John Wayne Syndrome: Big John or Big Jessie?

John Wayne

Unlikely as it may sound, psychiatrists recognise a condition called “John Wayne Syndrome”. The Duke’s ailment has since become synonymous with battle fatigue. But originally it described someone who could not come to terms with their own perceived lack of heroism.

When he wasn’t campaigning in favour of guns or against Socialism, Wayne was tormented by the realisation that the tough, macho figure he portrayed on the screen was entirely fictional. In his own eyes, he was a “fag actor”. Wayne suspected that the characters he portrayed considered actors “fags”. In his own twisted reality, that’s how he sometimes thought of himself.

Let’s leave aside the trauma of being given a girl’s first name and look instead at he young Marion Morrison’s rejection by the US Naval Academy. He was later accused of purposely avoiding enlistment after Pearl Harbor. In his defence, it is said he did his best to sign-up. He was rejected due to an old football injury. It has also been said that the U.S. Government was keen that famous actors stayed home to make propaganda films and boost morale.

Early signs of John Wayne Syndrome

The truth is that Wayne only made his name in John Ford’s 1939 western Stagecoach. By December 1941, he had yet to become a big enough draw to be given the star treatment. Equally or better known Hollywood names were allowed to enlist. These included James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Clark Gable. With them out of the way, Wayne became much bigger during the war and the years immediately following it.

Sticking around in Hollywood, in 1943, he helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. His co-creators included Walt Disney, and movie directors Leo “Duck Soup” McCarey and Sam “A Night At The Operas” Wood. (What is it with these Marx Brothers directors?) Wayne was elected president of the snappily-titled M.P.A.P.A.I. in 1947; fellow members included frequent co-star Ward Bond, and pals Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan. Its statement of principles includes the line:

In our special field of motion pictures, we resent the growing impression that this industry is made of, and dominated by, Communists, radicals, and crackpots.

Just so…

Ardent Anti-Communist

Wayne was an ardent anti-Communist, and prominent supporter of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1951, he made the appalling movie Big Jim McLain. He and James Arness played H.U.A.C. investigators battling commies in Hawaii. If only he’s had more hobbies. Playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band, for example?

Wayne openly boasted of being instrumental in having Carl Foreman blacklisted from Hollywood. This followed the release of the anti-McCarthy High Noon. The 1959 movie, Rio Bravo, was intended by Wayne and director Howard Hawks as a right-wing response.

His rabid anti-Communism made the “Duke” a loud and proud supporter of the Vietnam War. 1969’s The Green Berets, which he starred in, produced and co-directed, is the only major Hollywood movie in its defence. Funny that. Odd too that all the main Vietnamese characters in the movie are played by Japanese-Americans.

But what about “Movie-mad Stalin”?

Movie-mad Stalin was so pissed off with Wayne’s anti-Communist views, he ordered his assassination. Luckily for all concerned, the Great Dictator died before the order could be implemented. In 1958, Kruschev boasted to Wayne that he recalled the hit squad before it could put the plan into operation.

An individual is never all bad and John Wayne is certainly no exception. He had tremendous charisma as an actor and his on-screen presence was immense. The John Ford- and Howard Hawks-directed westerns of the 1940s and 1950s produced some classic Wayne performances. His 1956 movie, The Searchers, is possibly the finest and most complex ever made in the genre (sorry, Clint).

Only the director John Ford could ever have persuaded Wayne to play the unlikeable protagonist. Ethan Edwards, the racist Civil War veteran who hates practically everyone, but Indians in particular. Wayne was famous for turning down roles that didn’t show him in heroic light. But he must have seen the potential of the movie. Especially how it furthered his view that Native Americans had received a bad deal at the white invader’s hand.

Properly Pro-Indian

Yes, the Duke was pro-Indian. Even more surprising is that he occasionally voiced the opinion that Black America was getting a pretty rough deal, too. All three of his wives were of Hispanic origin. Just before he died, he gave support to the free Patty Hearst Campaign. Go figure.

Above all, Wayne was a “character”. Larger than life and a star in the true sense of the word. There is the famous story of how British film critic Barry Norman and Wayne almost came to blows. In was 1969 and they were on a promotional train journey for the film True Grit.

At 11.30 am, Norman was presented to Wayne. Who, by this time, had already disposed of 17 miniature bottles of bourbon. The subject of the Vietnam War came up. Wayne declared he could put a stop to hostilities, at a stroke. All he had to do was phone Kosygin and threatening to bomb Moscow. Norman laughed.

But it seemed The Duke was deadly serious. “He got up, literally growling,” recounted Norman, “obviously intent on smiting me, and he was a very big man.”

No sign of John Wayne Syndrome now. Fortunately for one or both of the prospective combatants, Wayne was restrained by a posse of Paramount publicity people.

Big Jessie indeed.

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