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 Is John Wayne Dangerous? 

October 25, 2007 
[Originally published by the Universal Press Syndicate, March 6, 1997]
John WayneDuring 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 The Wayne paradigm of the virile warrior has been replaced by the sensitive, vulnerable, peace-loving, ironic male more congenial to intellectuals and feminists.

Today's column is "Is John Wayne Dangerous?" -- Subscribe to the new FGF E-Package.John WayneYet 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 elite.”

John WayneIn 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.

John Wayne”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.”

John WayneAs 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 Clinton.

John WayneBy 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.

John WayneBut 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.

[Breaker quote for Is John Wayne Dangerous?: At least he wasn't Clinton.]John WayneAnd 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.

John WayneWayne 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.

John WayneWith 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.”

John WaynePart 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.

John WayneThere 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 lion.

John WayneWe 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2007 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.
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