John Wayne: War Heroes–Combat Vs. Deskwork

In his war pictures, John Wayne succeeded in establishing a coherent war hero, characterized by specific themes that recurred consistently in his work.

The most important elements of Wayne’s screen persona in the war genre were: the tough commander and patriotic role model, the man of action who wanted to fight and hated desk work, and the charismatic leader.


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Perhaps most important in Wayne’s war movies was his attitude toward soldiers and his obsessive desire to make “real men” out of them. Thus, many war pictures have a two-generational plot, contrasting Wayne’s leader with his younger and inexperienced soldiers.

In “Flying Tigers” (1942), Wayne is cast as Jim Gordon, the squadron leader of the American volunteer group, fighting for China’s freedom against the Japanese. This film is important because it introduced the generational conflict between Wayne and his soldiers, which later became a distinctive attribute of the “John Wayne movie.” A competent leader but tough as nails on his men, he is contrasted with a new recruit, Woody Jason (John Carroll), who signs up because he needs the money to pay off a breach-of-promise suit. Jason does not make a secret out of his eagerness to get the 500 dollars reward for every Japanese plane knocked down.

Wayne despises him for his selfishness, especially after his failure to be at the base when needed; another flier takes over and finds his death. “I was a kid,” Jason laments, “It took somebody to die to make a man out of me.” But he begs for another chance and his heroics even save Wayne’s life: bombing a Japanese supply train, his plane catches fire but he pushes Wayne out, thus redeeming himself, paying for his errors with his life. Wayne is a commander who nurtures his soldiers to manhood by teaching them to accept military discipline. But he is also a sensitive leader, aware of the anguish of sending innocent soldiers out to die. In one scene, he regrets having allowed a young soldier to fly on a deadly mission “Should have stayed in college where he came from. But he begged me for a chance and I gave it to him!”

Sands of Iwo Jima

Sergeant John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) is disliked by his men because of his ruthless training. His major critic is a new recruit, Peter Conway (John Agar), who hates Wayne’s rigid discipline. Indeed, Wayne trains his novices, ruthlessly bullying and whipping them into shape. The animosity between Wayne and Conway has other sources: Wayne had served under Conway’s father, who had been killed in action in Guadalcanal. Conway, however, does not share Wayne’s respect for his father, because the latter used to poke fun at him for being “too soft.” In the film’s climax, Conway tells Wayne how he will bring up his newly born son: “I won’t insist he read the Marine Corps Manual. Instead, I’ll get him a set of Shakespeare. In short, I don’t want him to be a Sergeant John M. Stryker–I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured, and a gentleman.”

Later in the picture, however, Wayne saves Conway’s like, when a live grenade falls at his feet while he dreamily reads a letter from his wife. But Conway gets the opportunity to save Wayne’s life and even apologizes for getting “out of line.” In this movie too, Wayne is the sensitive commander who does not let it show, believing in hard discipline. After Wayne is shot by a sniper, an unfinished letter is found on his body in which he concedes of being a failure in many ways. At the end, however, Conway becomes the fighter Wayne and his father have always wanted him to be. Killing the Japanese sniper, he takes over the command and adopts Wayne’s style of leadership.

Flying Leathernecks

Flying Leathernecks made a deliberate attempt to repeat the success of Sands of Iwo Jima and thus had a similar plot. Wayne’s Major Dan Kirby, commander of the Marine fighting squadron in the South Pacific, is resented by his men because the wanted executive officer Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan), a more popular and amiable man, to get the command. They also dislike Wayne for his rugged ways and strict discipline. The film, however, makes it very clear that it is Wayne who is more suited for command, particularly under pressure. Griffin defends Wayne’s tactice in front of the men but in private criticizes him, “No man is an island.” When he takes over the command, however, he models his leadership after Wayne. Furthermore, as in other war pictures, the soldiers learn to respect and even like Wayne for the kind of leader he is.

In most war movies, Wayne’s roughness is more of a facade. In Flying Leathernecks, Wayne is frustrated when he does not get mail from his family and he is the one to write letters of condolences to the victims’ families. His leaders are by no means insensitive, especially when it comes to respect for soldiers who have died in duty. In They Were Expendable, he states firmly, “a service man is supposed the have a funeral–that’s a tribute to the way he’s spent his life. Escort, firing squad, wrapped in the flag he served under and died for.” Wayne even recites poetry–awkwardly–in honor of one of the casualties who “was always quotin’ verse.”

In Harm’s Way

The generational conflict between Wayne and his immature soldiers is most explicitly developed in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965). Wayne’s Captain Rockwell Torrey, a commander of a ship cruiser, is described by one of his officers as “all Navy.” We also learn that Wayne’s commitment to his career resulted in a broken marriage. Moreover, he believes that his wife’s Bostonian origins have had a negative influence on their son Jere (Brandon De Wilde), whom he has not seen for eighteen years. Indeed, Jere is an opportunistic officer, preferring a “soft” job to a fighting assignment.

Wayne is ashamed of his son and their first meeting is bitter and awkward. Addressed by Jere as “Sir,” he resents the manner in which his son talks about the war, referring to it as “Mr. Roosevelt’s War.” He also despises him for revealing a top secret out of negligence. Later, when Jere is assigned to the same operation and is placed under Wayne’s command, he does not get any special treatment. “I’m not going to act like a father now,” states Wayne, “I threw that opportunity 18 years ago.”

However, father and son become closer when Wayne has to break the tragic news that his boy’s girlfriend (Jill Hayworth) has been raped (by Kirk Douglas) and committed suicide. At the end, they are reunited when Jere models himself after his father–but not before committing himself to the War’s ideals. Moreover, Jere redeems himself, becoming a better soldier and dying heroically. Now Wayne can really accept his son and be proud of him.

Back to Bataan

Wayne’s paternal attitude toward the younger generation and his function as a sociological father extends beyond his relationships with American soldiers. In two war films, Back to Bataan and The Green Berets, he serves as roel model to Philippine and Vietnamese children, which critic Joan Mellen sees as a testament to his imperialistic and patronizing attitude toward smaller and weaker nations.

Wayne’s Colonel Joseph Madden helps the Philippine guerrillas fight the Japanese in Back to Bataan (1945), a picture that was better but less popular than Bataan (1943), starring Robert Taylor. Colonel Madden has a special relationship with Maximo (Ducky Louie), the Philippine kid who adores him. When Maximo’s father is killed, Wayne is the one to provide comfort, “war hurts everyone.” In an earlier, quite touching scene, Wayne commits him to the war effort by the symbolic gesture of handing him his Colonel’s insignia. He also teaches him how to take orders and behave like “a man.” Indeed, Maximo volunteers to spy and, captured and tortured by the Japanese, he misleads them, forcing their truck over a cliff. Thus, in Wayne’s best manner, Maximo prefers to die heroically, by tricking the enemy, than to reveal important military secrets.