John Wayne was an overcompensating pawn — if you take The Atlantic’s word for it.
Reviewing Nancy Shoenberger’s book, “Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero” in this month’s issue of the once-great magazine, Stephen Metcalf soliloquizes on the two icons of early American cinema: director John Ford and his protegé: The Duke himself.
Ford was a manic, closeted homosexual, Metcalf implies. Wayne, a “hollow” shell of a propaganda stunt: a bumbling buffoon used naively to propel the myth of American masculinity on the big screen.
“The actor’s persona was inextricable from the toxic culture of Cold War machismo,” Metcalf writes.
I disagree. A “hollow icon of masculinity” Wayne was not.
Ford and Wayne made 23 movies together, including icons like “Stagecoach,” “The Searchers” and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Together, they redefined the classic Western, and, for generations of American boys, created a character we all wanted to be: The Duke.
The Duke was truly awesome. Tough but tender. Strong and empathetic. A cowboy who slugged the bad guys and took off his hat in the presence of a lady.
In “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” Wayne was a Marine sergeant who taught us that, “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”
In “True Grit,” he taught us how to take up lost causes, defend the innocent – and thunder a horse across a field with the reigns in your mouth all while while slinging a rifle at evil Ned Pepper.
In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he taught us how to fight for those who couldn’t fend for themselves – and then take none of the credit.
It wasn’t all whiskey and brawls either. “In Old California” saw The Duke walk into a bar and order a glass of milk, “plain, no rum.”
None of this, of course, corresponds with today’s cultural hipsterdom – where beta-male elites ask you about your feelings and trivialities are treated as championship-worthy accomplishments, (so long as you post it to Instagram) — and Metcalf makes sure you know it.
“How John Ford turned a bland kid (Wayne) into a hollow masculine icon,” reads the article’s subtitle.
And on he goes.
“Ford was terrified of his own feminine side,” Metcalf writes. “So he foisted a longed-for masculinity on Wayne. A much simpler creature than Ford, Wayne turned this into a cartoon, and then went further and politicized it.”
Metcalf babbles on, arguing that Wayne and Ford crafted The Duke’s machismo in order to compensate for their own insecurities, and then used that character to propagate an “ultra-patriotic” and “cartoon” version of masculinity.
It is obvious, halfway through the article, that patriotism and masculinity are traits The Atlantic’s writer clearly holds in disdain. (RELATED: The Eclipse Is Racist Because It Fails To Affect Enough Black People, The Atlantic Suggests)
Metcalf’s review would have you believe Wayne and Ford were insecure, effeminate men who made “propaganda, not art” to compensate for their closeted feelings, and concocted “ultra-patriotic” characters to fit a “scene of masculinity…stripped of utility and endowed with dubious political karma.”
Later, he suggests that Ford was gay.
The writing is so arrogant and overblown by snobbish, pretentious platitudes — about Ford being in touch with his inner femininity, etc. — that, by the end, it’s hard to tell what exactly the author wants you to glean. Basically, The Atlantic’s message appears to be: John Wayne was a phony, John Ford was gay and masculinity is a charade.
As for me, I’ll choose to remember John Wayne for his work — for who he actually was and what he actually said, on the screen and off.
I’ll remember The Duke for the boyhood hero he was, for the roles he brought to life and the rowdy, loud, saddle-up manhood his characters inspired.
I’ll remember watching the old movies with my brother on my grandma’s VCR in the basement after Thanksgiving dinners. I’ll remember the boyhood brawls he inspired, the protective instincts he instilled, and – to my mother’s chagrin – the false alcoholism he gave rise to in me and my younger brother, as we’d sit at the kitchen counter, taking shots of apple juice from old jelly jars, pounding the empty glasses back on the counter, wiping our mouths and hollering, “Pour me another!”
We were just a couple of cowboys after all, just having a couple stiff drinks before we’d hit the trail: Just some afternoon in Cincinnati in reality, yes — but in our imaginations, another night at the ol’ saloon in Rio Grande.
We’d howl and wrestle and holler our favorite John Wayne lines:
“The bar is open!”
“That’s my steak, Valance. I said you pick it up.”
“Listen here, pilgrim.”
“Alright, saddle up!”
And our personal favorite, from “True Grit”: “Ned, fill your hands, you son of a bitch!”
We always had to mumble that last part. The apple juice whiskey Mom would abide. The swearing, she would not.
So, in the spirit of The Duke, Metcalf and The Atlantic can go to hell. I’ll take John Wayne at his word. And I’ll judge him, as men do, by his work – rather than by the inferences of a piece designed to pander to the current cultural zeitgeist of confused sexuality and feelings above fact.
The fact is: Wayne was a damn good cowboy who opened up the boyhood imaginations of generations, encouraged us to embrace the suck, walk with swagger, and shoot it straight. He was a hell of a lot of fun. His movies made us feel alive and wild, strong and free. I’d even say that in small ways, these old Westerns shaped our very character — for the better.
In the end, I don’t need to defend The Duke. He could always do that himself.
I imagine him reading Metcalf’s article, slapping his gun belt, tossing the rag magazine back across the table – cracking that sideways grin, and saying, in that classic voice:
“I am old. Had my back broke once and my hip twice — and on my worst day I could beat the hell outta you.” (That is from “The Cowboys.”)
Then he’d saunter on over to the door, turn back one more time, and offer the fool a piece of classic Duke advice:
“Pilgrim,” he’d say. “Life is tough. It’s tougher when you’re stupid.”
Ben Liebing is a freelance writer from Cincinnati, Ohio.