in thrall. Of course, in True Grit he was, without vanity, playing an overweight man with an eyepatch, and being kind to children in a sentimental movie has never lost you friends in Hollywood. But the affair remains something of a mystery even today, and one can't get rid of the idea that somehow the film industry elite was making amends for past differences with what was after all an American icon.

And an American icon he was and would remain almost two decades after his death. Last year, with Wayne dead sixteen years, the Harris Poll showed him to be still America's most popular film star, more popular than Clint Eastwood, number two, and number three, Mel Gibson. More popular also than, in order, Denzel Washington, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Robert de Niro--all, you will notice, still alive. Gary Wills, writing in a recent issue of the New Yorker, seemingly stunned by the durability of Wayne's mystique, declared him unquestionably "the leading star of all time." Critic Eric Bentley went even further, calling Wayne "the most important American of our time." He was a hero to Ronald Reagan, who once made a pilgrimage to Wayne's birthplace in tiny Winterset, Iowa, and told visitors to the White House that "Wayne understood what the American spirit is all about." The present chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Shalikashvili, taught himself English as an immigrant by watching John Wayne movies. And Wayne has extraordinary appeal abroad as well.

Wayne's fame transcended America. When Nikita Khrushchev, then first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, visited the United States in 1959, once finished with the officialdom of Washington he demanded to meet one American: John Wayne. A great fan, Khrushchev had seen all Wayne's films in the Kremlin. When Emperor Hirohito of Japan visited the United States in 1975, he wanted to see two things: Disneyland and John Wayne. He, too, was an avid fan. When Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, met John Wayne he shuffled about in embarrassment like a schoolboy. Wayne was his boyhood idol, the man he wanted to be when he grew up. And it was Carter, in fact, who gave the most moving testimonial at Wayne's death. Knowing full well Wayne's ultra-conservative politics, and opposed to him as he was on issue after issue, he nonetheless proclaimed that Wayne reflected "the best of our national character." "In an age of few heroes", Carter said, "he was the genuine article."

Now, Wayne did do a number of brave things. In the earliest days, long before it came into fashion, he fought Hollywood communists tooth and nail as president of the Motion Picture Alliance, teaming up for the task with the president of the Screen Actors' Guild, his buddy, Ronald Reagan. The enterprise was not without risk. It is now long forgotten, but in those days Hollywood communists were often successful in enforcing their own sub-rosa blacklist. The year before he did The Green Berets, out of sheer patriotism Wayne made The Alamo with his own money and, to his surprise, lost millions; the American people apparently did not quite share his awe of courageous death, preferring instead courageous life and a happy ending.

The bravest thing Wayne ever did--in the real world--was to reveal in 1964 that he'd had a cancerous lung removed, and had licked "the Big C." Wayne did this at a time when cancer was never mentioned in public because of the fear it inspired. Even in death people were invariably reported to have died of "a long illness." Wayne was the first public figure to defiantly reveal that he'd had cancer, and he did it, he said, "to give some poor devil out there hope."

Yet President Carter's description of Wayne as a "genuine" hero was an odd tribute to a man who, essentially, had spent his professional life pretending to be other people. Wayne's career was a monument spanning fifty years; but he was, after all, not a hero but an actor who played heroes. Despite all the martial types he depicted--cowboys, sheriffs, military men, seafarers, pilots, hunters--he had done little that was physically dangerous since his football scholarship at the University of Southern California was withdrawn when he damaged a shoulder body-surfing. And, although he was only thirty-four at the time of Pearl Harbor, he never served in his country's armed forces in the Second World War, a fact of which--it is true--he was deeply ashamed (and director John Ford never let him forget that he should be). His draft board, which classified him "lB", was perfectly willing to go along, believing that Wayne would contribute more to the war effort by making patriotic movies than by trudging through mud carrying a rifle. Wayne finally gave in to his own misgivings and voluntarily changed his classification to "lA"--fit for service--but that was only a month before Hiroshima. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Tyrone Power, and many other Hollywood stars served. Stewart flew twenty combat missions over Germany with the Army Air Corps. Even Dashiell Hammett, forty-eight and tubercular, volunteered and was sent to the Pacific. John Wayne stayed home and made movies.

Still, Wayne had a remarkable presence, both on the screen and in life. There was something truly mysterious in how he was able to exert his magnetism on people whose life experiences were as widely different as those of Jimmy Carter, Nikita Khrushchev, and Emperor Hirohito. He had the added ability to convince millions of foreigners, in addition to Khrushchev and Hirohito, that he was quintessentially American. Dozens of other Hollywood stars were, of course, American, but foreigners seemed to feel, somehow, that John Wayne was the mother lode. Like no other actor before or since, he was America personified. In his cowboy movies he personified America as its power expanded through the western frontier and in later historical periods he personified America as a world power, resisting in turn Nazi and Soviet evils. He somehow fit the stereotype of the "real" American, and, furthermore, the brave American. His name has even spread in the U.S. military, where expressions such as "Don't John-Wayne it!" and "He John-Wayned it" have come into current usage.

This was all slightly strange in that John Wayne never confused himself with the American hero figures he played on the screen. On one occasion he told me that he knew perfectly well that acting was "illusion", and admitted ruefully that "this Wayne thing was as deliberate a projection as you'll ever see." (His real name was Marion Morrison.) "I practiced in front of a mirror", he laughed. And yet he had one profound personal character trait whose rarity he didn't seem to realize, but which came across on the screen and might have been responsible in part for his immense popularity. I once spent a long afternoon with Wayne in his dressing room and it was like an informal reception. People came, people went. Everyone was welcome, whether Wayne knew them or not.

Other film stars who played with Wayne, who was known to everyone from his childhood days as "Duke", have described the extraordinary ease and friendliness he displayed with people he didn't even know. Most film stars and other celebrities greatly enjoy being worshipped by the multitudes, but when a member of these multitudes seeks a closer individual relationship, he faces the inevitable rebuff: "Don't get close!" The star has a private life, after all, that he doesn't intend to have invaded by yahoos. Wayne manifested absolutely none of this. You could invade him as much as you liked. On a movie location in the Southwest Wayne would occasionally disappear, and his fellow cast members would eventually find him having a beer in a tavern with some truck driver. He was more gregarious and democratically sociable than any movie star ever seen in Hollywood, and I sense that this democratic feeling of his, probably unbeknownst to him, somehow communicated itself to the vast movie public.

The quickest way of adumbrating John Wayne's politics is to list the political figures he supported and admired: Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Spiro Agnew, Douglas MacArthur--but also Harry Truman (whom he called the "tie salesman") because of his resistance to communism in Korea. Wayne felt no guilt whatsoever over injustices done to blacks or Indians in earlier historical periods. He hadn't committed those injustices. He didn't like whining. He'd give a black or an Indian a fair shake--that was it. Once when on a movie location in Mexico he noticed that while actors, director, and key members of the crew--Americans all--were lodged in warm motel rooms, the Mexican crew was spending the night by a campfire in the cold desert. So he hustled together hot coffee, sandwiches, and several bottles of tequila and spent the night singing and drinking by the bonfire with the Mexicans.
In his private life, too, Wayne was extraordinarily kind-hearted, "the softest touch in Hollywood", constantly sending off helpful sums of money by check to people he didn't even know. He had no business sense himself, and so it was doubly unfortunate that two of his business managers, one of them a son-in-law, were so incompetent that they almost bankrupted him. Curiously, all three of his wives were Latin-American, the first from one of the upper-class, pre-Mexican War California families that call themselves "Spanish-American", the second a Mexican, the third a Peruvian. Chata, the Mexican, was wild and a heavy drinker, but he remained on good terms with the other two, by whom he had a total of seven children. Most notable, I suppose, was his nearly three-year love affair with Marlene Dietrich, who was, he confessed, "the best lay I ever had."

Like the typical Californian, as the folklore has it, he was born in Iowa, coming to Glendale, California at the age of seven with his family, headed by his father, an unsuccessful pharmacist. Perhaps spurred by his family's economic failure, Wayne (still Marion Morrison at the time) was a remarkably hard worker, a trait he kept throughout his life at whatever trade he worked. In high school he was an excellent student, class president, president of the debating society, and of course he played football. At USC he waited on tables at the fraternity of which he was actually a member. When his football scholarship lapsed because of his surfing injury, he got a job as a grip at the Fox Film Corporation, where the famous director Raoul Walsh "liked the way he moved" lifting furniture on a set, and offered him a role in what was to be a long string of Westerns. Wayne soon shifted his studio to Monogram and then Republic Pictures out on so-called Poverty Row, where they turned out a movie in a week. But from Ford's Stagecoach in 1939, with Claire Trevor, Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, and John Carradine, he became a first-magnitude star.

Wayne was very picky about the kind of roles he would play: never mean, never petty, never cowardly, rarely even cautious. He so much adored playing heroes that it was sometimes said of him in Hollywood that he was just a "big kid." And truth be told, there was something juvenile about his extreme patriotism as well, which was of an ardor rarely encountered in the second half of the twentieth century. He could stand before the Republican National Convention in 1968 and say he was "grateful for every day of life I have spent in the United States of America." But where he parted company with many reasonable citizens and people of an independent turn of mind was that he could not bear to have his country or any appreciable part of it portrayed in an unflattering light anywhere, at any time, by anybody. He placed simple uncomplimentary descriptions, regardless of purpose, on virtually the same level as subversion. He accused Carl Foreman and Robert Rossen of doing things deeply "detrimental to our way of life" by respectively writing the screenplay for High Noon (1951) and directing All the King's Men (1949).

Presumably, he felt the same way toward Robert Penn Warren for writing the novel on which the latter was based.
To take only High Noon as an example: "In that picture", recounted Wayne, "four guys come into town to gun down the sheriff." The sheriff, who knows they're coming, seeks help but is refused everywhere. "So Cooper goes out alone", said Wayne. "It's the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life! The last thing in the picture is ole Coop putting the United States Marshall's badge under his foot and stepping on it! I'll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country!"

Wayne had an intense dislike for certain words: "socialist", "liberal", even "masses." "When Eddy Dmytryk used the word 'masses' I knew he was a Commie", he said, and yet, child-like, he pleaded with Dmytryk after he was released from prison: "Jesus Christ, Eddy, why did you do it? [meaning why join the Communist Party] Weren't you making a good living? And what's the bitch about America?" For four key years during the Joseph McCarthy period, he was president of the famous anti-communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. Yet when the actor Larry Parks (briefly a huge star in 1946 with The Jolson Story) admitted to having once been a member of the Communist Party, Wayne said it was "courageous" of Parks to admit it, and hoped it wouldn't hurt his career. Hedda Hopper, the reigning gossip columnist of the period, addressing a mass meeting of the Alliance as its vice president, declared that Larry Parks would certainly not be forgiven, adding later in private, "Duke is a little dumb about these things."

As recorded by Randy Roberts' and James S. Olson's workmanlike new biography, John Wayne American, Wayne "resented being characterized as an extremist. He considered himself a mainstream conservative Republican, a principled, anti-government, classical conservative" (whose basic politics would hardly attract attention in the age of Newt Gingrich). As it was, he fit fairly easily into the Eisenhower era. He had a strong personal distaste for the Kennedys because of their "lace-curtain arrogance and unctuous liberalism." Liberated from the need to work because of their "daddy's money", they were self-serving snobs, he believed.

Not that Wayne was anti-Catholic. Many of his closest friends, including director John Ford (born Sean Feeney), were ardent Catholics. Wayne's three wives were all Catholics. He raised his seven children Catholic and sent them to Catholic schools, to which he gave credit for them all "turning out well." Not a Jane Fonda in the bunch. Wayne jokingly called himself a Presbyterian and a "cardiac Catholic." But it turned out not to be a joke at all; lying on his death bed he was received into the Catholic Church and, before dying, received its last rites.

Actually it was only in the 1960s, with the youth rebellion and the Vietnam War, that John Wayne's politics came to stand out. "Nobody's enjoying this war", he said in 1967, "but it happens to be damned necessary. . . . Ever since the revolution of 1917, the Communists haven't compromised once in the family of nations. They're out to destroy us, and logic tells me that this [resisting communism in Vietnam] is the right course. Besides, we gave our word." In 1971, Wayne said, "I honestly believe that there's as much need for us to help the Vietnamese as there was to help the Jews in Germany. . . . At some point we have to stop Communism." He thrilled to Israel's victories on the field of battle, and was of course immensely popular with the Hollywood old guard of Jewish Republicans.

Wayne once wrote to President Johnson that it is "extremely important that not only the people of the United States but those all over the world should know why it is necessary for us to be in Vietnam." To the surprise of many, however, he supported the new Panama Canal treaties of 1977, after which, for the first time in his life, he received hate mail from the American right wing. Although it seems he could hardly be more American, Wayne was unquestionably drawn to the feudal and virile aspects of Hispanic culture. Once, when asked to write his own epitaph, he replied in Spanish: Feo, fuerte, y formal, translating it himself: "He was ugly, strong, and had dignity."

For the last decade or so of his life, partly because the mass American public had never differed with him much on his issues, Wayne became that comparatively new phenomenon of American society: the ex-movie star as permanent culture hero. In the pre-television movie world there was very little nostalgia for older stars once they no longer ruled at the box office. A fashionable word of that earlier period was "has-been." Richard Lamparski, author of the Whatever Became of . . . ? series, says that in those days old stars "were treated very much like lepers were treated in Calcutta." But the last wave of performers to attain stardom before television demolished the old movie world was accorded, if not eternal life, virtual life tenure in celebrity. Who was to displace them? Motion pictures swiftly became the "class act" of the theatrical professions (replacing Broadway), but played to only some 5 percent of the audience the cinema had had before television. Television itself, which inherited the mass audience, had embarrassingly little prestige, even among the people who worked for it. And so, partly because his old movies continued to play on television, Wayne continued his extraordinary reign.

John Wayne was remarkably consistent in his views while fashionable circles in his country went first in one direction and then another. Famed far and wide for his patriotism, in domestic affairs he was from first to last an anti-big government liberal in the classical sense. Through the 1950s his views attracted relatively little attention and almost no animosity, perhaps because of his transparent good-heartedness. And once the more strident counter-cultural attitudes of the 1960s and early 1970s had passed through the nation's system, any antagonism there might have been against Wayne quite withered. John Wayne himself, meanwhile, had not changed his ideas in the slightest. He died the year before his friend, Ronald Reagan, with whom he had so much in common, was elected president of the United States.

Essay Types: Book Review