Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Fierce, and bald, and short of breath

This post over at the Girl With The White Parasol (who's pretty amazingly terrific about movies, by the way, if you like the movies) got me thinking.

Because it's about movies (no, duh!), and actors, and acting, and, in particular, the acting of Marion Robert Morrison, who you probably know better as "John Wayne".

I have an odd sort of relationship with John the Wayne.

I loved his flicks when I was a kid, in part because the ol' Duke looks a lot like my father the Master Chief. Plus, well...he was the tall-in-the-saddle guy. The hero. The Ringo Kid, full of decency and strength.

It wasn't until I grew up, and joined the Army, that I began to have problems with the Duke.

Aubyn at TGWTWP sums up those problems thusly:
"Wayne knew that he owed all his success to his audience and he believed it was his responsibility to live up to that image. This belief would cost him plenty. Although he played the soldier many times onscreen, Wayne never served in World War II and this failure ate at him, fueling the macho militarism he would express later in life."
But I think The Problem of John Wayne is bigger, and goes deeper, than just that.

Wayne didn't just "never serve" in the war that defined his generation. In 1941 - possibly with the aid of his studio, but possibly not - Wayne was assigned draft status "3-A"; "deferred for [family] dependency reasons." At the time he might have had good reasons for staying out of the fight. Although we now think of him as a big star of the Forties he was a big star - of the LATE Forties. In 1941 he'd just had his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid in Ford's Stagecoach. He was still a "struggling young actor" with a toehold in the studio system in '41, and spending three years on a destroyer might have 86ed his career and his family's shot at security.

But that wasn't the end of Wayne's curious lack of ferocity for actual fighting.

Wayne worked his way up the studio ladder quickly in the early Forties. By the last couple of years of the war he was a made guy; he could easily have volunteered and never lost a real shot at a movie career. He is supposed to have sent in some p-work to John Ford's Naval Photographic outfit but never followed through on it. There was always another movie to make.

Wayne was reclassified "2-A" in 1944 - "deferred in support of [the] national interest." for his war film work. After a month the Selective Service decided to revoke many previous deferments - remember, by '44 the U.S. manpower well was running dry, the bodies were piling up in France and the Pacific, and even old married guys and war-plant workers were getting their draft notices - and reclassified him 1-A. Wayne's Wikipedia entry states:
"Wayne did not attempt to prevent his reclassification as 1-A (draft eligible), but Republic Studios was emphatically resistant to losing him; Herbert J. Yates, President of Republic, threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract and Republic Pictures intervened in the Selective Service process, requesting Wayne's further deferment."

But...this is John the Wayne we're talking about! Mister "Green Berets", the embodiment of Sixties and Seventies superpatriotism! How come the young Duke didn't insist on doing what so many of his studio counterparts were doing and joining the Good Fight? As for the story about Yates, in his biography of Wayne Gary Wills notes that no other studios took action against their actors - many of them stars such as Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Robert Montgomery, and Jimmy Stewart - that joined up. Frankly, that sounds as lame as the old "football injury" story about Wayne that is a Sixties fabrication to explain his lack of wartime service.

"Cecil Adams" at The Straight Dope has an entertaining theory about why the future COL Kirby wasn't so eager to take on the Japs or Krauts:
"Nobody really knows why; Wayne didn't like to talk about it. A guy who prided himself on doing his own stunts, he doesn't seem to have lacked physical courage. One suspects he just found it was a lot more fun being a Hollywood hero than the real kind. Many movie star-soldiers had enlisted in the first flush of patriotism after Pearl Harbor. As the war ground on, slogging it out in the trenches seemed a lot less exciting. The movies, on the other hand, had put Wayne well on the way to becoming a legend. "Wayne increasingly came to embody the American fighting man," Wills writes. In late 1943 and early 1944 he entertained the troops in the Pacific theater as part of a USO tour. An intelligence bigshot asked him to give his impression of Douglas MacArthur. He was fawned over by the press when he got back. Meanwhile, he was having a torrid affair with a beautiful Mexican woman. How could military service compare with that?"
Actually, I wonder if even at this point, even while all this fawning and torrid Mexican womanizing was going on, that Wayne didn't get some small sense of how this failure to put himself at risk might become an issue later on.

William Manchester talks about Wayne getting the bird from servicemen in WW2, an incident that I knew about long before I read Manchester's actual account of it:
"After my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Only the most gravely wounded, the litter cases, were sent there.... Each evening Navy corpsmen would carry litters down to the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us. Before the film the curtains parted and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit...He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said, ‘Hi ya, guys!' He was greeted by a stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren't going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left."
You would think that the sort of man who had lived through something like that would have become, if not reticent, at least a little more ambivalent on the subject of war and fighting, military service and patriotism, than the man Wayne grew to be.

The Wayne I remember as a man was the Wayne of the Sixties and Seventies, and that Wayne was so virulent a "patriot" and "American", so much a symbol of fake machismo as to be almost a parody, one of Sassoon's scarlet Majors.

Here's The Rockford Rascal quoting him quoting Wayne on the subject of killing the native inhabitants of North America:
"I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them [the Indians], 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."
You can practically hear Wayne's thoughts...all that good land and all those wholesome Europeans wanting it, who the hell were those damn redsticks to keep US out, those selfish bastards!?

When I watch a film I try to see the character not the actor. But for me, with Wayne, it's very, very difficult. He so often plays "John Wayne" that it's hard not to see Wayne the man, not Wayne-the-actor-playing-a-Civil-War-cavalry-officer.

What doesn't help is the place he has come to hold in many other American's minds. I had a roommate in Panama who really, really luuuurved him some John the Wayne. He'd watch any Wayne movie, even awful shit like The Green Berets, even ridiculous, endless, tedious tripe like The Alamo. And get him started on the man himself? Seems that for SGT Meany John Wayne was the living embodiment of America. "A great American, a hero", SGT Meany kept calling the Duke.

I would look at him slantwise.

"You do know that ol' Duke never really did all that stuff, right? Never fought in a war, didn't defend the Alamo, wasn't ever a cop, wasn't ever a pilot, or a cowboy, or a DA. He was an actor, a guy who made his living pretending to be things he wasn't."

I might as well have been speaking Lithuanian. To this guy Wayne was the real thing, a hero, as much as symbol of America as a flag, or an eagle, or an NFL football.

Since my childhood I've run into a lot of other people like my old roommate. Many of them seem to be as politically conservative as Wayne was, and you can't shake them from the idea that the guy was some sort of ginormous American "hero"...and I wonder how much of that goes back to Wayne himself and his "legend", the image of him as he appeared on the screen; fighting man, American soldier (or sailor), patriot, going into harm's way to serve his country.

Only...he didn't.

Not only that, when he had the chance to do, and be, all of those things he chose not to.

I don't begrudge him that choice. Any man who can choose peace over war is a wise man. But, having made that choice, such a man would do well to remember that choice and have the grace to refrain from loudly encouraging other young heroes to hasten up the line to death.

Wayne did not, and for that reason I still find myself uncomfortable with his portrayals of military sacrifice.

The guy made some hellacious fine movies, and did some fine work on-screen.

But the man's self-forged patriotism clangs so fiercely, the trumpet of war he sounded is still so loud and so brassy that I can't forget the man often enough to appreciate the work of the actor, and that, to me, is a damning thing.


Ael said...

Great post Chief, and great philosophy.

Amazing how American exceptionalism, Hollywood and psychology are all intertwined.

Great people need great legends and alas we all have feet of clay.

Hey! My eyes are up here.

FDChief said...

I've never really liked the sort of rah-rah war films that Wayne was involved in. Respected some of them, understood why they were made, especially in WW2, but never liked them.

I just have a hard time stomaching a bunch of people who never risked so much as a hangnail selling war and soldiering as this big fun adventure. So part of my problems with the guy and, by inference, the people who DO like them, is that.

But Wayne the man makes it even more difficult because of the contrast between his wartime passivity and his postwar ferocity.

Through the whole of my adolesence and young-adulthood the man just would NOT shut up about muscular patriotism. A hell of a lot of the Hollywood guys from his generation felt the same way about our country - and about the armed forces - that he did; I'm thinking of Jimmy Stewart, who really WAS a combat flier and continued to make films pimping for the Air Force well into the Sixties, but was conspicuously quiet about his patriotism and linking that to military service and American wars in general. But Wayne was all up-in-the-face of anyone who questioned authority or the goodness and pureness of the U.S. actions or motives.

He was a sort of public face of the "love-it-or-leave-it" kind of patriotism that has become the default position of the GOP circa 2014. I was a smart enough kid to see that things like Vietnam and Watergate and CIA skulduggery were more complex than that, so I didn't like that attitude then and I still don't.

So it's very difficult for me to separate the man's work from his public image; the downside of a legend is that you can't parse the fucked-up parts of the legend from the heroic parts, and that's where I am with him.

Leon said...

As a teenager in the 80's, Wayne was already parody fodder. Our cinematic 'idols' were Stallone, Schwartzenegger, Cruise. Thus I never had any reverence for him or his films - the exception being True Grit.

It's interesting to compare him with Jimmy Stewart, another lifelong republican but one that never was loudly vocal or obnoxious about it. One struggles to find a cringeworthy quote from him. The disparity between the two becomes even greater as Stewart actually was rejected by the army and made personal efforts to get accepted. Then he opted for operational duties and flew actual missions into Germany winning 2 DFC's. But none of this seems to be common knowledge - he never seemed to have flaunted his wartime service.

The difference between a gentleman soldier and one who dreamed/aspired to it but never made the personal effort.

Lisa said...

Yes, it's sadly ridiculous that he did not serve, when so many of his fellows did and with great personal honor. Jimmy Stewart is a great example.

That was a different generation of men. One could almost say that Wayne ushered in the era of the new patriot -- the simulacrum hero. Talk big, but no need to act big.