On John Wayne, Cancel Culture, and the Art of Problematic Artists

Wrestling with the Legacy of an American Icon

I. The Poetics of Hatred

A man and his wife name their son John Wayne. At the baby shower the wife’s best friend pulls her aside: “Maybe it’s not my place to say it, but I just can’t believe you’d name your boy after a racist, a misogynist, a homophobe.” “Oh Deb,” the wife says, patting her friend on the shoulder, “you should know us better than that. We’d never name him after that John Wayne. We’re naming him after John Wayne Gacy.”

The joke, of course, is that Wayne is so out of favor in certain pockets of contemporary culture—particularly those vocal online—that a child-molesting, child-murdering clown could somehow be less problematic than the iconic Western actor.

In February of this year, an onslaught of twitter users declared Wayne “cancelled” when they discovered what many of us already knew: that the actor had a pretty extensive record of heinous views and shameful deeds. The tumult began with a tweet by a screenwriter named Matt Williams on the evening of February 17th: “Jesus fuck, John Wayne was a straight up piece of shit.” Williams accompanied those words with screenshots of Wayne’s infamous 1971 Playboy interview. The tweet went viral.

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In that interview from almost half a century ago, Wayne called the movie Midnight Cowboy “perverted” because it’s “a story about two fags.” He argued in favor of this nation’s abhorrent treatment of the Native American peoples: “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” He also said this doozy of a statement: “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.”

I woke up on February 18th to the unlikely event of Wayne trending on Twitter. I must admit to being shocked by the outrage: yes—surprise, surprise—the actor who was a member of the John Birch Society, a cheerleader for the Vietnam War, a supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and an advocate for the Hollywood Blacklist was more a font of vile beliefs than a pillar of progressive values. You don’t say! How did anyone who knew enough of Wayne to care about this not already know these things about him?

But perhaps I unfairly assume a certain cultural knowledge and literacy about Wayne because I’ve been wrestling with him—the man, the actor, the icon—for much of my adult life. I am currently writing a novel in which Wayne is not exactly a character but a looming presence. It’s about a gay man on a roadtrip with his dog during a climate catastrophe. The purpose of the character’s crosscountry drive is to spread his father’s ashes at the sites where various classic Westerns were filmed. It’s not autobiographical—for one, my dad is very much alive—but its central character does share more than a passing resemblance to my reality: I am gay, I have roadtripped crosscountry numerous times with my dog, and I share with my dad a love of Westerns.

Wayne is at least partially at fault for our inability to see the ambiguity in him. His persona is built upon a fraudulent certainty—well-crafted, but specious.

Jimmy Stewart is one of my dad’s favorite Western actors, so Stewart’s collaborations with director Anthony Mann are standards in our home. My dad loves the 1952 classic, Bend of the River, where Stewart plays an ex-outlaw named Glyn McLyntock—a “rotten apple” trying to go the straight and narrow. “When an apple’s rotten, there’s nothing you can do except throw it away, or it’ll spoil the whole barrel,” one character says to McLyntock, as illustration that people can’t change. “There’s a difference between apples and men,” he responds, hoping against hope that he’ll be the evidence of his own claim—of course, by film’s end, everyone acknowledges that he is. With outstanding performances by Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, and closeted screen legend Rock Hudson, Bend of the River speaks directly to my dad’s core belief in man’s essential goodness.

I prefer Mann’s film of the following year, The Naked Spur, where Stewart plays a bounty hunter whose mission to capture a murderer starts as a seemingly noble pursuit but, as he begins to slowly unravel, devolves into a more sordid affair. “Throughout most of The Naked Spur, Stewart is as unsympathetic as the villain,” Mark Frankel writes for Turner Classic Movies. “In one scene, Stewart uses his gun to beat an Indian to death and his vengeful demons keep him beating the man until long after his death is apparent. Not until John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers would audiences see a Western hero more tortured, more possessed of hatred.”

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The maniacal greed of Stewart’s character, Howard Kemp, renders him more anti-hero than hero, but there’s enough sympathetic backstory and inevitable redemption that my dad can find something lovable and respectable in Kemp. (It probably helps that he’s played by Stewart, whose kind face, stammering cadence, and ineffable charm always remind me and my dad of my dad’s dad—a hero in the Malone household.)

Though my dad does like a handful of John Wayne Westerns, he’s always been a little tepid when it comes to The Searchers, which is often called the greatest Western of all time—and is my favorite of the genre. My dad likes to root for pure heroes. If he must root for an anti-hero, by the end of the picture they better have gone all Bend of the River or The Naked Spur and unrotted their apple. My dad remembers Ethan Edwards, Wayne’s character in The Searchers, as “kind of an asshole.” He’s not wrong.

Filmmaker Martin Scorsese has Edwards’ number when he calls the character a “poet of hatred.” One of the best examples of this hateful poetry comes when Edwards and his men stumble upon a dead Comanche warrior. Edwards shoots the corpse in both eyes. “What good did that do ya?” the Reverend Sam Clayton asks. “By what you preach: none. By what that Comanche believes: ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the winds.” Scorsese notes that Edwards “hates Comanches so much that he actually has bothered to learn their beliefs in order to violate them.”

This foundational aspect of the character metastasizes through our knowledge of Wayne’s own prejudices and antipathies. Ford used Wayne to introduce what was—in 1956, at the time of the film’s release—a relatively new tract for a Western to take: the idea that the poetry of the West, both in word and deed, had always been a poetics of hatred. Jimmy Stewart, great actor though he was, would have been the wrong man around whom to build such an unsettling film. The Searchers needs John Wayne; it needs its “poet of hatred.”

 

II. Bones in the Ground & Still Shaping Our Dreams

“A Texican is nothin’ but a human man way out on a limb, this year and next, maybe for a hundred more,” Mrs. Jorgensen says to Edwards and her husband Lars in The Searchers. “But I don’t think it’ll be forever. Someday this country’s gonna be a fine good place to be. Maybe it needs our bones in the ground before that time can come.”

As of last week, the bones of John Wayne have been in the ground for forty years. He died of cancer on June 11th, 1979, and his funeral was held four days later at a church in the Southern California seaside community one town over from where I was raised. Though his grave was initially left unmarked, for fear of vandals, it now has an engraving of a man on horseback, riding through Monument Valley, the iconic landscape where The Searchers was filmed. It reads: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.” Where does this poetic epitaph come from? That very same 1971 Playboy interview.

Immediately after his death, Orange County changed the name of their airport to John Wayne Airport. The resolution proclaiming the name change called Wayne a “man of humility, of honesty, and a hero of the American West… a symbol to the world of the traditional American values.” A few years later, the year before I was born, the airport unveiled a bronze statue of Wayne. “Some of our national spirit shows up in the monuments we erect, the large ones and the small ones,” Wayne says in the documentary short, The Challenge of Ideas. The first time I flew in a plane as a young child I passed by that monument, which seemed so large next to my boy body, not yet knowing how this man my dad sometimes watched in Westerns might loom over my life and work.

Joan Didion famously claimed, “When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” What was true for Didion is true for me. None of the facts of his life—not his most abhorrent comments, not his disgust at my sexual proclivities, not his political ideology which stands in stark contrast to my own—could possibly change that.

I find myself overcome by the same sensations and challenged by the same questions as filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who upon seeing The Searchers asked: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding Barry Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when he sweeps Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”

It’s a question I never expect to answer. It doesn’t bother me, my messy relationship with Wayne, filled with love and loathing, disgust and respect, awe and awkwardness, ambivalence and uncertainty—though I find myself increasingly alone in this position. More and more people seem to want their artists to be free of such complications, imperfections, and uglinesses.The debate about these “problematic” figures is often framed with an insufficient question: “Should we separate the art from the artist?” It’s a question that will separate your peers like a wide frontier ravine, but the truth is that both sides of the argument, in different ways, misunderstand how art functions.

“When John Wayne rode through my childhood, and very probably through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams.” –Joan Didion

The idea that one can or should separate the art from the artist pretends that art exists in a vacuum, that what is on the page or screen has nothing to do with the hand that put it there, that the artist’s desires and dreams as well as their prejudices and complexities don’t seep into every word and image.

On the other hand, the argument that we should judge a work by the sins of its creator reeks of puritanical righteousness and moral certitude. No work of art exists that wasn’t created by some complicated creature. Of course, not every artist believes in white supremacy or the perversity of homosexuality, as Wayne admitted to in that Playboy interview, but the true tests of our convictions are always at the fringes. No artist is free of moral, social, and political imperfections. This is partially because we’re all ugly, messy beings, but it is also because moral, social, and political imperfections vary depending upon the person, place, time, and culture doing the judging.

When forming our literary, cinematic, and artistic canons, it’s important to remember that if you want a canon of saints, you’ll end up with a canon of zero. Rather than recoil from an artist’s grotesqueries and let them destroy otherwise interesting and nuanced work, or rather than hold an artist at arm’s length and pretend there’s an impenetrable wall that separates creator and creation, embracing the bramble of imperfections and idiosyncrasies of an artist tends to make the work prick with even more strangeness and complexity, mystery and negative capability. Not only is an artistic canon of saints untenable, but it’s undesirable.

By canceling and deplatforming artists, even when we feel morally and historically justified to do so, aren’t we in some way mirroring Wayne at his worst? As a vocal supporter of the Hollywood Blacklist, Wayne too at times fought for other artists to be silenced because of their beliefs and deeds. These actions may not be alike in degree, but aren’t they at least alike in kind? I possess neither the moral authority nor the ideological certainty necessary to feel comfortable determining who gets to have a platform and what ideas should be out of bounds—and I’m wary of anyone who claims they do. I concede that may be my failing.

 

III. Print the Legend?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, released six years after The Searchers, is often called Ford’s last great Western. The film brings together two of the most legendary Western actors, Wayne and Stewart, and each takes on a role that perfectly highlights their differences. Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, the tough loner rancher who, when Lee Marvin’s sadistic Liberty Valance comes to town, boasts, “Liberty Valance is the toughest man south of the Picketwire—next to me.” Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer who stands up to Valance, and takes a beating for it. He refuses to carry a gun. He means to defeat Valance by bringing law and order to the town of Shinbone.

The film uses a framing device where an older Stoddard, who has become a senator and has traveled all the way from Washington to attend the funeral of Doniphon, explains to a journalist why he has made the trek to pay his respects to some lonely rancher. The majority of the film’s narrative is Stoddard’s story in flashback. Over the course of the film, the journalist learns (as we do alongside him) that though Stoddard became governor and later senator on the strength of his reputation as “the man who shot Liberty Valance,” the truth is that he did no such thing. It was Doniphon who shot the villainous Valance. After Stoddard has told his story—the story we watch unfold on screen—the journalist, realizing that Stoddard’s whole life is built upon a myth, decides to throw his interview notes into a fire. “When the legend becomes fact,” the journalist says, “print the legend.”

That line has a life of its own now. It’s likely more famous than the film it comes from. Robert Frost once warned readers to beware of a poem’s “detachable statements.” If we take them as the moral or theme of the work of art they come from without further contextual analysis, we chance misunderstanding the whole. The well-known final lines of Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” like this line near the close of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, misdirect the uncareful critic.

The previous two hours of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance undermine the movie’s most famous line. The journalist in the film may choose not to publish the truth and instead “print the legend,” but the plot of the entire film was the truth that won’t be publicized. The story that has entertained us, intoxicated us, challenged us—the one we’ve sat through for two hours—is not the legend the journalist upholds, but the truth he burns and buries. Of course, as a fictional film, the purported truth in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a legend too. Ay, there’s the rub: the truth and the legend are as inextricable from one another as the art is from the artist. We are fascinated with the weave that binds them more than we are with either on their own.

The weave of Wayne begins in Winterset, Iowa, where a boy named Marion Morrison was born on May 26th, 1907. He then moved with his family to California—first Palmdale, then Glendale. As a young man, he dropped out of USC after a body surfing injury lost him his football scholarship. He went to work as a prop boy and extra for director John Ford and actor Tom Mix. He met Wyatt Earp at this time, who had left Tombstone, got outta Dodge, and became a consultant on some of the early Hollywood Westerns.

When the young actor finally got what was meant to be his big break in 1930 with a starring role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, the studio made him change his name. Marion was “too feminine,” they claimed. Walsh suggested “Anthony Wayne,” after a Revolutionary War general, but the studio rejected it as sounding “too Italian.” Walsh then suggested “John Wayne,” which was accepted by the studio, apparently without consulting young Marion Morrison. The film flopped, but it gave birth to something that would eventually overshadow it: the figure of John Wayne. Still in its nascency, this figure was rough around the edges, but there was something there, the grist of some greater icon in the offing.

“When I started, I knew I was no actor,” Wayne admitted later on in life, “and I went to work on this Wayne thing. It was as deliberate and studied a project as you’ll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint, and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not.”

For the rest of the 30s, Wayne toiled in low budget B-movies“Poverty Row Westerns” as they became knownuntil he finally got his break when Ford, with whom he’d become quite friendly, cast him in Stagecoach at the end of the decade. Ringo Kid, Wayne’s character, doesn’t appear onscreen until 17 minutes into the film, but Ford gave him a grand entrance. “Hold it!” he shouts, as he spins a rifle round his finger like it’s a pistol and the camera zooms in on his still boyish face, which somehow already sports Wayne’s trademark furrowed brow. Wayne steals the show in what was meant to be an ensemble film.

He had finally made it, but World War II would potentially ruin his strides toward stardom. Many of Wayne’s contemporaries left Hollywood to enlist: Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, etc. Fonda claimed, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” But that’s exactly what Wayne did want. He received deferments and starred in numerous war pictures. He told Ford, who served with the Office of Strategic Services, that he wanted to enlist, but he kept postponing until he finished the next picture.

Ford would never let Wayne live down the fact that he didn’t serve. Pilar Wayne, the actor’s third wife, explained, “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.” Though the lack of service should have dismantled some of the image Wayne erected over the years, the general public didn’t seem to notice or care. Wayne remained the era’s ultimate image of a man’s man, a hero, a patriot.

As writer Anne Helen Petersen explains, “When a detail of Wayne’s life didn’t fit his image, the myth simply assimilated it. That’s the thing about myths—once we become invested in them, we become adept at explaining, rationalizing, or forgetting any detail that doesn’t fit.”

He may have made the wrong choice for his conscience in choosing not to enlist, but he made the right choice for his career. Throughout the 1940s and early 50s, Wayne appeared in many war films and Westerns: They Were Expendable, Tycoon, Red River, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Rio Grande, Hondo. Though he himself only played at war and the Wild West, he became one of the most bankable stars in these genres. Wayne was always playing Wayne, with only slight adjustments made to accommodate a character’s particulars.

Because of this, the public’s image of Wayne was the American equivalent of the “knight errant,” a wanderer in the West, searching the mesas for chivalrous adventures. Moviegoers went to a Wayne movie to see Wayne do Wayne. He was, according to Ronald Reagan, “more than an actor; he was a force around which films were made.” Like Tom Mix before him, Wayne was the Western, but the genre was changing.

Wayne was responsible for some of these changes: “Before I came along it was standard practice that the hero must always fight clean,” Wayne admitted. “The heavy was allowed to hit the hero in the head with a chair or throw a kerosene lamp at him or kick him in the stomach, but the hero could only knock the villain down politely and then wait until he rose. I changed all that. I threw chairs and lamps. I fought hard and I fought dirty. I fought to win.”

If most early Westerns rode in the familiar well-worn wagon ruts of the entrenched mythos of manifest destiny and the simplistic moral certainties of American idealism—heroic settlers daunted by savage “Injuns,” virtuous men taming a godless frontier, white hats vs. black hats—by the mid-50s the Western was beginning to go through an identity crisis. The genre was at its peak of popularity—in fact, more than a third of the films made in Hollywood at the time were Westerns—but this center of American iconography could not hold. The casual racism of many early Westerns became less easy to overlook. Westward expansion became harder to film with such rosy-colored lenses. The era of so-called “Revisionist Westerns” (which would keep the genre alive in the 60s and 70s) was still a few years off, but the revisions were already starting.

In 1955, Wayne and Ford returned to Monument Valley, where they had first collaborated on Stagecoach, to film a new Western. Glenn Frankel, author of The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, explains that “Ford could have found someone else to star in The Searchers: Kirk Douglas, then coming into his prime, lobbied hard for the role. But from the beginning John Ford wanted only Wayne—and John Wayne reported for duty.” The Searchers needed both of its principals, Ford and Wayne; the film would wrestle with the oeuvres of each man and integrate the psychological darkness that had pervaded the recent Mann-Stewart collaborations into the classic Ford-Wayne aesthetic.

 

IV. Wayne’s World! Parting Time! Excellent!

The Searchers was inspired by the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who in 1836, at the age of nine years old, was kidnapped by Comanche warriors when they raided her family’s home. James W. Parker, the girl’s uncle, spent years obsessively searching for his niece. After over two decades with the Comanches, in which she married a war chief and had multiple children, she was “rescued” by Texas Rangers who took her back to her family and to white society against her will.

In The Seachers, a young girl named Debbie is captured in a Comanche raid, much like Parker had been. Her uncle, Ethan Edwards, whom the script calls “a man as hard as the country he is crossing,” spends a decade searching for her with her adopted brother, Martin Pawley. The racism of Edwards targets his travel companion as well. Though Edwards was the one who found and rescued Pawley when he was a baby, after his family had been slaughtered in a raid, he continually taunts Pawley for being part Cherokee and reminds him that Debbie isn’t even his real sister, that he has “no kin.”

Edwards hates Native Americans—and in particular the Comanche—so much that we’re never quite sure if he’s searching for Debbie in order to rescue her and bring her back home or in order to kill her (which, in his head, warped as it is by racism, is also a form of saving her, for she is now tainted by bedding with a Comanche “buck”).

But Edwards isn’t all acid. He sometimes shows affection too, even if it’s always the more stoic brand that would be acceptable to hard men on the frontier. He gains the respect of the viewer because he’s a figure we’re used to respecting—he’s John Wayne! American hero!—but there’s a disturbing substrate to this esteem we give him. What has he done to earn it?

“The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema,” according to Martin Scorsese. This is because “he’s of a piece with Wayne’s persona and his body of work with Ford and other directors like Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway.” He’s once again just Wayne playing Wayne, yet he’s different somehow, pushed to extremes, become Ahab. Even the tyrannical Tom Dunson of Red River feels tame by comparison.

In one of his early Poverty Row Westerns from 1934, Blue Steel, Wayne’s character, John Carruthers, enters a hotel secretly. The hotel gets robbed and the sheriff thinks the thief is Carruthers because there seems to be no other explanation for why he’s there in the first place—even the audience is left in the dark, though we know Carruthers didn’t commit the burglary. It’s not until the final lines of the film that we learn he’s a U.S. Marshall, an odd last minute reveal which leaves much of the mystery of his character still unsolved.

But Edwards in The Searchers is even more of a mystery than Carruthers; indeed, more so than all of the previous iterations of the Wayne figure. We know very little about him: he served in the Confederacy, he refused to surrender, but he’s been gone for years before the opening scene of the film, doing Lord knows what. Is he a thief? A soldier of fortune? A bounty hunter? An adventurer? Does he secretly love his brother’s wife? Does she secretly love him? Have they ever consummated this affair? Could Debbie possibly be his daughter rather than his niece? How does he know so much about the Comanche? Why does he have such hatred for them? Why is he so cruel to the young boy he once saved? Why doesn’t he want any credit for having saved him?

Screenwriter Frank Nugent claimed, “The picture never answered all the questions. We never meant that it should. But we drew a character of interest and speculation.”

The only way to come close to answering these questions and to analyzing the verses of this poet of hatred is to look at Ethan Edwards through his mirror image: Scar, the war chief of the Nawyecky Comanche. Both men are animated by hatred and revenge. Scar tells Edwards that his sons have been killed by white men. “For each son,” he says, “I take many scalps.” Edwards and Scar are using the same skewed arithmetic. Revenge is always manifold; there’s too much anger for a balanced equation. Hatred begets hatred. Violence begets violence. The cycle of savagery is “just as sure as the turning of the earth.”

Even Laurie Jorgensen, Martin Pawley’s love interest, shows this savagery. When her paramour refuses to give up the search for Debbie, she shouts, “Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He’ll put a bullet in her brain! And I tell you Martha would want him to!” It’s a shocking line from a character we assume not to be tainted by Edwards’ darkness. Frankel reminds us why Ford put in such a scene: “Ford wants to make clear that Ethan’s violent and racist obsession is not just his personal psychosis but the community norm; even our spunky Laurie—a young woman we are meant to admire and sympathize with throughout the film—is not immune.”

Yet for a film about hatred, violence, and savagery, there’s remarkably little bloodshed on screen. Filmmaker François Truffaut noticed: “In The Searchers, the camera always arrives after the battle is over, with John Ford’s train arriving late, to shoot the still-smoking ruins, still-warm corpses, and footprints or hoofprints.” Truffaut wrongly attributed this to budget concerns rather than concede it might have been by design. What Truffaut didn’t realize is that The Searchers is a film of ruins, where the tragedy has always already taken place. It reminds us that our myths and legends are tied to uglier truths, darker hearts, deadlier histories, infinite complications, perpetual decay.

At the end of The Searchers, after the iconic scene that made Godard cry, where Edwards lifts his niece, and says, “Let’s go home, Debbie,” they return to the Jorgensen homestead. Everyone goes inside to celebrate Debbie’s return, except Edwards. Ever the outsider, the searcher can’t enter the home, can’t pass the threshold. He delivers the girl that he trailed for ten years, now a woman, and sets off, once again framed by the door, as in the film’s opening shot, destination unknown.

If Jimmy Stewart’s characters, even the darker ones, have at their core an inextinguishable lightness, Wayne’s are often suffused with a darkness that can never quite be overcome.

“You’re left with a mystery,” Scorsese opines. “In this case, the mystery of a man who spends ten years of his life searching for someone, realizes his goal, brings her back, and then walks away. Only an artist as great as John Ford would dare to end a film on such a note. In its final moment, The Searchers suddenly becomes a ghost story. Ethan’s sense of purpose has been fulfilled, and like the man whose eyes he’s shot out, he’s destined to wander forever between the winds.”

If Jimmy Stewart’s characters, even the darker ones, have at their core an inextinguishable lightness, Wayne’s are often suffused with a darkness that can never quite be overcome. His real world darkness perhaps helps to infuse the characters with the right amount of rot. But there’s still something there that glints like gold, even in the darkness—hence why generations have been attracted to Wayne, men and women, white and non-white, straight and gay, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, stoic and sentimental. He’s entranced millions—many of whom, like me, couldn’t disagree more vehemently with his reactionary cruelty.

“I was always a John Wayne fan when I was younger,” radical left wing folk singer Phil Ochs said at a 1968 performance. “One of the dilemmas we have is that many of America’s greatest artists are very right wing and reactionary, and not very intelligent. But they’re truly great in their own mediums. I think that John Wayne is one of the greatest men ever to step in front of a camera.” It’s easy for those of us born after his death to forget the allure he had, but it’s still there in the pictures if you remain open to it.

Wayne ended that Playboy interview by saying that he hoped to be remembered as “an honest, kind, and fairly decent man,” but I think we should remember him instead as the Wayne figure’s most extreme version: Ethan Edwards, the complicated “poet of hatred,” who perpetually disappoints us and disgusts us, but also confuses us and inspires us, titillates us and lifts us up in his arms to take us home. “In truth, Wayne’s roles, and personal ideologies, were much more ambivalent, complicated, and nuanced in his opinions than popular memory allows,” writes Petersen.

Rock Hudson, for one, called Wayne “an angel” who “saved my life back when no other filmmaker wanted to know me” because Wayne had pushed for Hudson to be cast in The Undefeated when Hudson’s career was starting to lull, due in part to industry knowledge of his sexual orientation. Wayne said in private, “Who the hell cares if he’s a queer? It never bothered me. Life’s too short.”

Wayne is at least partially at fault for our inability to see the ambiguity in him. His persona is built upon a fraudulent certainty—well-crafted, but specious. Wayne may have embodied rugged manliness in the collective consciousness, but what makes Wayne captivating is that the masculine ideal he put forth was a knowing facade. Writer Stephen Metcalf notes that “masculinity (like the Western) is a by-product of nostalgia, a maudlin elegy for something that never existed—or worse, a masquerade that allows no man, not even John Wayne, to be comfortable in his own skin.”

Didion suggested that Wayne represents a world apart from our own world of “paralyzing ambiguities.” In “John Wayne’s world” there is certainty and freedom. That may be what the Wayne myth represents, but the Wayne reality is much different—and all the interest lies in the dialogue between the two. Wayne represents not an escape from our world of “paralyzing ambiguities” but the futility of such an escape. Any certainty is as imagined as our idyllic image of the West, for certainty always reveals prejudices, always becomes what it stands in opposition of, and ultimately is always infiltrated by paralyzing ambiguities. The more it resists these paralyzing ambiguities, the more they persist.

Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone
Tyler Malone is a writer based in Southern California. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Scofield as well as a Contributing Editor at Literary Hub. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, the LA Review of Books, and elsewhere.





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