Turner Classic Movies is currently in the midst of its annual “31 Days of Oscar” programming which means that almost every film they’re showing these days offers something interesting. Sunday, February 17 was John Wayne Day. I finished watching The Sands of Iwo Jima, the film for which Wayne received one of his two Oscar nominations, when a question occurred. (In these post-The War days the film seems particularly contrived and quaint, but at the time of its release in 1949 it was a huge hit. It was one of a string of films Wayne made that cast him as the archetypal American War Hero.)
Wayne is the troubled but heroic Marine sergeant John Stryker (one must note the debt that name surely has to the brilliant Nathaniel West); John Agar is the young Marine who must learn the code (ah, the length of Hemingway’s shadow). He must overcome his intellectual mis-education and accept the power and glory of being in The Corps – having the ability to travel to exotic places, meet strange and interesting people, and kill them. Wayne got his Oscar nomination in part because his character, Stryker, does something rare and notable for a character in a John Wayne film – he dies. In fact, Sands of Iwo Jima was one of the films that vaulted Wayne to the top of the biggest box office star list. (It’s a place he spends a lot of time both before and after death.)
But Wayne’s enduring popularity is not what I pondered as I finished the film (which I’d seen a few times previously, film buff that I am). Instead, I got to wondering about Wayne the man – the ultra-conservative Republican who vigorously advocated the use of military force and was Ronald Reagan’s pal – and Wayne’s real military, specifically WWII military, record.
The Straight Dope, that source of de-bunkery extraordinaire, offers an interesting interpretation of John Wayne’s behavior during the Second World War – the only war for which he was legitimately an appropriate age – and raises an important question about Wayne’s motivations for fighting a cinema war rather than a real one. It always feels discomfiting, however, to see a movie icon as beloved as Wayne in such a negative light. Maybe he really was more useful to the war effort playing the Great American War Hero rather than actually trying to be one….
Or maybe not. When one compares Wayne’s WWII behavior to other movie stars of his stature (guys such as Clark Gable, James Stewart, or Henry Fonda), The Duke comes across as a phony. (Given Martin’s thoughtful analysis of selfish individualism, perhaps seeing Wayne as a prototype for putting self before country might be a fertile topic for discussion).
In this era of “Swift Boating” of legitimate war veterans (John Kerry knows this tactic all too well, and John McCain may become acquainted with it, too, before the current Presidential race is over, it seems), it might be good to remember John Wayne’s America – an America that values image over substance and movie heroics over real life performance of duty in service to one’s country.