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.’

Pat Buchanan, too, has tried to assume the John Wayne role. ‘Lock’n’load’ Pat – the magic words are John Wayne’s in Sands of Iwo Jima – waves two rifles aloft at a gun show before the Arizona Presidential Primary. ‘Mount up everybody, and ride to the sound of the guns,’ says the candidate. Wearing a black cowboy hat (‘I’m the bad guy’), Buchanan is defending American borders against the ‘foreign invasion ... that’s ... taking place when one, two, three million people walk across your border every year’. It doesn’t do to confuse illegal aliens with illegal Americans: John Wayne crossed that border illegally in the other direction in Rio Grande to rescue children taken hostage by Apaches. Buchanan rides to rescue the most innocent children of all – the unborn. His opponent, Bob Dole, may have lost the use of an arm in the Second World War, but the New York Times explains that Dole ‘would be the oldest candidate ever elected to a first term as President and so cannot plausibly claim the vaunted mantle of outsider riding to the rescue’.

A farm-state senator rather than a cowboy, Dole represents what one Buchanan supporter called ‘international businessmen, career politicians, bankers’. Dole could pass for one of the ‘respected town leaders’ exposed by the outsider John Wayne as the tool of big business in any number of Thirties B-Westerns – as the crooked banker in Stagecoach, for example, who insists: ‘The Government must not interfere with business. Reduce taxes. Our national debt is something shocking.’ Buchanan is auditioning for the John Wayne part, the unjustly accused outlaw, the Ringo Kid.

The first shot of the Ringo Kid, 15 minutes into the John Ford classic, has been described as ‘one of the most stunning entrances in all of cinema’. Soft-spoken and entirely sympathetic, the Ringo Kid wears a white hat: can he really be held to account for the fate of his imitators in Vietnam, for Ronald Reagan and for the black-hatted Pat Buchanan? The authors of John Wayne: American, doing a Buchanan imitation of their own, blame ‘the media and the cultural élite’ for the denigration of their man. Assaulting the traditional American ideals of masculinity, individualism and patriotism, Randy Roberts and James Olson write, the antiwar movement, women’s groups and cultural critics in the Sixties and Seventies cut themselves off from ‘the rest of the country’. A ‘working-class hero’, ‘John Wayne kept the faith.’

It was not media and cultural élite pollution that drove the John Wayne statue indoors, however. And if someone dressed like that statue tried to board a plane at the John Wayne International Airport, it wouldn’t be the cultural élite that arrested him as a hi-jacker. Writers and politicians target the cultural élite to keep the faith from being examined. But although John Wayne, American, has seduced his biographers, they are too scrupulous to allow the ideology they share with him to blot out his history. In the myth of his movies, they show how John Wayne, like his forebears Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett, pioneered the civilisation that destroyed him. He chose to play Davy Crockett and die in The Alamo; he had already died during World War Two as Wedge Donovan in The Fighting Sea-bees and as Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima. In the history that endowed him with mythic status, John Wayne rose and fell with the Cold War. The movies have a life of their own, nonetheless, and it is their evil genius to create sympathy for the devil, even as we watch him turn from the innocent Indian-killing Ringo Kid to the monomaniacal Indian-hating Ethan Edwards, to the forgotten man who really shot Liberty Valance (‘Print the legend,’ he tells the reporter).

John Wayne was not his real name, of course, and he never answered to John or Wayne alone. ‘It’s like one word – John Wayne,’ he once explained. Having lost his original name, Bobby, to his favoured younger brother, he would only respond either to his boyhood nickname, Duke, or to his Hollywood given name in its entirety. The son of a man who had failed trying to farm the Southern California desert (it was already doing better service as a movie set), John Wayne learned to play cowboy. But he was no more a cowboy off-screen than he was a soldier during the Second World War – he was the only leading Hollywood man not to do a tour in uniform. Established stars could afford a break in their careers, but John Wayne was just emerging from the B-Western ghetto when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Already in his thirties, he knew the war was his last chance in Hollywood, and so he kept breaking his promise to John Ford that he would enlist after one more film. Besides, he wondered, how could John Wayne fight alongside boys half his age when to them ‘I was America’? Playing rather than being soldier turned John Wayne into a top box-office attraction, not only because he had no competition, but because, as one film followed another at the rate of half a dozen a year, John Wayne amalgamated the Western and the war movie, the Indian-fighter and the cowboy, the redskin and the Jap. The Depression had driven Westerns out of the major studios, and although John Ford’s Stage-coach resurrected the genre on the eve of World War Two, Westerns reappeared as Hollywood bread-and-butter, not as big-budget extravaganzas. (The Big Trail in 1929 was the blockbuster flop which introduced and starred John Wayne – and confined him to B-movies for a decade.) The wartime Hollywood assembly-line turned out Westerns and war films interchangeably; over one-third of the movies made from 1941 to 1945 were war-related.

Wartime Westerns and war films made John Wayne increasingly visible. They established the foundation for his great years of movie stardom, the years of the Cold War consensus. After a brief decline as the Second World War ended, war movies were revived again in 1948 – in the middle of the Alger Hiss and Judith Coplon spy trials, the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of Communist influence in Hollywood, and the ‘loss’ of China and Eastern Europe to Communism. Neither cowboy nor soldier, John Wayne was the right star to restore the frontier to the country which had lost it in history more than half a century earlier and in film during the Great Depression. More than any other single man, John Wayne would reconnect urban and suburban, blue and white collar, Cold War America to its mythic national past. From 1948 to 1968, the years of John Wayne’s pre-eminence, war films and Westerns were America’s most popular entertainment. Every year from 1949 to the eve of US defeat in ‘Indian country’ in 1974, John Wayne was among Hollywood’s ten biggest box-office stars.

The breakthrough years were 1948 to 1950, when he starred in Howard Howks’s cattle-drive film, Red River, and in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. As Roberts and Olson point out, the trilogy shifted the Western conventions of a film like Stagecoach (1939) in an imperial direction by celebrating, as in war films, military traditions among the bonded male group instead of the romance of the isolated outsider. Praising his performance in Sands of Iwo Jima, General Douglas Mac Arthur (whose words had opened and closed John Wayne’s Bataan/Corregidor film, They Were Expendable), told him in front of the American Legion: ‘You represent the American serviceman better than the American serviceman himself.’ So saturated with realism was Iwo Jima that it incorporated documentary war footage, the American servicemen who raised the Iwo Jima flag and other members of their platoon. It even advertised its use of the real Iwo Jima flag, and made sanitised allusion to a fact that the Marine Corps wished to bury: that the flag featured in the most famous photograph of World War Two had replaced the original flag raised during the actual fighting.

In 1948, before the release of Red River, John Wayne had ranked 33rd in box-office appeal; in 1949 he was fourth. By 1950 – when audiences who watched John Wayne cross the Rio Grande to attack redskins in one enemy sanctuary could hear General MacArthur urge the bombing of reds across the Yalu River in another – he was number one.

The early Cold War John Wayne embodies Hemingway’s ‘grace under pressure’. Colonel Kirby York of Ford’s cavalry trilogy endures insults from a high-toned commanding officer in one film and federal restrictions on his ability to wage war in another. Already ‘Pappy’ in Flying Tigers at the beginning of World War Two, John Wayne was now, in his forties, the good soldier and suffering, self-contained father to his men. He wins over the suspicious son of his dead commanding officer in Iwo Jima, and an unfinished letter to his own son will be found on his dead body and read aloud to end the film: cut to ‘the three survivors of the historic flag raising on Mount Surabachi’ re-creating their biggest scene.

But at the moment of John Wayne’s triumph – and this is his claim to greatness – he was exploding from within. Before Rio Grande and Iwo Jima, something had gone wrong with the servant of the American mission. In Red River, a black-hatted John Wayne, fanatically given to driving his men, repudiates his ‘son’ and stalks him with intent to kill after the younger cowboy takes control of the cattle drive. In naming the avuncular Abilene cattle-buyer ‘Melville’, Hawks alludes to Moby-Dick; a few years later in The Searchers, obsessed with the Indians who had massacred his brother’s family and abducted his niece, John Wayne repeated his Captain Ahab role. Roberts and Olson remark that ‘if Tom Dunson had been homicidal in Red River, Ethan Edwards had upped the ante to genocidal.’ But along with Martin Pawley, the young part-Cherokee civilised Indian who joins Ethan in his quest, the audience finds itself caught up in the chase. We may finally break with Ethan, as Martin does, when, discovering that his niece is cohabiting with the Indian ringleader, he determines to kill rather than rescue her. Nonetheless, the condition of our initial sympathy is that primal scene, the falsification that spawned American history, myth and Cold War politics, the massacring Indians.

If Ethan’s monomania achieves grandeur, he has not only John Ford but also his Indians to thank. Yet Ethan was no monster to John Wayne. Anticipating the question (asked by a black reporter at the first debate with George Bush) that would cost Michael Dukakis – an opponent of the death penalty – the 1988 Presidential election, John Wayne once said of Ethan Edwards: ‘he was no villain ... The Indians fucked his wife. What would you have done?’ Confusing the niece with the wife and rape with inter-racial sex, John Wayne misremembered his movie to make it conform to his life: when he and his third Hispanic wife (the age gap between them and between Ethan and his niece is the same) gave birth to a son, they named him John Ethan Wayne. Now three words were one.

John Wayne was a militantly right-wing Republican in the Cold War years. He headed the Motion Picture Association for the Preservation of American Ideals, which thought the blacklist did not go far enough. He opposed civil rights legislation, supported Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Nonetheless, his movies through the early Sixties – Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1958) and Ford’s Liberty Valance (1962) are the last great ones – remained inside the Cold War consensus. Even his own epic production, The Alamo, released in October 1960 to help elect Nixon, spoke (all too interminably) the language of Kennedy’s new frontier. The Green Berets (1968) opens at ‘the John F. Kennedy Center for Special Warfare’, moves to a stockade on the Laotian border called ‘Dodge City’, and features Vietcong atrocities inherited from, if more graphic than, those of frontier Indians and World War Two Japs. (‘Tojo and his bug-eyed monkeys’ invariably grin demonically before gunning down American boys in The Fighting Seabees.) To make South-East Asia an extension of the American frontier, so that in the last shot of the film he can walk into the western ocean sunset with the Vietnamese boy he is adopting, John Wayne must move the South China Sea from east to west of Vietnam. Westerns were in eclipse by the time of The Green Berets, which strained grotesquely for its effects because home-front divisions had deprived John Wayne of his film footing. His Oscar for True Grit (1969; this time he joins up with a teenage girl to avenge the death of her father) was Hollywood’s forgiveness for The Green Berets.

John Wayne’s world blew up in the ghettos as well as in Vietnam. ‘Urban crime was the new enemy,’ as Roberts and Olson unfortunately put it ‘Downtown needed Ethan Edwards and the Ringo Kid.’ John Wayne, who turned down the starring role in the first Dirty Harry movie, realised his mistake when he saw the film: ‘Harry Callahan was John Wayne.’ Though the part had gone to Clint Eastwood, John Wayne was about to meet up with a Dirty Harry of his own. Just as Buddy Holly’s hit song, ‘That’ll be the day’, was derived from Edwards’s tag line, so the name Dirty Harry was taken from a strontium 90-filled atom bomb, one of 11 that the Atomic Energy Commission had dropped over Yucca Flats, Nevada in 1953. The next year John Wayne had starred as Genghis Khan in The Conquerors, filmed on location downwind from Yucca Flats in Utah’s Escalante Valley. The battle and chase scenes used Snow Canyon, where swirling winds had filled the dunes with radioactive dust. As Geiger counters ticked wildly, film crews carted that dust back to Culver City to give the interior scenes their on-location texture. Of the 220 people on location in Escalante, 91 developed cancer. John Wayne was one of them. Before he was hospitalised and opened up in a futile operation, he starred in his final film – it begins with a retrospective of John Wayne gunfights taken from his earlier movies – as the cancer-ridden Shootist who, refusing to be ‘gutted like a fish’, takes out three bad guys as the Ringo Kid did 35 years earlier, and then, unlike the Ringo Kid, he too dies.

Produced and destroyed by the military industrial complex and the mythic history that supported it, John Wayne died fighting its battles. It might be easier to slide into elegy if his legacy did not live on, but whatever mood it puts you in, there is no escaping his power. The Cold War ideology that retrospectively justified Indian genocide, mythicised the permanent war economy, sanctioned Vietnam and made Orange County the centre of the United States was also responsible for its moments of great art. When you hear the word gun in this country, reach for your culture. John Wayne, American.