John Wayne's America

One of the many blessings of my childhood was our family’s friendship with the late Hubert van Zeller, the English Benedictine monk and theologian who wrote magnificent and widely read books about prayer and the life of the spirit. The great, blazoned moment of Father van Zeller’s Victorian-era childhood was his attendance at Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and it left the Dom, as we adoring children came to nickname him, with a ferocious love of all things wild and Western. The great, blazoned moment of my own cold-war era childhood, in fact, was being taken by the Dom to the Orpheum Theatre in Springfield, Illinois, to see John Wayne star in The Comancheros. There may have been a more passionate John Wayne fan in our hemisphere than this somewhat bookish, stoutly Tridentine, profoundly contemplative, and usually diffident priest, but I doubt it. When it came to the Duke, the gentle Dom could sit shoulder to shoulder with us bourgeois American kids in our Davy Crockett hats, our lips aflame with popcorn salt as we bayed for the blood of prairie bullies everywhere. John Wayne back down from a fight? That’ll be the day.

In this highly disappointing study, Garry Wills somewhat prissily reminds us that John Wayne’s real name was Marion Morrison. There was a person from Iowa who answered to that name in those long-ago days before Sergeant Stryker led the Marines up Mount Suribachi, Davy Crockett blew up the gunpowder cache at the Alamo, Tom Donovan killed the odious Liberty Valance, and Rooster Cogburn bellowed "Fill your hand, you sunovabitch!" and charged right into all those bad guys with two revolvers blazing and the horse’s reins clenched in his teeth. Marion could even be a girl’s name.

It gets worse. John Wayne did indeed back down from a fight. Not only did he back down from a fight, he backed down from the fight of his generation, the big one, WW II. While even Ronald Reagan felt duty-bound to make himself available for a few military training films, John Wayne showed himself to be a monstrously opportunistic careerist of the sort later caricatured in 1980s’ Hamilton cartoons and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. John Wayne, boys and girls, is an invention. He wasn’t the man who shot Liberty Valance. He wasn’t Sergeant Stryker. He wasn’t Davy Crockett. He wasn’t even John Wayne.

There is an undeniable, if fleeting, satisfaction to be enjoyed in exposing the anomalies of the big shots. So certainly those interested in authoritative evidence that John Wayne was a duty-shirking weenie who had to teach himself to say "ain’t" will rejoice to receive the fruits of Wills’s bewilderingly thorough love movies are aware that the people on the screen are actors. When I was a little kid, I loved The Alamo, but even I, innocent as I was, accepted that John Wayne was only pretending to be Davy Crockett.

When Wills isn’t recounting the arcana of 1940s’ and ’50s’ Hollywood studio politics, he is making much of the problem that oafs like Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan have attempted to model themselves after "John Wayne," or that Creampuff Pat Buchanan’s Sergeant Stryker imitation was such a success among his supporters during the last Republican primary elections. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to explore the question of how such confessedly deranged and shallow people as Gingrich, Reagan, Buchanan, and others may realistically aspire to rule the rest of us ordinary moviegoers?

This is, as far as I know, Wills’s first literary excursion into the world of movies, and most readers who like his other books and essays as much as I do will find themselves hoping that it will be his last. There are some people who love movies (and poems and novels and plays and paintings and songs and photographs and sports events) not so much for themselves as for their provision of some sort of historical evidence or for their expression of compelling or merely interesting beliefs, opinions, and ideologies. My old friend Father van Zeller (not coincidentally, he was a very fine artist, a sculptor, himself) was not one of these people, but Wills clearly is, which is why his recent magisterial study of the Gettysburg Address is such a joy to read. But it takes a true dork to watch the fiery climax of The Alamo and conclude "this has symbolic force....It makes Crockett’s death an assertion of will, not the obliteration of it. As Crockett blows up a building that, nonetheless, survives, so his own death is transformed into a cleansing apocalyptic fire in which he will live forever." It
makes me tremble to think what Wills would have written about my favorite feature in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Lee Marvin’s death-collapse during the climactic gunfight.

Nevertheless, John Wayne’s America isnot without its charms. As Wills gets going on movies, he puts a reader in mind of television’s most endearing nerd, Dr. Frasier Crane, an extremely cultivated man to whom the realm of popular culture is utterly alien, but who nevertheless pluckily staggers forward with his preppy mannerisms, pedantic jokes, and polysyllabic analysis, pressing ever more deeply and hopelessly into the entangling thickets. As with Frasier Crane, a reader can’t help but feel a sort of tenderness for him, but please, God, keep Garry Wills far away from professional football. And will somebody please pass the poor man some Milk Duds.

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

Michael O. Garvey works in public relations at the University of Notre Dame.

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