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John Wayne: Big John or Big Jessie?

Unlikely as it may sound, psychiatrists recognise a condition called “John Wayne Syndrome”. Although the Duke’s ailment has since become synonymous with battle fatigue, it was originally coined to describe 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”. Though not likely to have engaged in oral or anal sex with men himself, the characters Wayne portrayed would have regarded actors as “fags” and in his own twisted reality, that’s how he sometimes thought of himself.

Leaving aside the negative aspects of being given a girl’s name, the young Marion Morrison was rejected by the U.S. Naval Academy and later was accused of purposely avoiding enlistment after Pearl Harbour in December, 1941. In his defence, it is said he did his best to sign-up but 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.

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 who were allowed to enlist include 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.

By sticking around in Hollywood, in 1943, he was able to help found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, together with Mickey Mouse creator Walt Disney, and movie directors Leo “Duck Soup” McCarey and Sam “A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races” 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.

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, in which he and James Arness play H.U.A.C. investigators battling commies in Hawaii. Wayne openly boasted of being instrumental in having Carl Foreman blacklisted from Hollywood after 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, and 1969’s The Green Berets  which he starred in, produced and co-directed – is the only vaguely big budget movie in its defence. Funny that. Odd too that all the main Vietnamese characters in the movie are played by Japanese-American actors.

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 and Kruschev boasted to Wayne in 1958 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 director John Ford could ever have persuaded Wayne to play 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 could see the potential of the movie and how it furthered his view that Native Americans had received a bad deal at the white invader’s hand.

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 and, 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 on a promotional train journey to promote True Grit in 1969. At 11.30am,  Norman was presented to Wayne, who by this time, had already disposed of seventeen miniature bottles of bourbon. The subject of the Vietnam war came up and Wayne declared that he could put a stop to hostilities at a stroke, simply by phoning Kosygin and threatening to bomb Moscow. Norman laughed. “He got up, literally growling,” recounted Norman, “obviously intent on smiting me, and he was a very big man.” Fortunately for one or both of the prospective combatants, Wayne was restrained by a posse of Paramount publicity people.

Big Jessie indeed.