John Wayne: The Hero We Need Now

Statue outside the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa. (Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)
He survived the crash of 1929 by working from dawn to dusk, always loving America and defending its founding principles.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A merica fits into John Wayne’s filmography, and this does not make America small. It makes John Wayne huge. The coronavirus has brought us back to the Wild West. Lonely lives, deserted streets, looks of distrust, and whiskey for throat disinfection; the scientific community has not made an official statement as yet, but it seems unlikely that anybody would try to deny the benefits of whiskey in the fight against almost everything. John Wayne, who would be 113 years old this month, would not be shocked by social alienation and a life of isolation. They are part of his trademark. Once again, as on 9/11, John Wayne symbolizes everything you need to overcome this crisis and get back on your feet: individual initiative, freedom, old-fashioned values, and patriotism. In other words, everything that someone like Bernie Sanders — as the new CEO of the unemployment and poverty home-delivery company, Joe Biden, Inc. — can’t supply

Like anyone who cherishes freedom, John Wayne was a steadfast anti-Communist. Stalin, the American Communists, and finally Mao Zedong would all try to kill him, an unusual strategy for drawing him to their cause. It’s a testament to his heroism that John Wayne survived three attacks, particularly because the only thing the Communists excel at is killing. When Wayne was visiting U.S. troops at the Chu Lai base in Vietnam, in the summer of 1966, and signing autographs for them, a Mao hitman lined him up in his sights and fired several shots. He missed them all. Later, the Duke said he didn’t know about the shooting until he saw the soldiers diving for cover. Impossible not to be reminded of his J. B. Books character: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

Over the years, Wayne developed an extraordinary nose for detecting Communists. On one occasion, during a shoot in the middle of the Cold War, he asked the film director Edward Dmytryk, “Are you a Commie?” Dmytryk answered: “If the masses of the American people want Communism, I think it’d be good for our country.” “Well, to me,” said the Duke, later recalling the exchange, “the word ‘masses’ is not a term generally used in Western countries, and I just knew he was a Commie.”

Wayne’s anti-Communism is no outdated sentiment. The coronavirus crisis is reviving the worst ghosts of Communism’s dehumanizing ideology: an overdose of regulations, massive surveillance, the presumption of guilt, venomous state paternalism, and economic aids that, although sometimes necessary, turn millions into passive citizens clinging helplessly to the public treasury. Don’t forget that in any crisis there is always some enlightened person saying, “Let’s give the whole world a salary and end poverty.” And then there’s always some damned party-pooper-son-of-a-hyena innocently asking, “And who’s going to pay for that?” More often than not, that damned party-pooper-son-of-a-hyena will be yours truly.

Wayne got it right; he drew no distinctions between liberals, socialists, and Communists. What separates Biden from Sanders is little more than a couple of bouts of sniffing a young girl’s hair and the occasional whoop. But the whole Left is marching toward the same precipice. Look at Venezuelan Chavism, Spanish socialism, European social democracy, or Cuban Communism. They are different degrees of the same project to annihilate individuality and strengthen the state. A brilliant P. J. O’Rourke wrote years ago (and it’s still true today), “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

John Wayne abhorred the masses, even his own following. This set him free to be critical, even of his own people. And there lies the difference between conservatives and progressives: individual thought. The conservative tends to value his own thought. The progressive believes in collective thought, ignoring that, in human nature, such a thing simply does not exist. There are global fevers, such as the gold rush or tulip mania; there’s widespread blindness, like the one afflicting so many Biden-loving reporters; there can also be a feeling that many people share, such as (in my case) an infatuation with tennis player Maria Sharapova. But there is no such thing as collective thinking.

Now that we’re looking for a vaccine against the coronavirus, it would be worth remembering that we also need a vaccine against Communism. Without Communism, we would not be searching for a vaccine, blindly, with no information about the origin of the disease. Without Communism, Xi Jinping would not be able to withhold crucial information about this pandemic. Without Communism, it is quite possible that the starving Chinese would never have dared to sink their teeth into a pangolin, but I admit that this is just my own theory; do not look for any scientific basis because I am still working on it, and, for the moment, the pangolin is refusing to cooperate.

In the face of the coronavirus crisis, the antidote comes in the form of a renewed patriotism. It is not a question of just waving a flag in an empty gesture. The patriotism we need is of the sort that the Duke displayed: content-rich Americanism based on old-fashioned values, practiced with vigor and including a heartfelt tribute to those who have died fighting for America’s common legacy. The alternative — meaningless flags divested of their values — has already been invented and is called Europe. And, sorry for the spoiler: It ends badly.

In one of the many memorable scenes from The Alamo, directed by John Wayne and left to us as his moral testament, Jocko proclaims, in the middle of a discussion about life after death: “I believe. I can never find a way to argue down you that don’t believe, but I believe in the Lord God Almighty. All-knowing and all-forgiving. I believe that Good shall be triumphant in the end and that evil shall be vanquished.” Then Bob adds, “Me, too. I figure a man’s got to believe in those things. . . . Does he want to believe in the good things about man — the real good things, like courage, honesty, and love?”

The whole movie is an ode to eternal virtues. In the end, conservatism is conservation. There’s nothing wrong with preserving the good. Wayne tells us we don’t have to be ashamed of safeguarding tradition. Always be wary of people who tell you they’ve just discovered the next best thing in life: the next best friend, the next best car, the next best destination. Distrust them as if they were teetotalers.

In the final years of his life, Wayne was caricatured as a gross, illiterate cowboy. The Left fears leaders who move millions. The Duke was one of these. But John Wayne’s biographers have fought to break the stereotype, showing that he was an educated man. He was a great conversationalist who loved to learn from others and an enthusiastic reader with an insatiable curiosity. He was always looking to form his own opinion. And this is another essential characteristic of the conservative. We do not respond well to instructions. We respond to criteria. Our own. And not at random. We form our own opinions, enriched by independent views in conservative outlets such as National Review. Other times, we poke our nose out the window and stare into the street or watch a classic Frank Capra movie.

In these days of crisis, a look back at the crash of 1929 can teach us a lot. That drama hit actors hard. John Wayne’s reaction was to team up with Nat Levine, producer of Mascot Pictures, and work tirelessly from dawn to well into the night. “We worked so hard on those shows that there was no time to think,” Wayne said in an interview in the 1970s. “A working day was 12 to 20 hours of work. I wasn’t hired to act,” he recalls, “but to survive.” I like the anecdote because it shows how John Wayne and the character of The Duke are merged. When necessary, he summoned his courage and walked for hours in solitude through the tedious wilderness of Mascot’s series.

Another stereotype about Wayne is that he was a doctrinarian. In reality, he was a free man. He believed deeply in the founding principles of America. That led him to write to President Carter, whom he opposed in every way but with whom he had a cordial epistolary relationship, to state his support for Panama in the Canal controversy. (Wayne’s first wife was a native of Panama.) It is not by chance that in The Alamo he praises the commitment of the Mexican fighters: He felt a reverential respect for his enemies. As a good conservative, he belonged to the Chestertonian line of warriors: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”

One more lesson. Wayne is often found deeply rooted in his world, fighting to uphold its values, to be true to what he believes in, and also to overcome his own hostility. He fights against himself, against his own character and pride. He ends by putting his neck on the line to face evil without hope for any reward. He fights to be a good man in the Wild West, which is plagued by as many bad guys and fools as my Twitter timeline. After a lifetime of spreading those universal values, and struggling to redeem his mistakes, it was no surprise that John Wayne ended up embracing the Catholic faith.

A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to document the details of his baptism for the book God Always Calls a Thousand Times (available only in Spanish at the moment). Inquiring about his conversion, I was happy to discover Father Robert Curtis’s note from June 15, 1979, which at the time went unnoticed:

John Wayne was received into the Catholic Church the day before he died. Mr. Wayne was conscious at that time. We will not disclose any additional information, as this is a private matter between the priest and the penitent.

So John Wayne was baptized before he died. But he was already Christian by his acts. And he was already Catholic in his universality.

Today his legacy is more alive than ever. It’s that of a good man, at times an amusing scoundrel, often hidden, crouching behind his sense of humor, a common trench for intelligent men. The actor Red Buttons spent four months in Africa with John Wayne during the shooting of Hatari. Buttons said that on one of those African nights, while they were playing cards, a huge leopard came out of the bush and headed toward them. On seeing it approach, Buttons whispered, trembling: “Duke, there’s a leopard walking toward us.” Wayne said, “Buttons, see what he wants.” “That was John Wayne,” Buttons said, laughing, recalling the story for The Man Behind The Myth.

On another occasion, film historian Michael Munn recounted, Wayne, in the twilight of his life, surrounded by all his grandchildren, was having lunch at his home with director Don Siegel. They were discussing the new trend of trying to modernize westerns by introducing swear words into the dialogue. Wayne refused to accept this and didn’t like Clint Eastwood’s doing it. Siegel defended Eastwood. Wayne pushed his point with a string of swear words and curses, to the amazement of Siegel, who said, “Duke you’re wrong about Clint’s films; and besides, listen to yourself speak.” Wayne laughed and said, “But you’ll never hear me use profanity in a picture.”

Maybe that’s why I’ve had a giant John Wayne poster in my office for decades. I use it to scare away the self-conscious. It also works as an idiot detector. One day while I was interviewing a young editor for a job, to see if we would hire him at the newspaper, the boy pointed at the poster, wrinkled his nose, and exclaimed, “That fascist pig violated the rights of the Indians!” I couldn’t say why, but we didn’t hire him in the end. And it’s a shame. The kid had a great future. As a Cherokee Indian.

Translated by Joel Dalmau

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