How Dirty Harry beat the Ringo Kid

Michael Rogin

  • John Wayne: American by Randy Roberts and James Olson
    Free Press, 738 pp, £17.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 02 923837 4

There he stands, mounted on a pedestal, booted, spurred and bigger than life, his enormous, holstered six-shooter set just below the eye-level of passers-by, welcoming travellers to Orange County. He used to straddle the entrance to the John Wayne International Airport; now, so as not to suffer the weatherbeaten fate of the original, the cowboy statue has sought protection from the elements and taken shelter indoors. Florence has David, also transferred from open to inner space; Orange County has John Wayne.

Orange County, where unfettered individualism rises from a government-subsidised foundation in mineral wealth, agribusiness, aerospace and real-estate speculation. When John Wayne moved there in 1964, it was perhaps the wealthiest and most conservative county in the United States. It contained more chapters of the John Birch Society than the rest of the country combined, and John Wayne was in one of them. Orange County is in Southern California, home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, of Hollywood, Disneyland and John Wayne. Nixon would have lost his home state and the White House in 1968 without his Southern California support. At the 1984 Republican Convention, Reagan, our second Southern California President, was the subject of a celebratory film: it was introduced, as Richard Slotkin points out in Gunfighter Nation (1992), with clips from John Wayne movies.

By far the most popular actor in motion-picture history, John Wayne ranked for 25 years among the top ten Hollywood box-office attractions; no one else has ever come close. Endorsing the popular judgment, film critics polled this year by Sight and Sound chose John Ford’s The Searchers as one of the five best movies ever made; it starred John Wayne, as the Indian-hating Ethan Edwards.

John Wayne casts his shadow over far more than Orange County and Hollywood. Eric Bentley, the Brecht scholar and editor of a volume of testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, has called John Wayne ‘the most important American of our time. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are only camp followers of Wayne, supporting players in the biggest Western of them all.’ As Maureen O’Hara, no friend of un-American activities, put it in her Congressional testimony, ‘John Wayne is not just an actor. John Wayne is the United States of America.’ O’Hara was urging Congress to strike a gold medal honouring ‘John Wayne, American’. It was 1979, and her co-star in films such as Rio Grande and The Quiet Man was dying of cancer. John Wayne: American takes its title from this Congressional medal.

Once you start to look for him, he’s everywhere. Ian MacGregor, the man who helped Thatcher crush the miners, is ‘John Wayne with a Scottish brogue and a pinstripe suit’. ‘Now we don’t want to see no John Wayne performances out here,’ a sergeant tells his platoon in Vietnam. We see them anyway, collected in Slotkin’s book and in Warrior Dreams (1994) by James William Gibson. When Philip Caputo joined the Marines, he saw himself ‘charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima’. ‘War movies with John Wayne’ sent Ron Kovic to Vietnam: ‘Yes, I gave my dead dick for John Wayne,’ he said when he returned a paraplegic. Vietnam vets and their doctors named ‘John Wayne Syndrome’ a stress disorder in which the soldier fails to live up to ‘an ideal of superhuman military bravery, skill and invulnerability to guilt and grief’. The Marine Corps Vietnam vet, John Wayne Hearn, named after his father had been killed in World War Two, advertised himself as a contract killer in the gun magazine. Soldier of Fortune; he was convicted of three murders. John Wayne Bobbitt’s girlfriend was acquitted of assault for severing his dick; her grounds were self-defence. John Wayne Gacy was one of many serial killers and mass murderers infatuated with John Wayne. Henry Kissinger is another. ‘I’ve always acted alone,’ he has said. ‘Americans admire that enormously. Americans admire the cowboy ... entering the village or city alone on his horse ... A Wild West tale, if you like.’

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