Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema: John (Duke) Wayne Model

This is Part II of a series of articles, Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema.

Among other goas, the series aim to explain why John Wayne continues to be the most significant and most durable star in Hollywood’s history.

Please read Parts I, III, IV, V, and VI.

The Hollywood war and western films have provide strategic sites for analyzing the myth and reality  of commitment, because its narratives deal explicitly and implicitly with political issues.  Moreover, some conclusions drawn from examining war and western movies may be applicable to other genres, such as the crime-gangster movie.

A consideration of screen heroism must include the war films made by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Humphrey Bogart, the most durable stars in American films.

War Heroes

It is not a coincidence that the aforementioned actors became popular movie stars as a result of playing war heroes, usually in WWII movies.

If one were to choose the most memorable film of each star it would be:

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) for John Wayne;

Casablanca (1943) for Humphrey Bogart;

Sergeant York (1941) for Gary Cooper.

At the center of each film there is a basic dilemma, calling for a choice between individualism and commitment, or devotion to self versus collective interests.

The three stars embodied a different mode of commitment, which was consistently reflected not just in their war films but also in other films.

John Wayne: Commitment at All Costs
In his war films, John Wayne succeeded in establishing a coherent screen hero, characterized by specific recurrent themes. The most important elements of his screen persona were: the tough commander and patriotic role model, the man of action who wanted to fight and hated desk work, and the leader obsessed with making “real men” out of his younger and inexperienced soldiers. These themes are best illustrated in Wayne’s two-generational narratives, which later became distinctive attributes of the “John Wayne movie,” including his Westerns.

In the typical Wayne war film, there is no major transformation of character. The narrative begins with his already established ideological commitment to the cause. He may have to accommodate, but there is no need for him to change; it’s his soldiers who need to be indoctrinated and transformed into war heroes in his mold.


Flying Tigers (1942)

flying_tigers_wayne_posterIn Flying Tigers, Jim Gordon is the squadron leader of the American volunteer group fighting for China’s freedom. Tough as nails, 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 makes no secret of his eagerness to get the reward for every Japanese plane knocked down.

Gordon despises his selfishness, especially after his failure to be at the base; 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 redeems himself, paying for his errors with his life but saving his leader’s.

While Gordon nurtures his soldiers to manhood, teaching them military discipline, he is also the sensitive leader, aware of the anguish of sending innocent soldiers out to die.


flying_tigers_wayne_3In a weak moment, 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 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 ruthlessness, mercilessly bullying and whipping his novices into shape.

sands_of_iwo_jima_posterHis major critic is a new recruit, Peter Conway (John Agar), who hates Stryker’s rigid discipline. The animosity between the two has previous sources: Stryker had served under Conway’s father, who had been killed in action. Conway, however, does not share Stryker’s respect for his father, who used to poke fun at him for being “too soft.” In the film’ climax, Conway tells Stryker how he will bring up his newly-born son. “I won’t insist he read the Marine Corps Manual,” he says, “Instead, I’ll get him a set of Shakespeare. In short, I don’t want him to be a Sergeant Stryker–I want him to be intelligent, considerate, cultured, and a gentleman.” Later, Stryker saves Conway’s life when a live grenade falls at his feet while he dreamily reads a letter from his wife. Once again, Conway gets the opportunity to save Stryker’s life and apologize for getting “out of line.” Here too, Stryker is the sensitive commander who, committed to hard discipline, fails to show his sensitivity.


sands_of_iwo_jima_6_wayneShot by a sniper, an unfinished letter is found on Stryker’s body in which he concedes of being a failure “in many ways.” At the end, however, the Oedipal Conway becomes the fighter Stryker and his father have wanted him to be. He takes over the command and adopts Stryker’s style of leadership.



Flying Leathernecks

Attempting at repeating the success of Sands of Iwo Jima, Flying Leathernecks (1951) had similar narrative. Major Dan Kirby, commander of the Marine in the South Pacific, is resented by his men because they wanted the more amiable executive officer Carl Griffin (Robert Ryan) to get the command. They also dislike Kirby for his rugged ways and strict discipline.

The narrative, however, makes it very clear that Kirby is more suited for command under pressure. However, when Griffin takes over the command, he models his leadership after Kirby. Furthermore, as in other war films, the soldiers learn to respect and even like Kirby for the kind of leader he is. In most of his war movies, the roughness of Wayne’s heroes is more of a facade. In Flying Leathernecks, he is frustrated when failing to get mail from his family; he is also the one to write letters of condolences to the victims’ families.

When it comes to respect for soldiers who have died in duty, he shows the utmost sensitivity. “A service man is supposed to have a funeral,” he firmly states in They Were Expendable, “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.”

In Harm’s Way

in_harm's_way_wayne_posterThe generational conflict between Wayne’s leaders and their immature soldiers is most explicitly developed in Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way (1965). Captain Rockwell Torrey, a commander of a ship cruiser, is described by one of his officers as “all Navy”; the commitment to his career resulted in a broken marriage. Torrey believes that his wife’s Bostonian origins have had negative influence on their son, Jere (Brandon De Wilde), an opportunistic officer, preferring a “soft” job over a fighting assignment. Ashamed of his son, their first meeting is bitter and awkward. Torrey resents the manner in which Jere talks about “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 his command, he gets no special treatment. “I’m not going to act like a father now,” states Torrey, “I threw that opportunity eighteen years ago.”


in_harm's_way_wayne_4However, father and son become closer when Torrey has to break the news that his boy’s girlfriend had been raped and committed suicide. At the end, they are reunited when Jere models himself after his father–but not before his total commitment to the War’s ideals. Jere’s redemption, becoming a better soldier and dying heroically, means Torrey can really accept his son.



Green Berets (1968)

green-berets-wayneIn The Green Berets, one of the first and most controversial Vietnam war films, Michael Kirby, a commander of the Special U.S. Forces, serves as an effective role model for his soldiers, a Vietnamese kid, and a pacifist reporter (David Jensen), who is initially against the war. The narrative focuses on the transformation of a dovish newspaperman–after he tastes “real action” with the Green Berets. The reporter’s conversion to a hawk becomes complete when the encampment is under siege. Caught gawking, one soldier tells him: “This is what it’s all about; are you just going to stand there and referee” As in other war films, Kirby is the tough-sensitive leader, tolerant toward soldiers who have repented their “sins.” He offers the rehabilitated reporter a job with the Green Berets, in case he is fired by his newspaper due to the change in his political persuasion.

Wayne’s Independent Streak

Wayne’s heroes possess an independent streak, they are often impulsive, willing to disobey orders if they think action is needed. In his wish to fight and hate of desk work, the Wayne war hero stands in diametric opposition to William Whyte’s “organization man,” the conformist who goes by the book and adjusts himself to the organization’s rule, doing all things “the company way.” Construction engineer Wedge Donovan in The Fighting Seabees (1944) helps to organize the Fighting Seabees, special fighting units of civilian workers. He is told by Lieutenant Commander Bob Yarrow (Dennis O’Keefe) to ignore the Japanese snipers and focus on construction. Compared with Yarrow, Donovan is hot-tempered and impatient with the enemy. He continues to obey orders until his friend is killed, then in defiance of the rules orders to fight back. But his stubbornness causes deaths, for which he is held responsible. Guilt-ridden, he redeems himself in a one-man action which costs his life, but saves the important oil tanks.

they_were_expendable_posterIn They Were Expendable, Rusty Ryan insists that the P-T boats, equipped with guns and torpedo tubes, could slip into the Japanese harbors. His temperament stands in opposition to Lieutenant John Brickley (Robert Montgomery), a calmer and rational commander. Ryan gets increasingly frustrated: the disbelief in the boats’ potential and the lack of action bore him to death. When the boats are assigned to destroy a Japanese cruiser, he is eager to go out, but instead is rushed to the hospital for treatment of an infected arm. He arrives at the hospital screaming and yelling. When the nurse suggests, to calm him down, that they go dancing, he yells, “Listen, sister, I don’t dance and I can’t take the time out now to learn. All I want is to get out of here.” Ordered to fly back to Washington to organize new P-T Boat squadrons, he loathes leaving. He tries to get off the plane, offering his place to another officer. But once again, Brickley brings him into line, “Rusty, who’re you working for Yourself”

The conflict between Torrey and his wife in In Harm’s Way was over the commitment to his career. She wanted him to do something “useful,” such as working for the stock market, but he refuses, “I don’t fit behind a desk. I’ll dry.” Torrey is also reluctant to sit behind a military desk, and suffers under the indecisive leadership of Admiral Broderick. Leading the remnants of a Japanese attack, he deliberately violates orders, charting a straight course for the enemy, instead of the required zigzag. Brought before a court, the punishment for his violation is desk work. Frustrated, he watches forlornly as the American counter-offensive is formulated without him. But later, his case is reexamined and he is placed in command of Operation Skyhook.