Long Live the Duke

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John Wayne: Gone for 30 years, and still with us.

An NRO Symposium

Thirty years ago today, John Wayne died. Yet Americans continue to identify him as one of their favorite actors. To commemorate his life, we’ve asked a panel to discuss the man, his movies, and his legacies.

Any movie with John Wayne in it is better than every movie without John Wayne in it. That’s a cinematic law. I mean, if I had to decide whether to jump into the ocean to save the last copy of Brannigan or The Godfather / Gone With The Wind gift set, I would probably have a scotch in my stateroom and think about it a good long time.

I guess my favorite is Stagecoach. No, Fort Apache. No, The Quiet Man. Or maybe the part of The Searchers that doesn’t have all that misbegotten domestic comedy in it. I love the ginormous fistfight at the end of The Spoilers. I love the fact that he chased Commie spies for the House Un-American Activities Committee as Big Jim McLain. I believe the scene in Red River where he says “I’m not gonna hitcha,” and then punches out Montgomery Clift may be the high point not only of cinema history but of human evolution.

But I guess there is a special place in my heart for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, because it explains everything a boy needs to know about life in only two hours. That cuts Hamlet’s record in half.

— Andrew Klavan’s new thriller for young adults is The Last Thing I Remember.

John Wayne was larger than life, an unapologetic patriot, and an outstanding actor who left behind a timeless film legacy. The Alamo, which he directed, is not a great film, but a good one — and it remains an insightful look into the gentle, gracious soul of its creator, a man who recognized the dignity of everyone: a blind woman who refuses special consideration, a slave whose first decision as a free man is to stand and die for liberty, and, most unexpected, Santa Anna’s soldiers. (“Speaks well for men that so many aren’t afraid to die, because they think right’s on their side. Speaks well of them.”)

Many things define John Wayne: how he moved and spoke, his artistry, his politics, and his Americanism. But the Duke’s permanent hold on our hearts comes from something within him, something unseen — the depth of his humanity.

— John Nolte is the editor of Big Hollywood.

Duke Wayne suffered through a hard-bitten childhood, three failed marriages, and having his fortune frittered away by incompetents. For decades he was shamed by the steadfast refusal of Republic Pictures to let him enlist during WWII. As an old man he was plagued by depressions, a missing lung, a hated toupee, and a burgeoning waistline. His death from cancer was sheer agony.

Yet, throughout, he remained kind, generous, and humble. A well-read student of history and politics, he preferred chess and sailing to riding horses, and with singular genius used the 20th century’s greatest art form, in his words, to mythologize rustic America’s “intimate flashes of greatness, of nobility, of humor, of fineness of the inner soul.” At the peak of his powers, achingly empathic performances in films like Sands of Iwo Jima left battle-scarred postwar audiences weeping openly in their seats. The resulting bond between sincere actor and grateful country has proven unbreakable.

Wayne once said, “Westerns are folklore, just the same as The Iliad is. . . . It takes good men to make good westerns.” The towering screen legend was, in real life, just a man. But he was a good man, and that’s what made him a great American.

— Leo Grin writes on all things cinematic at Big Hollywood.
“I didn’t vote for him, but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.” That was how John Wayne greeted the election of John F. Kennedy. This is exactly what made him a patriot.

Wayne was, and is, derided by many of the professional deriders the Left seems to breed (on a derision farm in Northern California, I believe). Yet at the same time, he was respected, and even liked, by people like Abbie Hoffman, Jane Fonda, and Joan Baez. This wasn’t because he compromised his principles; he didn’t. It was because of his style, for lack of a better word.

Sadly, the preferred style these days is to belittle those with whom you disagree, rather than simply saying, as Wayne did of Fonda, “I think she’s a little mixed up in her thinking.” (Fonda’s reaction, according to film critic and professor Emanuel Levy: “I don’t know the man, but I think he’s got guts.”)

In the political landscape of today, party all too often takes precedence over country, and partisanship trumps patriotism. Wayne knew better. Too bad he’s not still around.

— Andy Levy is a writer and commentator for Fox News Channel’s Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld.

When I was nine I stayed up to watch Flying Tigers on the late show. To me John Wayne was a cowboy star (his previous films were westerns and sports movies) so I didn’t expect much. I also knew that films about World War II made during the war were inaccurate and often cheesy. While Flying Tigers was riddled with inaccuracies, it was anything but cheesy.

Despite being a patriotic actioner churned out by Republic Pictures, Tigers was surprisingly unflinching in its portrayal of air combat. Pilots were shot while dangling from parachutes. As bullets shattered cockpit windshields, bloody hands clutched mangled faces. In a world before Full Metal Jacket and Saving Private Ryan, the violence in Flying Tigers was a shocking revelation.

More of a revelation was Wayne’s performance as Jim Gordon. Sure, Wayne battled enemy fighters. But it was in honing an egotistical bunch of mercenary pilots into an effective squadron that he showed his real power. On his way to becoming one of our greatest American actors, Wayne would return to “mentoring” roles — in Sands of Iwo Jima, The Cowboys, and The Shootist — but in my childhood memories Flying Tigers will always be where the Duke first took command.

— Marc Cerasini is the author of military nonfiction and thrillers, including four novels in the 24: Declassified series. He also writes, with his wife, mysteries under pen names.

John Wayne made entertaining movies. That was the point of his career, the key to his success, and the main reason he is remembered. That he was conservative and a man of character is incidental; a few people go to see a movie for the star or the subject matter, but the mass audiences that create a hit come for the story. John Wayne made sure his movies told interesting stories. Thus the way in for those who believe conservatives are forever shut out of Hollywood: Tell good stories. Make movies people want to see. Inform your work with your conservatism (or whatever is in your personality, because that is what will make your movie unique), but create true entertainment. Preachy pictures generally fail: Witness the dozens of recent anti-war movies with a box-office take less than Michael Moore’s annual budget for exercise clothes. John Wayne was not a conservative entertainer; he was an entertainer who happened to be conservative. Being that is how our side will finally gain traction in Hollywood.

— Michael Long is a director of the White House Writers Group.

H. W.
I grew up wearing cowboy boots and watching John Wayne movies (even John Wayne commercials, which he did for Great Western Savings). In those days, local television channels filled their late-night hours with old movies, providing a better cinematic education than anything cable has to offer. I knew all the John Wayne classics — like Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, and Rio Bravo — but we also had “John Wayne Theater,” popularly known as “The Worst of John Wayne,” which featured his low-budget quickies from the 1930s. What shone out from Wayne — and what seems singularly lacking in film stars today — was decency, integrity, and character. I remember when Wayne died. The local news ended with a tribute to the Duke. It was the scene from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where Wayne, as Capt. Nathan Brittles, retires from the cavalry. His troopers present him with a pocket watch. He puts on his grandpa spectacles to read the “sentiment” inscribed on the back: “Lest we forget.” Then the troopers ride out, giving their captain a final salute. Of all Wayne’s movies, it is John Ford’s cavalry series I like best, and of that trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon stands apart.

— H. W. Crocker III is the author most recently of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War.

Years ago on television, I saw Rep. Pat Schroeder — pretty much an archetypal liberal — recalling how appalled she was when The Duke had tried to give her a cigarette lighter with the words “F—k Communism” engraved on it. Apparently, this was a gift he regularly bestowed, patterned after an engraved lighter he was given bearing the same terse, yet highly agreeable, slogan while visiting some Green Berets in Indochina.

And that’s why we love John Wayne. Both in his work as an actor and in his life generally, he seemed to possess a great deal of moral clarity where others lacked the will to do what was right or sort good from evil. This is ultimately why he proved so charismatic — and threatening to liberals. Years ago, when Robert Bork was nominated for the Supreme Court, some nosy reporter went to Bork’s local video store and rather scurrilously obtained his video-rental records. I’m convinced this was the undoing of Bork’s nomination. It turns out that the judge had rented Stagecoach twice. Bork’s opposition must have known that any man who likes John Wayne that much might have a worldview similar to The Duke’s and use his position on the Supreme Court to determine right from wrong. This was a concept obviously anathema to Democrats who, like Pat Schroeder, still had trouble acknowledging obvious truths such as the fact that Communism was evil.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

Here are two brilliant John Wayne films directed by the great Howard Hawks, with whom Wayne worked regularly.

Hawks designed his 1959 film Rio Bravo as an answer to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, which Hawks saw as both cynical and unrealistic. In Zinnemann’s film, the townspeople refuse to help the lawman, played by Gary Cooper, defend himself and the town against a gang of ruthless marauders. In Hawks’s film, Wayne plays a sheriff likewise threatened by an outlaw gang, but the townspeople all want to help, and he prefers to go it alone. Somewhat reluctantly, he puts together a small, amusingly motley team and uses strategy and common sense to defeat the miscreants without endangering the lives of the innocent, while using tough love to rehabilitate his alcoholic deputy, played by Dean Martin. This is one of the greatest westerns of all time, and it features a truly subtle and evocative performance by the Duke, especially in his romance scenes with Angie Dickinson.

Hatari!, released in 1962, is another great Duke film directed by Hawks. Wayne leads a team of hunters in Africa who catch wild animals for zoos. The film is great fun, features impressive action scenes, and is thought-provoking and sensible in observing the various characters’ relationships and personal problems. It’s a pity they don’t make them this way today. Hatari! is a must-see — actually, a must-own.

— S. T. Karnick is editor of The American Culture.

His favorite actress, Maureen O’Hara, said as he lay dying, “John Wayne is not just an actor and a very fine actor. John Wayne is the United States of America.” Wrong. John Wayne was California: always moving, never stopping, drunk on booze and possibilities, a chickenhawk though a boon companion, unfaithful to his wives, and neglectful of his children but sincerely regretting it — yet at the same time Wayne created and inhabited the single most enduring and resonant screen presence in the history of American film. I love The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Shootist, but my favorite is True Grit, perhaps because of its source: the great novel of the same title by Charles Portis of Arkansas, one of America’s most underrated writers.

— Bill Kauffman’s most recent books are Ain’t My America and Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin.

Like many American males of a certain generation, whenever my father needs to unwind, he kicks back in his easy chair and flips channels until he alights on a John Wayne movie. At any given time, it seems like there’s a John Wayne movie on somewhere. And growing up, I spent many pleasant hours sprawled on the couch near my dad, watching the Duke.

Rather than highlight the usual suspects, I went with a lesser-heralded film, made in 1972 in the twilight of Wayne’s career. In The Cowboys, Wayne plays surrogate father to a group of boys herding cattle across the West. It’s one of the last great western epics, with classic Duke themes of self-reliance, tough love, and honor.

Near the end of the movie, Bruce Dern shoots the star in the back. Before they filmed the scene, Wayne growled to Dern, a liberal, “America is gonna hate you for this.“ Dern replied, “Maybe, but in Berkeley they’ll think I’m a hero.“

Wayne had the last laugh, however. The Cowboys, like every other movie he made, continues to enthrall audiences today, transmitting his values to new generations — as from father to son.

— Andrew Leigh is a screenwriter based in Santa Monica, Calif.

John Wayne may have given his best performance in The Searchers, but he gave his most lovable performance in True Grit, playing the gruff, flask-swilling, over-the-hill U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn, hired by an equally gruff 14-year-old, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), to track down the murderer of her rancher father in 1880. Wayne was in his early sixties when he created the role of the paunchy, eyepatch-wearing Rooster, whom he turned into an iconic summation of all the tough-loner western roles that had made him famous. Bolstered by crisp, sardonic dialogue co-written by Charles Portis, author of the best-selling 1968 novel on which the film was based, Wayne hammed up Rooster so cheerfully that critics have pooh-poohed the Oscar he won for his performance, claiming that it was actually a lifetime-achievement award.

They’re wrong. Wayne simply filled the screen with his star presence, and luckily, the script and story gave him a leading lady who took no guff from his character. It’s still a delight to watch the sparring pair, one ostensibly too old for the job and the other too young, grudgingly grow in mutual respect and affection. If True Grit were made today (and the Coen brothers are rumored to have a remake in the works) it would probably be embarrassingly sentimental and irritatingly point-scoring in feminist ideology, overblowing Mattie’s role. Wayne and his writers and director didn’t let that happen. In the end he rides away (or, rather, jumps a fence), no hugs, calling back at Mattie, “Come and see a fat old man sometime.” But that was 1969, not now.

— Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ.

The fact that the words “John Wayne” are a slur of the Left, even today, is proof enough that he was a great American. Squinting across the plain, The Duke would surely drawl that a man’s character is defined as much by who chooses to be his enemy as by who chooses to be his friend.

How it must burn the Left that the indelible Wayne persona — it is impossible to separate the on-screen Wayne from the man himself — remains a touchstone of the American culture in spite of their mockery, or maybe because of it. “Wayne lacks nuance,” they cry (falsely). But he possesses hard-earned wisdom. “Wayne is not cultured,” they titter. But he’s taken better measure of how the world works. “Wayne is a mindless brute,” they sniff. But he’s handy to have around when danger’s afoot.

Of course, the Left’s laments about John Wayne are not really about him. They are about America itself — especially the patriotic rubes who, like Wayne, judge their country not by its imperfections, but by its enduring virtues.

The Left has tried to finish off John Wayne for decades. As one of his most enduring characters, Ethan Edwards, would reply: “That’ll be the day.”

— James G. Lakely blogs at The American Culture and Infinite Monkeys.

Okay, I’ll go ahead and admit it. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, but I have never “gotten” John Wayne (I’m talking about the movies here; the politics are fine, if only, sometimes, as fun-filled provocation). And, no, I don’t think being brought up in England is to blame: There are plenty of other male icons from mid-20th-century Hollywood — from Gable to Cooper to Bogie to Stewart to Grant to the underrated Holden — who remain endlessly compelling, but when the Duke plods onto TCM, I just switch channels. There are exceptions, of course: Red River and (inevitably) The Searchers, and the guilty treat that is Howard Hughes’s star-crossed and berserk The Conqueror (middle-aged Wayne as a young Genghis Khan). For the most part, however, I just don’t think that the man could act that well. His best films were those in which the directors played off, and around, that irascible immutability or, in later years, just filmed him as a monument, Mount Rushmore on celluloid: not great art exactly, but spectacle — at least for some.

I’d rather stick with Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates, transformed by the time he had spent working with Sergio Leone from cowboy into a character strange and dangerous enough to fill the West of dreams and myth that will endure long after the memory of John Wayne’s last brawl. Time to watch High Plains Drifter (yet) again.

— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of NRO.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
is a story about the death of the American West. John Wayne does more than simply play the title character; he also serves as a clear symbol of the American spirit, and his heroic sacrifice in this film is John Ford’s meditation on the paradox of American individualism.

Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, the only man tough enough to stand up to Liberty Valance, the local thug. It is the arrival of Ransom Stoddard, an idealistic lawyer, that forces Tom to shoot Liberty, and in the process he sacrifices his own happiness, his own way of life, and the woman he loves.

The core of Wayne’s appeal is not his swagger or his charm, but his willingness to act and accept the consequences, even when it means the end of his own way of life. Although we see his character dead, largely forgotten, it is Stoddard’s wife who puts the cactus blossoms on his coffin, an unspoken confession of her own love for him. She speaks for us all. We may be married to the security and safety of Stoddard’s government, but John Ford reminds us that it is the cactus roses of Tom Doniphon that grow in the heart of every American.

— Nicholas Tucker is a San Francisco–based filmmaker. His latest project is
Do As I Say, based on Peter Schweizer’s bestselling book.

I am an avid John Wayne fan, I grew up with him, and I love so many of his movies: the Ford cavalry trilogy, The Green Berets, The SearchersRio Bravo, The Quiet Man. But if an alien came to me and asked who John Wayne was, and asked for one movie to help him understand the John Wayne phenomenon, I would recommend Chisum. He plays a self-made man, possessing a quiet strength and a strong sense of justice and a live-and-let-live philosophy, until injustice occurs and the law can’t or won’t deal with it. Then he steps in and rights the situation, with no real concern about the cost involved or the need for violence. Justice is the end and he achieves it. In other words, he is an American. He played this role in most of his movies and defined it so well that the two, John Wayne and American, became synonymous.

— Kirby Wilbur is a longtime conservative activist and talk-show host in the Seattle area.

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