JOHN WAYNE'S AMERICA
The Politics of Celebrity
By Garry Wills
Simon and Schuster, $26
Reviewed by THOMAS J. BILLITTERI
John Wayne was 16 years in the grave when his spirit appeared in a most unlikely place: at the top of a list of America's favorite movie stars. In a 1995 Harris poll, "The Duke" drew twice the votes of Mel Gibson and beat Clint Eastwood for No. 1.
What is it about Wayne _ and the American psyche _ that makes his movies, memory and machismo so revered? It's a question Garry Wills considers with brilliant insight in John Wayne's America. A Pulitzer Prize winner for Lincoln At Gettysburg, Wills takes an unusual tack in probing "Wayne-olatry." He writes a biography not of a man named Marion Morrison (Wayne's real name) but of "an idea."
That idea is this: that Wayne, even as a "mythical figure in a make-believe industry," had a profound impact on America's politics and policies. In his movie roles as frontier cowboy, Marine sergeant and Green Beret commando leader, Wayne not only helped shape the nation's Cold War and Vietnam-era ideologies, but came to symbolize America's image of itself _ non-conforming and individualistic, pushing for new frontiers, feared, fearless, patriotic and self-reliant.
Yet Wayne was also an avatar of America's conflicted and contradictory soul. Like the nation of the 1940s, '50s and '60s, with its checkered record of domestic equality and foreign involvements, Wayne was a contradiction in a cowboy hat: a big-striding man who symbolized the most sacred ideals of courage and justice, but one who shirked his own military duties and gravitated toward right-wing affiliations like the John Birch Society.
Wayne became so much a part of the American psyche, says Wills, that some would accuse him of helping start the Vietnam War; others would say America's foreign policy of the time suffered from "John Wayne syndrome," and the likes of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan would find inspiration in his lock-and-load screen persona.
"Wayne did not just have political opinions," writes Wills. "He embodied a politics; or his screen image did. It was a politics of large meanings, not of little policies _ a politics of gender (masculine), ideology (patriotism), character (self-reliance) and responsibility."
Wayne's politics also were characterized by an anti-intellectual, love-it-or-leave-it embrace of a mythic America. According to Wills, Wayne linked his making of The Alamo to the 1960 elections, arguing that true patriots should support Nixon, and he made The Green Berets as a personal statement supporting the Vietnam War.
But it was also a politics of bluster and mendacity that characterized Wayne' life on-screen and off. In World War II he put career ahead of duty, yet came to symbolize the martial ideals of bravery and authority in roles such as Sgt. Stryker in the Sands of Iwo Jima.
Wayne came conspicuously late to the ideological fight against communism and its vicious backlash against Hollywood in the Stalinist era. As Wills notes, "from 1939 to 1947, Wayne's name does not appear on any side of the struggle." When Wayne finally did get involved, it was to succeed Ward Bond as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a group that had aided the work of Hollywood _ harassing right-wingers on the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Even Wayne's image as a natural-born cowboy was confected.
"Wayne hated horses, was more accustomed to suits and ties than to jeans when he went into the movies, and had to remind himself to say "ain't.' He aspired, during the long courtship of his first wife, to join the social register set in Los Angeles," writes Wills. "Wayne was not born Wayne. He had to be invented."
Director Raoul Walsh, starring Wayne in an ill-fated movie called The Big Trail, was the first to render the Wayne persona. Other directors helped, too. But it was director John Ford, complex and manipulative and a central figure in Wills' book, whose alliance with Wayne shaped so much of the actor's popular image.
John Wayne's America is a masterful marriage of pop iconography and serious history, written by one of America's most gifted thinkers. Still, the book isn't perfect. If there is a weakness to the narrative, it is Wills' overly detailed exegesis of the plots and scenes of some of Wayne's and Ford's films.
Wills' intent is understandable _ Ford's artifice and Wayne's ideological image were forged through the nuances and small details of their movies. In places, however, the narrative and some of its embedded digressions border on the soporific.
And while Wills is largely successful at writing a biography of an "idea," his disinclination to cover certain details of Wayne's off-screen life, such as aspects of his marriages, naturally leaves the reader wanting to know more.
Still, this is a provocative and important book that is highly relevant to our own era of Hollywood hype and wanton spin control. It shows how history can never be separated from popular culture and the icons and myths it creates.
Thomas J. Billitteri, a former Times staffer, is a freelance journalist in McLean, Va.