Is John Wayne Dangerous?
|During the hippie rage of the 1960s, it
became fashionable to disparage John Wayne as the model of manhood, just
as, in the gay-oriented 1090s, it has been fashionable to ridicule the
Ozzie-and-Harriet model of the happy family. The Wayne paradigm of the
virile warrior has been replaced by the sensitive, vulnerable, peace-loving,
ironic male more congenial to intellectuals and feminists.
Yet even in the heyday of the New Male, John Wayne, dead these 18 years, remains Americas most popular male movie star. Waynes durability is astonishing, writes Garry Wills, though it does not impress our societys elite.
In his new book, John Waynes America,
Yet what kind of country,
As usual, Garry Wills is thoughtful and provocative, full of insights but oddly blind to the obvious. He analyzes Waynes underrated acting skill with genuine appreciation. (I must say he likes Wayne much more than I ever did.) His book bristles with names never before juxtaposed with Waynes: Michelangelo and Donatello, Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Dreiser, Homer and Shakespeare. But one name is tellingly absent: Bill Clinton.
By now most literate people know that John Wayne was really Marion Morrison, whose private life was less heroic than his screen image. He notoriously went to some lengths to avoid military service during World War II, even as he played the courageous soldier on the screen.
But of course its the screen image that counts.
And Wayne is essentially different from other icons. Clint Eastwood is the obvious analogy: he too represents contempt for city life, reliance on guns, and the anti-institutional spirit. But his screen persona is not only more violent than Waynes, but more verbally cruel and cynical. His signature line Go ahead; make my day (addressed to a punk who is threatening to blow a womans head off) could never have been spoken by Wayne.
Wayne was willing to die on screen, but not to shoot a man in the back. Machiavelli, to drop another Italian name, divided rulers into lions, who rule by strength, and foxes, who rule by guile. Wayne played the lion. The New Male is a fox.
With a certified New Male in the White House, Wayne has a nostalgic appeal he lacked when the lion was the norm.
Part of the reason Wayne seems anachronistic is that he put a premium on honor. That extended to his treatment of women. Of course in his generation chastity was mandatory on the screen; but all the same, its part of Waynes appeal that his grouchy flirtations with womenfolk, however repellent to feminists, were basically respectful. They never approached the libidinous norm of todays pop culture.
There is much to be said against the false simplicity of John Waynes moral universe, and
We can turn
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