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The Real Wayne

On a movie set many years ago, actress Geraldine Page found herself seated between actor Ward Bond, an enforcer of the blacklist of communists then raging in Hollywood, and his friend, the conservative actor John Wayne. Page was only accustomed to being around her fellow show business liberals, so she listened to the two men’s conservative views with a sense of “horror.” But as the conversation went on, she developed a marginally more favorable view of Wayne, whom she called a “reactionary for all sorts of non-reactionary reasons.”

“I swear that if John Wayne ever got transplanted out of this circle of people that are around him all the time,” said Page, “he would be the most anti-reactionary force for . . . good.”

Such distinctions were not made by liberal lawmakers in Sacramento recently. The California legislature voted down a Republican lawmaker’s proposal for a “John Wayne Day” for the state of California, declaring Wayne beyond the pale because of his support for the House Un-American Activities Committee and the John Birch Society.

On the surface, they would seem to have a case. Wayne did support the blacklist against movie-industry communists, saying, for example, that he never regretted running screenwriter Carl Foreman out of the country. He did support Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (R-Wis.) sloppy and self-serving statements about communists in government. And he indeed was a member of the John Birch Society, a bookish (which is to say nonviolent) but undeniably zany group that entertained conspiracy theories about who controlled the levers of the U.S. government. He also supported the U.S. defense of South Vietnam, which was under siege by guerrillas supplied by the communist North Vietnamese.

The liberals in the California legislature also charged racism, citing a 1971 interview Wayne gave to Playboy magazine in which he said: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.”

Well. A few other things also need to be considered. One is that the man was admired by Rightwingers and Leftwingers alike as being among the most reasonable anticommunists. Also that he was married three times to Mexican wives, and cared about the dignity of Native Americans. (He was against their living on reservations because this was to consign them to a crippling “cradle-to-grave socialism.”)

On screen, in supposedly reactionary films like Big Jim McClain (1951), he championed America’s melting pot (particularly in the armed services) as the best defense against communist encroachment. In that movie, it was the communist spies who were racist (Wayne clobbered one of them for using the “n” word in reference to black people). Denounced by the Old Left and the New Left as a World War II draft evader (a charge repeated in the 2015 movie Trumbo), he in actuality did try to enlist. He begged the director John Ford, a close friend, to let him into Ford’s military unit, but was threatened with a lawsuit by Republic Pictures if he walked away from his contract.

This “radical fringe” figure supported the postwar Hollywood blacklist because he saw industry communists keeping conservative writers, such as the Pulitzer Prize winner Morrie Ryskind, from working (Ryskind never got another writing credit after he testified in 1947 about communists’ growing strength in Tinseltown’s labor unions and other institutions), and not for any personal benefit.

A helpful enforcer of the anti-Red blacklist, he was nevertheless acknowledged to be part of the “liberal” wing of the Right because he welcomed ex-communists such as the director Edward Dymtryk back into the fold. In fact he was castigated by the arch-conservative gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for this. What Hopper and others in her camp wanted was a “once a communist, always a communist” policy toward those who broke with the CPUSA. Wayne defied the hardliners by trying to get Dymtryk work in Hollywood. Those caught in the middle of a bad, and a very complicated, situation had his sympathy. An actor who was traumatized by having to testify before HUAC, Larry Parks, was denounced by the communists but the Duke felt sorry for him and understood his reluctance to inform on his friends.

Wayne’s anticommunism was mixed with not just patriotism but an inclination to defend the underdog. This was never more evident than when he witnessed antiwar activists in 1965 heckling an armless soldier. It wasn’t so much the administration in Washington he stood for, but the rank-and-file soldier who had done his duty. He took the soldier’s part because of his wound. Confronting the protesters, he yelled: “You stupid bastards! Blame Johnson if you must; blame that sonofabitch Kennedy; blame Eisenhower or Truman or g— d— Roosevelt, but don’t blame that kid [who] served. Jesus, the kid’s arm is gone!”

Wayne could also recoil from extremes on the Right. His membership in the John Birch Society was after all quite brief. He quit over its claim that President Eisenhower was a Soviet mole. His feeling about the war in Vietnam was sensible, not kneejerk: that the United States should actually win it or get out (a position that LBJ never took, with a military quagmire being the infamous result).

He was willing to be generous to liberals, praising JFK for having begun, near the end of his life, to honor his commitments to anticommunist countries. A Nixon supporter, Wayne nonetheless responded to the Watergate scandal by expressing his disgust for the President’s “enemies’ list.” (Other conservatives such as William F. Buckley did the same.)

John Wayne was the possessor of a bedrock decency that came across plainly on the movie screen. Once, when the script called for his character to shoot a villain in the back, Wayne stated that he didn’t do that—this when the cinematic fashion of the time was Clint Eastwood mowing them down front and back.

He was also a profile in courage when it came to the mess in Vietnam. When he advocated fighting to win—bombing Hanoi—or withdrawing, it was in the context of American liberals’  and moderates’ temporizing with suggestions like that of Bobby Kennedy, the former hawk who said why not put North Vietnamese communists in a coalition government along with the South Vietnamese. Wayne was no temporizer. He ventured into hostile territory—the Harvard student body—risking thrown fruit (a snowball hit him as he rode into the campus on a tank). Questioned by a jeering crowd, he eventually won them over not because of his political stances—he shared with them his view that women should stay home and take care of their families—but because of his fearlessness and honesty.

The Duke’s anti-feminist statements notwithstanding, discerning film commentators such as Renata Adler and Peter Bogdanovich detected a respect for women in his films. And this was validated in real life. The network reporter and news anchor Barbara Walters, for example, had disturbed the equanimity of male anchors, who jealously guarded their turf, but here was her friend John Wayne, sending Walters a note of encouragement: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Lauren Bacall, his costar in The Shootist (1976), noted his gallantry. A fervent liberal, she recalled that Wayne was courteous, and “never backed me against the wall.” (She meant politically.)

Thus, what we have here is someone who adds up to a whole lot more than the racist reactionary punching bag of the liberals of his time and ours. Let the record show that controversial Hollywood figures are sometimes accorded honors long after their passing: The University of Colorado dedicated a “Free Speech” fountain to the memory of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, in spite of—or, given the academic climate today, perhaps because of—his fervent support of Josef Stalin, and his defense of the Nazi invasion of France.

Obviously that example demonstrates that, unless the political correlation of forces undergoes a sea change, John Wayne will likely not end up getting his day. For the contemporary Left, the comic book version of Wayne-the-villain has traveled well.

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