The Myth of John Wayne

Perhaps the dominant myth of America, at least in the fifties, was John Wayne. At least one poll has named him America’s favorite movie star, and many idolize his 174 movies, according to IMDB. There’s even an John Wayne airport in Orange County, California. His first film was “Brown of Harvard”, where he played a Yale football player. (Yale? Cue ominous evil foreshadowing music.) “The Duke” might be the first modern conservative, and so is a very worthy subject. Where is my John Wayne, and where have all the cowboys gone, as Paula Cole asks? And do we really want him, pilgrim?

In many ways, John Wayne is the normative conservative. The man born Marion Morrison was naturally tall – 1.94 meters – rugged, and handsome, yet by the end of his life he utilized lifts. He relied on a powerful-sounding nickname, “The Duke”, though it came not from strength but the childhood family dog. He argued for violence, particularly in Vietnam, even starring in The Green Berets, a 1968 pro-war film. Yet he didn’t serve in World War II, and it wasn’t because of a “football injury”; he asked for the deferment. He argued for family values, yet he divorced twice and had at least one mistress. He made a quote about white supremacy in Playboy, but all three of his wives were Spanish-speaking Hispanics.

Do you see why I call him normative? Neurotic about physical appearance, called by nickname, a chicken-hawk, questionable sexual morality, and racialist. Hypocrisy everywhere. On a personal level, he was a great role model. I’m being sarcastic here, but a lot of conservatives sadly are not. Just look at their lifestyle, beginning with G. W. B. Mr. President also constantly exercises, invents tons of nicknames, and skipped war service. To be fair, our President is not divorced, though he was wild in his 20s and 30s, and is not publicly anti-black. Maybe those failings are why conservatives attack Bush.

Conservative hypocrisy is a fun but easy target, and not really part of the mythology for most. Let’s look at the film persona. Mr. Wayne once gave the quote that “I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either.” What does that mean? The Western is a story. The cowboy rides around from town to town, or lives on a farm with a couple other men. Maybe there’s a woman, a wife or widow, who often needs protecting. The protection ethos is very appealing to females, and it’s penetrated the concept of proper maleness. There’s something to that approach, strength and honor and responsibility. In one of his films, Hondo, a famous quote is “A man oughta do what he thinks is right.” Too often I see people who don’t care, and that’s not the John Wayne mythos. That part I like.

That’s not enough. He’s not my role model. He shouldn’t be an ideal. John Wayne falls short because he doesn’t fully understand power. He generates power through his own vigor and individual acts. Take a scene from “Hondo”, where a young boy cannot swim. Raised solely by his mother who was never able to teach him, the boy was afraid of the water. Hondo, in true John Wayne manner, picks up the lad and flings him out in the middle of a pond. And guess what? He swims. Had to. Or he would have drowned. Hondo’s act solved the problem, but not in the best way. There was no community and no emotion. There’s lots of power that The Duke neglects.

Zidane, Landis, Woods

Over July, I’ve been watching various sports in the morning – World Cup, Tour de France, British Open. Each one had a key star: Zinedane Zidane, Floyd Landis, Tiger Woods. Which star was most like John Wayne? Easy. Zidane. Taunted by an Italian with comments about his mother and terrorism, likely victim of a quick nipple rub, the French star decides to enact personal vengence in extra time of a World Final. He did what he thought was right. Of course, it neglected his team, and his country, and the world by helping the Italians win. That was disappointing. Between the match fixing, a brutal dirty elbow, unattractive defensive play, and the constant reminders about submarines (Dive! Dive! Dive!), I was rooting for pretty much anyone over the Azzuri. Zidane was the strong righteous individualist, and look where it got him.

Let’s compare Floyd Landis, from my favorite event, the long bicycle race. For one thing, I love the last day; it’s a denouement, an epilogue, where He stood on the podium in Paris this morning, in yellow, after an experience very few men can imagine. His hip is broken. He fell eight minutes behind, then made an amazing charge the next day. A true individual victory, right? No. Landis has a team, seven other men to pace and protect him. On one climb, his teammate dropped back to pace him and gave away his water bottle. During his comeback, the amazing final day of the Alps, the team car handed out drinks and food while keeping him informed. Saturday morning, his coach rode the entire time trial course with Floyd before the race, learning the turns and corners. To win, Floyd needed help, a community. Not only did he take the help, he even made decisions to protect them. That’s strength, through leadership. And Landis won. No individualist could.

Finally, I come to Eldrick Woods, or Tiger as we know him. He’s the best golfer in the world right now. He might be the best golfer ever. He won the British Open this morning, a little after the Tour ended, so I caught both. What did he do? After holding strong through the four day tournament, he cried. Unabashed tears in his wife’s arms. It was not difficult to expect, given his actions after his father’s death. Yet it still was violent, completely and totally. Is it too weird for me to call it transcendently beautiful? Again, that’s totally not John Wayne, and another way where the movie star falls short. He could never do that.

A John Wayne Moment

There are still times for John Wayne moments. Let me provide an example. At poker Friday night, after the game (which I did not win, due to bad luck and mistakes), a friend-of-friend decided that a young lady’s mouth needed his tongue. This was not a good call, and it was worse the second time. The lady and her roommmate find me and the host, and ask us to do something. The kid is in decent physical shape, but that’s mostly for looks; I’m stronger, plus he’s only about 5’8″. Most importantly, I’m sober. Things accelerate towards messy when he decided that the top of my head needed to meet his lips. Fortunately, I didn’t have to enforce justice, as (perhaps helped by our host) the boy reached a state where his stomach needed to return some liquor. I suspect it hurt more the next morning.

Times like Friday night are why people exult John Wayne. Sometimes a man has to ride into town and defend the virtue of a lady. See, it’s True! Yet those times don’t appear very often. Furthermore, some of those times the result looks like Zidane’s; honor is preserved, but the main goal is lost. Far more common are situations like Landis, where a whole community needs to focus to achieve the goal. And while riding in looks strong, the fullness of power comes from accepting and channeling emotion, like Tiger. The myth of John Wayne isn’t good enough. It’s a shame the normative conservatives cling to it. There are more and better ways to do what’s right.

About Adam

My quest is a world where calling someone "virtuous like a fairy tale hero" is routine, not fantastic or ironic. My vocation is the teaching and learning of statistics. My dream is a long happy life with a wonderful wife and kids. Who knows if any will become true? More information is at my homepage on the twelvefruits network:
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One Response to The Myth of John Wayne

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