War heroes…

johnwayne2.jpg 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.

Just ask George W. Bush. After all, his Presidency has been like a John Wayne movie, hasn’t it?

14 replies »

  1. Yeah, he weaseled out. (Not that I’m one to talk. I did the same with the Vietnam War.)

    It’s not well-known, but the most decorated WWII veteran from Hollywood — other than Audie Murphy, who went from war hero-dom to Hollywood — was Charles Durning.

  2. I think John Wayne embodies much that is wrong with America. Here’s a guy who never actually DID the things he was portrayed as doing in the pictures, and yet I have met more than one person who calls Wayne their hero. Really. A hero just for pretending to be a hero.

    Only in America.

    For the record, four of my five uncles on my father’s side (plus my father) served during WWII. The sixth was 35 years old, and the military wouldn’t take him because of his age and the fact that he was the last male from the family. The family story is that he had to be jailed because he punched out a sergeant in a recruiting office who said he was too old.

    One of my uncles was with Eddie Albert (not a play hero) at Tarawa, one of the most vicious fights of the Pacific war. My father was in the South Pacific in PT boats (and anyone who knows the story of the PT boats know what he probably saw). Uncle Russell (32 when he enlisted) was in combat in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Uncle BP was in France. Uncle Alex was in the service in Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

    The uncle who was at Tarawa despises John Wayne, and refuses to watch war movies in which some actor single-handedly takes on the entire opposing army, runs through machine-gun fire, never gets hit, and has soldiers die in his arms peacefully without extraneous body parts strewn untidily around on the ground.

    The people of Orange County, California, who named their airport after Wayne, seem incapable of separating the on-screen actions and the personal actions.

    Form over substance. Often, it’s what America seems to be about.

  3. Yeah, he weaseled out. (Not that I’m one to talk. I did the same with the Vietnam War.)

    OK. But did you go on to become a war hawk (so long as others did the dying and the getting crippled)? Did you make movies turning you into a military icon?

    Didn’t think so.

  4. JSO – your comment about the realities of combat reminded me of watching Saving Private Ryan. From what I’ve heard from a few veterans, it’s one of the more accurate fictional war movies there is, at least for WWII-style warfare, anyway.

  5. My uncle was a Navy guy who drove a landing craft at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

    He would never speak of what he saw. His one comment to me (made after I was an adult and apologized for having bugged him to talk about it when I was a kid): “I don’t know if I deserved to talk about men that brave.”

    My late father in law was a Navy UDT guy (ancestors of the Seals). He and a buddy were the guys who put up the “Welcome, Marines” sign at Tarawa, Iwo or Saipan. He could never remember which one they did it at – he said different guys did it at different places . He also saw Bobby Thomson hit the shot heard round the world in 1951. Quite a life.

    Interestingly, JS, both those guys thought Wayne was full of it, too.

  6. I remember watching “Sands of Iwo Jima” in a full school assembly at West End Elementary in Alexandria LA in 1949. I was in the 4th grade. The glory of war was obviously still in full play this soon after the end of the real war.

  7. I couldn’t get much out of my father, who served in WWII in Europe, either. I tried again last summer, not long before his death in September, but still not much.

    Everyone thinks Viet vets were different because they were psychically harmed more by what they did than by what was done to them. As Iraq is showing, that’s probably true of all wars, including WWII.

  8. I was never a fan of Wayne’s war movies, nor his refusal to join up, but took special delight in many of his westerns such as McClintock.. Now Jimmy Stewart,,,there’s a guy who joined up and did pretty well, and came back to a good career, I like Jimmy Stewart a whole lot. My favorite WWII movie has to be “The Americanization of Emily” starring James Garner and Juile Andrews at the top of their game.. The movie was anti war, and was a delightful farce. I highly recommend it.

    I will still watch the Battle of the Bulge, Guns of Navarone, Dirty Dozen, and The great escape whenever they’re on.. They’re wonderful movies, and very well crafted.

    What’s some other “guy’s movies” related to war that y’all watch whenever they’re on?

    That being said, my must see movie list also includes “Every Which way but loose”,Pocket Money”, Dr.Strangelove,” and “Being There.”, and “Smokey and the bandit.”

    I’m low brow, and proud of it.


  9. Guy flicks I watch a lot? Let’s see here:

    Johnny Dangerously
    The Quiet Man (my favorite Wayne movie)
    Silverado (one of the best westerns ever made, and a “serious” spoof at that)
    Aliens (Nuke the site from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure.)
    The Running Man
    Bladerunner (I haven’t seen it near often enough – I need to borrow Sam’s copy of the findal director’s cut. HINT HINT!)
    The Abyss
    Total Recall
    Das Boot
    Tora! Tora! Tora!

    and last but certainly not least,

    Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”

  10. Jeff,

    I don’t see those flicks as being low brow, at all.

    I grew up on those heroic war movies, but the older I get, the less I like them. The more I read about real war and the people in them, and the more I learn from actual memoirs of people in real war, the more the movies seem fake to me. My Uncle John recounts how, on Tarawa, he first found a hole and just tried to stay alive, terrified out of his mind. He had to keep reminding himself who he was just to stay sane.

    I guess my favorite war movies these days are the ones that expose war for what it really is: human butchery.

  11. JSO – your comment about human butchery is part of the reason why the best war movies aren’t the heroic ones. Saving Private Ryan, The Killing Fields, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket – they all reveal the horror of war in a way that movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or the Fighting Seabees can’t.

    I’m glad I’ve seen all of them, especially the ones that I may watch only once or twice more in my life because they tore at my guts (as they were intended to). Add Schlindler’s List to that list, although it’s not technically a war movie.

    I’ve got a slowly growing list of movies that, as my children age, I plan to sit down with them and force them to watch. In the afternoon, so we can talk about them for as long as we need to, both during and after the movie. There are just some things that I feel everyone, and especially my children, should be exposed to.

  12. John Wayne I never really got…unlike the great Jimmy Stewart – whatever part he played – he played well and with integrity.

    I enjoy any war film that inspires – the film The Great Escape is one of my all time favourites. Not only were most of the team from the Magnificent 7 re-united but it was actually based on some truth:

    Without a doubt real war is filled with blood, guts, misery, cowardice, heroism, pointlessness at times and a film that can convey this has its place.

    …but to see a war film such as The Great Escape shows the nobility of an individual/swho refuses to remain a captive of the enemy.

    I await with great anticipation Christian Bale’s new film where he portrays the only man to have escaped during the Vietnam War…and I would recommend to anyone the film: