Memorializing the Deadly Myth of John Wayne

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Ed Rampell and Luis I. Reyes

This Memorial Day is the centennial of John Wayne, born May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. The 2007 Harris poll of America’s favorite movie stars places the Duke at No. 3. A remarkable ranking, considering Wayne’s last picture was 1976’s “The Shootist” and he died 28 years ago.

Wayne, who didn’t win an Oscar until late in a six-decades-long career, is Hollywood’s most underrated actor. He was arguably a better actor than the fellow Midwesterner and two-time Oscar winner to whom he is often compared, Marlon Brando, the Method actor who played antisocial misfits in films ranging from the 1954 biker flick “The Wild One” to 1973’s sexually charged “Last Tango in Paris,” which critic Pauline Kael called “the movie breakthrough” that “altered the face of an art form.” If Wayne portrayed the strong, silent type in films such as 1952’s “A Quiet Man,” Brando was known for bellowing “Stella!” in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

In private life, Brando was a troubled, angry loner, much like the characters he often portrayed. Wayne’s motion picture persona is associated with cowboys and soldiers. In fact, he was neither.

Wayne was full of contradictions. Although the star of countless Westerns such as John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach” and 1953’s “Hondo” owned a ranch, the Duke “didn’t particularly like horses and preferred suits and tuxedos to chaps, jeans and boots,” according to his son, Michael Wayne. The prototypical cowpoke also favored the sea over the prairie.

While many of his contemporaries, including Henry Fonda, Clark Gable and Ronald Reagan, served in the armed forces during World War II, the lead in such wartime sagas as 1945’s “They Were Expendable,” 1948’s “Fort Apache” and 1968’s “The Green Berets” did not. Wayne was not only missing in action during the 1940s’ liberation of the Philippines and Europe, he wasn’t a cavalry officer, a Vietnam commando or a Leatherneck—flying or otherwise—for he was never in the military.

According to Gary Wills’ book “John Wayne’s America,” the man who portrayed the archetypal, battle-hardened Marine, Sgt. Stryker, in 1949’s “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” actually avoided the draft during WWII. Wills contends that the Duke did not reply to letters from the Selective Service system, and applied for deferments. Apparently, Wayne—who had sought stardom during years of B-pictures following Raoul Walsh’s 1930 frontier drama “The Big Trail”—got his big break during the struggle against fascism when many Hollywood action heroes like Tyrone Power enlisted and shipped out more

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me you see
Straight up racist that sucker was
Simple and plain
Mother fuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) lets get this party started right
Right on, c’mon
What we got to say
Power to the people no delay
To make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

(Fight the Power)

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