In film, John Wayne is an American icon. He was the quintessential cowboy, the most recognizable face in what was probably America’s favorite movie genre for decades.
As someone who reviews classic films, it may seem like a really bad idea to exclude John Wayne films—and, honestly, even with my reasoning, it may still be a really bad idea. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Wayne was a product of his time, but he refused to let go of an America made for and run by people exactly like Wayne himself. With every decade that went by, America became more diverse, Wayne became angrier about it, and his refusal to change became more of an issue.
It was a 1971 interview with Playboy that really made all of this clear, and I’ll be quoting from that interview later in this piece. John Wayne and his films represent a part of America that I don’t like and think is harmful to perceptions even today. It’s this potential for harm that keeps me from getting into his films. You’re welcome to disagree, and I have no doubt that many intelligent people will; this is just my reasoning. This is, after all, my movie site. With that said, here are my problems with John Wayne films.
A different America
Wayne frequently criticized films for being “un-American.” He turned down the lead role in the 1949 film All the King’s Men, saying that the script was un-American. In the aforementioned 1971 interview, Wayne called the 1952 film High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” noting the protagonist’s fear in dealing with the outlaws who came to kill him, and his narrow rescue by his new bride. Wayne had a very clear picture of America and what it meant. But Wayne’s America represented a small part of the country, and as film and society progressed, the schism between Wayne’s America and the real America became much more apparent.
Wayne’s America was one where a man was a man and a woman was a woman. Americans were never wrong and nothing bad ever happened to the good guys. Everyone who fought for America was a hero, and everyone who fought against America was a villain. Traditional family values trumped all others. In short, Wayne’s America was all about Wayne and other people like him, and it left little room for others. This America is a throwback to the picture painted in the early 20th Century, due in part to propaganda put out during the two world wars. It’s a picture John Wayne built his career on and believed in for his entire life.
The problem is that this America only existed for people like Wayne—and even then, only when you squinted at looked at the good, overlooking the dark parts of American history and culture. There were times when America was on the wrong side of history, and there were times when America’s villains were the wronged party. Many marriages, including some of Wayne’s own, were less than perfect and loving, and sometimes a man being a man came at the expense of a woman being a person. People very different than Wayne were also looking for their piece of America, and were often met with criticism, ostracism, or violence. It’s not that Wayne’s patriotism was inherently wrong; it’s that the picture of America he revered could not exist until the darker parts of America’s history and culture had been acknowledged and dealt with, and that’s something Wayne and his generation had a lot of trouble doing.
Wayne’s problem with All the King’s Men, and his later problems with The Deer Hunter and similar films, was that these films showed the dark side of America. Wayne also called Steven Spielberg’s 1979 film 1941 “un-American” and urged him to stop the project. Now, admittedly, a comedy about World War II probably was in poor taste, but in the context of Wayne’s other vocal criticisms, Wayne’s problem with it was probably that American soldiers in that film were not blameless heroes. Cowboys and soldiers were sacred in Wayne’s America, and anything that suggested otherwise, no matter how true, was rubbish.
Wayne’s films gave us an idealized, romanticized version of history that was often very different from reality. The old cowboys were spotless heroes, and the Native Americans they fought against were savages. All wars were just, and the brave American soldiers who fought in them were among the most virtuous humans to ever walk the earth. These things can make great fiction, but can distort and pervert reality for those who can’t separate the fact from the fiction. This quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn sums it up perfectly:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956
As films—particularly Westerns—progressed in the 60s and 70s, we began to see more of that line between good and evil pass through major characters. Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns, most notably The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, gave us morally ambiguous heroes and villains with depth and even some virtues. The flood of movies about the Vietnam War took a hard look at what war really did to soldiers, and civilians. These were all vital conversations to have and important contributions to film—but they didn’t fit into Wayne’s America. The more films came to reflect the reality of America, the less relevant Wayne’s films became, and the more problems came to light—and it’s those problems that are at the heart of my problem with his films.
Evidence of a widening gap
The reason Wayne’s 1971 interview was so controversial wasn’t so much what he said as when he said it. Wayne’s ideas, expressed in that interview, are a product of his time and environment; if he’d had the same interview in 1941, it wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows. Are the ideas wrong and harmful? I won’t hesitate to say yes, but I think many others in his generation held the same viewpoint. Wayne’s thoughts on race, sexuality, and many other issues became painfully clear when expressed to a society that had advanced beyond his viewpoint.
On the subject of race, I don’t have to claim that Wayne was a white supremacist; he claimed that himself:
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.
The interviewer asked if he was equipped to judge which blacks are irresponsible and which of their leaders inexperienced, and Wayne responded that it wasn’t his opinion, but objective fact that showed this. Even in 1971, many Americans knew that race was a complicated issue and that institutional racism existed. The “facts” Wayne cited were, at best, more complicated than he would admit, and, at worst, simply wrong. It wasn’t that this had simply not been explained to Wayne. His anger here and throughout the interview was a reaction to progress that was being made in race, gender, and many other areas in the 60s and 70s. He saw progress and refused to participate.
Supporters of Wayne will no doubt point to the fact that all three of his wives were of Spanish or Hispanic descent. But just because a person admires aspects of another race or culture doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t also support a system that actively works against them. Wayne at one point used his influence to put himself in a starring role—as Genghis Khan. This is a role he later deeply regretted, and he vowed to never do it again, but he still took full advantage of his privilege to get it. With this lesson learned, he commented in the interview, “If it’s supposed to be a black character, naturally I use a black actor.” (Note that of the two examples he gave for great roles for black actors, one of them was a slave. I guess that’s about as progressive as Wayne got.) But then he went on to say: “But I don’t go so far as hunting for positions for them.”
The problem that became clear is that there was already a problem, and the deck was already stacked against people of color. Choosing not to dismantle a system of bias is a choice to support it; inaction in an unjust society is, by nature, still injustice. Was Wayne intentionally choosing to keep black people down? Well, maybe, and maybe not. But he rejected the evidence that society itself was keeping them down, and in that regard, he became complicit.
Wayne wasn’t a big fan of Native Americans either. When asked if he felt any empathy for them, he responded:
I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
Much like Wayne’s thoughts on Vietnam and other wars, the war against the Native Americans was, in his mind, completely just, and the people who stood against the true Americans were villains. Unfortunately, many Native Americans today (including this author) still deal with negative perceptions like this one.
Wayne also spoke negatively of sexual preferences that differed from his own. When asked what films he considered perverse, he responded, “Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies?” Now, please remember, Wayne was not the only one who said this about Midnight Cowboy. The film was originally rated X and shocked critics and audiences by daring to show homosexuality. (And the movie did actually imply that John Wayne himself was gay, so of course he’s going to hate it at least a little.) This statement was very much a product of his time, although I won’t hesitate to condemn it. But it goes back to Wayne’s inability to accept people who looked or thought differently than him. Wayne found his America shrinking, and he was very pissed off about that.
Can we enjoy good art from bad people?
Astute readers of this site may have noticed that I have reviewed movies from Woody Allen, who is famously a creep, and I have no doubt that there are other filmmakers on my list who are equally awful. So why is John Wayne getting singled out here? Isn’t that hypocritical of me? I have a few reasons.
One, my problem with John Wayne’s movies is not the man; it’s the art. I quoted from an interview with John Wayne the man above, but his movies and characters reflect his personal beliefs a great deal. I don’t condone Woody Allen’s actions, but Annie Hall isn’t about pedophilia and actually calls out men with subtly misogynistic tendencies. I can’t say the same of Wayne’s films; they all seem to support his America, and reject any other America. There’s been some controversy over this interview, but I’ve had these feelings for a long time.
Two, Wayne’s faults hit a little closer to home for me personally. I’m Native American, and there are unbelievably still people today that believe that Native Americans were savage brutes who deserved to be slaughtered and driven off of their land. I’ve talked to some of them, and it’s honestly kind of scary. Many of Wayne’s films support that narrative and have influenced perceptions of Native Americans for decades. No matter how great a cowboy he was, that’s a lot of harm.
Three, I simply don’t agree with Wayne’s good points. I want to see and deal with the darkness in humanity and in America, and I believe our great nation will be better for it. Whitewashing the darker parts of our history makes it much more likely that we’ll repeat those mistakes and eventually villainize the people who point them out as mistakes. Wayne’s America may be a glorious thing, but I know it never existed for many Americans, either in the past or still today.
I don’t think John Wayne was this totally evil villain plotting to destroy America or its non-white citizens. Times have changed, humanity has progressed, and of course someone born in 1907 is going to hold some views common from that era. But, whether he intended to hurt anyone or not, his films put forth many ideas that can be painful or harmful for those that don’t fit into his America. Ultimately, Wayne believed in an ideal and saw America as the manifestation of that ideal. I also believe in an ideal. The difference is that Wayne believed that this ideal was in the past; I believe it’s in our future, and I believe that we need to work together to achieve it.
As I said, I fully expect that there will be some people who still love John Wayne movies after reading this, and I have no qualms with that. You’re allowed to like good art from bad people, and there’s no denying that Wayne is an important figure in film history. For my little corner of film criticism and appreciation, though, I’m choosing not to carve out a spot for his movies.