Americans responded to John Wayne in a manner different from other stars of his generation. Other actors simply shed off their screen personae after the lights went off; not so Wayne. Although little was written about his private life (marriage, romantic affairs) until after his death, his public life was an open book that maintained and reinforced the John Wayne mystique. He was a natural treasure who was loved and respected. In 1979 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1998, an Army RAH-66 helicopter was named “Duke” in his honor. He wore a POW bracelet to show his sympathy with the fighting men in Viet Nam.
Speaking extemporaneously before a subcommittee hearing in connection with the bill for the Congressional Gold Medal, Maureen O’Hara Blair, Wayne’s co-star in The Quiet Man, spoke for Wayne: “He is, believe me, the United States of America. He is a man that has a code of beliefs that he sticks with. He believes in individual responsibility and honor. ” Said Reagan of Wayne: I never saw Duke display hatred toward those who scorned him. Oh, he could use some pretty salty language, but he would not tolerate pettiness and hate. He was human all right: he drank enough whiskey to float a PT boat, though he never drank on the job.
. . he was virtually always the first to arrive on the set and the last to leave. World War II helped to define what John Wayne stood for. Unable to join the Navy due to an old football injury, his age (34), and being a father of four, Wayne did his part in the war by making movies about America’s fighting men. He appeared minus his horse and six-shooter in memorable films like the Fighting Seabees, Flying Tigers, Reunion in France, They Were Expendable, and Back to Bataan. The 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima earned Wayne his first Oscar nomination.
These films did not have the nauseating gore and graphic violence of present-day war movies, but they exalted the heroism of ordinary men, and people related to them well. Wayne had made it a point not to accept any role that was un-American or tended to denigrate the United States or the American tradition. At a time when he was nearly bankrupt, Wayne bankrolled, starred in, and directed the epic The Alamo, which had been his dream project of many years. In it, playing the role of Davy Crockett, he described the defenders’ role as they waited for the approaching battle with Santa Anna: “There’s right and there’s wrong.
You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you’re as dead as a beaver hat. ” As Crockett, he voiced out the timeless yearning of the Texans for independence: “It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose. ” John Wayne did not win on Oscar for The Alamo (except for Best Sound) although it received six nominations, but people came in droves to see the movie. Besides his classic westerns and war pictures, The Alamo is one of his lasting legacies. John Wayne is often equated with conservatism.
He was the product of an age when Americans were proud of their heritage, conscious of their country’s new role as a world power and sincerely believed in the righteousness of America’s cause. He was born when Theodore Roosevelt was president, a man who believed in Manifest Destiny and was wont to “speak softly, but carry a big stick. ” Wayne belonged to a generation yet untouched by pangs of national self-doubt, unstricken by remorse over purported wrongs committed by the white man against the natives, the blacks, the Vietnamese, the American youth who were being sent to die in remote battlefields.
This was the turbulent 60’s, an age when young Americans were seduced by flower power, discovered new ideologies, adopted a libertarian attitude and opposed any kind of war. In a nation divided by war, John Wayne was seemingly a lonely figure as young Americans felt shame for everything America ever did in the course of her ascent to world dominance. A friend of Senators Barry Goldwater and Joe McCarthy, and former President Ronald Reagan, John Wayne was Republican to the core.
Against the weakening of American resolve, John Wayne’s tenacious adherence to the American tradition of duty and honor could only be seen as naivete – sprung from the good guy–bad guy scenarios in his celluloid world. From the 40’s to the 60’s, the Left made inroads in school campuses where teach-ins became common, swaying many of the youth to the new ideology, and threatening to undermine the foundations of the country’s democratic system. Due to its potentials for propaganda, the movie industry was targeted and there were rumors that some Hollywood figures had embraced socialism.
In 1944, Wayne helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, in the company of other giants like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Walt Disney, and Robert Taylor. He later became president of the association for two terms. He was outspoken against the communist threat. He was mistaken for an archconservative and accused of blackballing movie personalities who refused to cooperate in Congressional hearings, although he never testified, nor did he blackball anybody (Wayne 55).
His being perceived as a staunch anti-communist even gave rise to rumors that the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin plotted to have him murdered (Soviet Dictator). The war in Viet Nam, unlike previous conflicts entered by America, provoked a bitter, emotional debate that divided the nation. Wayne’s traditional faith in God and country would have seemed out of place, but he remained firm in his convictions. Moreover, he was not content to stand idle while the American flag was being ripped to shreds.
His reaction was in the form of another war picture, this time set in the battlefields of Viet Nam. In 1967, after visiting that war-torn country, he decided to make a film, entitled The Green Berets, about the exploits of the Special Forces. At 62 years he was to play a Green Beret, but Wayne did not mind. He hoped it would bring home the message to Americans about the necessity of the war being waged in Vietnam. Until recent times, The Green Berets has been the only film that supported the American intervention in Southeast Asia. (Wayne 221).