Friday, October 30, 2009

Me and John Wayne: A Personal History

For the first two decades of my existence I harbored a wholly irrational hatred of John Wayne. Irrational insofar as in I had never actually seen a John Wayne film in those twenty years. Growing up a punk rocker in the Bay Area, lilliputian land for the liberal-minded, my exposure to "the Duke" was more left-wing attacks on the manly man's persona than any tangible work he had done.

The first mention of John Wayne in my slim slice of the stratosphere came when I was thirteen and I picked up the debut album by the punk band MDC. MDC had come to my attention when I discovered that their cassette was on Kurt Cobain's person when he was arrested for vandalism at the age of eighteen. The band mined a similar style to San Francisco's Dead Kennedys, a political punk band whose lyrics zeroed in on corporate crime, animal rights and exploitive evangelism. The catchiest song on MDC's debut album, the succinctly titled Millions of Dead Cops, was the immortal "John Wayne was a Nazi", which posited that Wayne ("just another pawn for the capitalist whore") had a picture of Adolf Hitler hidden in his cowboy vest.

Subtlety was not their strong point. Of course, the song takes John Wayne's conservative views to an extreme edge. Regardless, this embellished tale of racism and violence had a profound effect on me even if I didn't quite understand which statements in the song were exaggerations.

The other item in my casebook against Wayne was much more innocuous, but it too left an impression. The Onion's Thurber Prize-winning book Our Dumb Century pokes fun at the efforts of the House Un-American Activities Committee to expose Communists in Hollywood with the immortal headline:

Ronald Reagan Bravely Turns In 78,342 Hollywood Leftists
Eight Non-Communists Cleared

Among the eight patriots are Reagan himself, Lassie, and of course, John Wayne. It's all in fun but this joke of a headline coupled with the MDC song festered an intense dislike for this man. These songs and faux-articles mined grains of truth. John Wayne was a close-minded, conservative racist. Here he is talking to Playboy magazine in 1971:

"I believe in white supremacy until blacks are educated to the point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."

He goes on to talk about how he's not sorry that Native Americans lost their land to whites and to expound the merits of the Vietnam War.

So at the age of thirteen, armed with these blistering attacks to John Wayne's legacy, I swore him off as a bigot and left it at that.

That is until I saw the Searchers a decade later.

I don't think Wayne actually understood what the point of the Searchers was. I think he truly believed his character, Ethan Edwards, who sets off at the beginning of the film on a relentless pursuit to find his Comanche-kidnapped niece Debbie, was the hero. Ethan is driven by his unrepentant racism toward the natives and is horrified that Debbie will be tainted by them. Wayne named his son Ethan after his character. Frankly, not the name I would have given the boy had I known Ethan was the villain.

Luckily the film was helmed by John Ford, a subtle, intelligent progressive who brought out the villain in Ethan with his deft direction. The first time I saw The Searchers I was filled with mixed emotions. I knew the filmmaking was flawless (an opinion that has been reinforced by subsequent viewings) but I was still on the fence about Wayne. He did a fantastic job but having my first exposure to his work be his all-too-convincing portrayal of a sociopath may have not been the best idea. The film did spark my interest enough to pursue other Wayne films.

Next up was Wayne in Howard Hawks' Red River, the film that spurred John Ford to proclaim "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!" And act he can. Subsequent viewings of such Western classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon only solidified this opinion. But it is Hawks' Rio Bravo that made me fully embrace John Wayne the actor. This leisurely paced film allows Wayne plenty of room to breathe and play off other great performers, particularly Dean Martin and the great Walter Brennan.

Rio Bravo was Hawks' rebuttal to High Noon, Fred Zinnemann's lame allegory for the government's Communist witch hunt. I cite my differing opinion on these two films as a turning point in my growing acceptance of art regardless of its political agenda. If it's done capably, I can now get behind a work of art no matter how much I disagree with its agenda (and vice versa.) Ayn Rand is a crazy old coot but Atlas Shrugged is one hell of a well-written book. In fact, I consider it a masterpiece. It's also completely backwards and evil but...

Sometimes the stubborn idealism of my youth rears its bull of a head, making certain experiences difficult to stomach. I still have a hard time separating Elia Kazan's critically-acclaimed work from the fact that he named names to HUAC. Try as I might, I can't help but get angry thinking about it. Maybe that's because Kazan was himself a left-wing, card-carrying liberal and he betrayed his comrades to save his own skin. He named Zero Mostel for goodness sake! Zero Mostel!

At least John Wayne was honest. He never lied to himself or others and I think there is a purity in that that comes out in his work.

Plus I find this news comforting: after a decade of trying to get the airport located near his ranch shut down for disturbing his tranquility, they named the godforsaken place after him when he died.

Karma's a bitch.

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