The Reactionary Utopian
                     October 25, 200

by Joe Sobran

     During the hippie rage of the 1960s, it became 
fashionable to disparage John Wayne as the model of 
manhood, just as, in the gay-oriented 1090s, it has been 
fashionable to ridicule the Ozzie-and-Harriet model of 
the happy family. The Wayne paradigm of the virile 
warrior has been replaced by the sensitive, vulnerable, 
peace-loving, ironic male more congenial to intellectuals 
and feminists.

     Yet even in the heyday of the New Male, John Wayne, 
dead these 18 years, remains America's most popular male 
movie star. "Wayne's durability is astonishing," writes 
Garry Wills, "though it does not impress our society's 

     In his new book, JOHN WAYNE'S AMERICA, Mr. Wills 
notes that Wayne has never received the highbrow "cult 
attention" accorded to Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando, 
and James Dean (or, in France, to Jerry Lewis). He merely 
remains the favorite of ordinary viewers.

     "Yet what kind of country," Mr. Wills asks, "accepts 
as its norm an old man whose principal screen activity 
was shooting other people, or punching them out?" Is 
Wayne a "dangerous man" or an "American Adam" -- or, as 
Mr. Wills argues, "both"? In his view, Wayne embodies our 
stubborn national "myth of the frontier, the mystique of 
the gun, the resistance to institutions."

     As usual, Garry Wills is thoughtful and provocative, 
full of insights but oddly blind to the obvious. He 
analyzes Wayne's underrated acting skill with genuine 
appreciation. (I must say he likes Wayne much more than I 
ever did.) His book bristles with names never before 
juxtaposed with Wayne's: Michelangelo and Donatello, 
Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Dreiser, Homer and 
Shakespeare. But one name is tellingly absent: Bill 

     By now most literate people know that "John Wayne" 
was really Marion Morrison, whose private life was less 
heroic than his screen image. He notoriously went to some 
lengths to avoid military service during World War II, 
even as he played the courageous soldier on the screen.

     But of course it's the screen image that counts. 
Mr. Wills understands that Wayne did more than punch and 
shoot other people; plenty of other movie heroes did 
likewise -- racking up much higher body counts than Wayne 
-- without becoming icons.

     And Wayne is essentially different from other icons. 
Clint Eastwood is the obvious analogy: he too represents 
contempt for city life, reliance on guns, and the 
anti-institutional spirit. But his screen persona is not 
only more violent than Wayne's, but more verbally cruel 
and cynical. His signature line -- "Go ahead; make my 
day" (addressed to a punk who is threatening to blow a 
woman's head off) -- could never have been spoken by 

     Wayne was willing to die on screen, but not to shoot 
a man in the back. Machiavelli, to drop another Italian 
name, divided rulers into lions, who rule by strength, 
and foxes, who rule by guile. Wayne played the lion. The 
New Male is a fox.

     With a certified New Male in the White House, Wayne 
has a nostalgic appeal he lacked when the lion was the 
norm. Mr. Wills recognizes that by the end of his career 
he was a "beloved anachronism."

     Part of the reason Wayne seems anachronistic is that 
he put a premium on honor. That extended to his treatment 
of women. Of course in his generation chastity was 
mandatory on the screen; but all the same, it's part of 
Wayne's appeal that his grouchy flirtations with 
womenfolk, however repellent to feminists, were basically 
respectful. They never approached the libidinous norm of 
today's pop culture.

     There is much to be said against the false 
simplicity of John Wayne's moral universe, and Mr. Wills 
says it well. All the same, we may wonder if we haven't 
gone to the other extreme, not only in our skepticism of 
moral absolutes, but in our reluctance to acknowledge 
that civilization depends on the hardy virtues of courage 
and honor. I suspect that even the foxy New Male 
sometimes wishes he could get in touch with his inner 

     We can turn Mr. Wills's question around: What kind 
of country elects a New Male as its president? Maybe a 
country that could use -- and perhaps secretly yearns for 
-- an infusion of John Wayne.

[This column was originally published by Universal Press 
Syndicate March 6, 1997.]


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