John Wayne: War Movie, Ideological Biases and Distortions

John Wayne’s influence on the war movie is alaways described in terms of the heroes he played. However, his distinctive contribution to the war genre is equally defined by the kinds of films he did not make.

For example, he did not appear in the espionage or international intrigue movies that were quite popular, such as Casablanca, Background to Danger, set in Turkey; The Conspirator, set in Lisbon; or Confidential Agent, set in the Spanish Civil War. Of greater importance was Wayne’s reluctance to make war films that depicted the high price in human life during the War.

No Physical or Mental Damages

A whole sub-genre is missing from Wayne’s repertoire, those describing the devastating effects, physical, emotional, and mental, on the fighting soldiers and their adjustment problems to civilian life. Wayne never played a shell shocked or damaged war veteran, one of the most dominant characters in the American cinema.

It is interesting to mention that some of these films contain most memorable performances and most powerful characterizations, such as John Garfield’s blinded solider in Pride of the Marines, Harrold Russell’s real-life portrayal of an amputated soldier in The Best Years of Our Lives, Marlon Brando’s paraplegic in The Men, and Arthur Kennedy’s blinded soldier in Bright Victory.

Wayne specialized in playing commanders, not the rank-and-file fighters, which were effectively portrayed by Robert Mitchum in William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, or Dana Andrews and Richard Conte in Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun, two of the best war dramas.

However Wayne’s commanders were ordinary, hard-working, upwardly mobile Americans, who became leaders for their strength and commitment to the cause–not because of their backgrounds or education. Wayne’s most significant screen function, as was mentioned, was to provide exemplary leadership and to unite a diversified group of soldiers, from all walks of life and with different motives and different fighting skills. His war films stressed strong individual and charismatic leadership, but they also emphasized collective values, such as mutual responsibility, group discipline, and concerted action. They showed that under conditions of pressure and crisis, a genuine leader can bring about the best in everybody, and what better conditions for that than actual war and fighting.

Nonetheless, because his war films were not made in a social or political void, they suffer from the weaknesses of the genre. Complicated issues were naively simplified in poor screenplays that lacked realism or credibility. And while the heroics of American fighters were glorified and exaggerated, the portrayal of enemies, Germans as well as Japanese, was stereotypical and one-dimensional. Furthermore, there was little concern with cinematic aesthetics as such. Most pictures were social documents, emphasizing the contents of their messages at the expense of their visual aspects.

This was precisely the reason why John Ford’s They Were Expendable still stands out: it was beautifully directed and photographed (by Joseph H. August). James Agee first criticized the film, then in a second review changed his mind and singled out its artistic qualities. “Visually, and in detail, and in nearly everything he does with people,” he wrote, “I think it is John Ford’s finest movie.” But he, too, conceded that the film is showing “nothing much newer, with no particular depth of feeling, much less idea.”

Blatant Propaganda

Another frequent charge against Wayne’s war movies is their blatant propaganda, though, in retrospect, did not differ from other pictures of the time. Historians see the value of the war films in providing some information, albeit distorted, about the issues, and in contributing to the morale of both the fighting men and the home front.

“The American war movie,” Jones and McLure observed, “was probably more important as a historical phenomenon than as an artistic achievement.” The genre’s importance, according to them, was twofold: “to give unity of purpose for the war itself and to give strength of purpose to the people of the home front.” However, as historian Charles Alexander observed, the war movies “absorbed and diffused the experience of war, but received little inspiration from it. Just as Hollywood had eluded many of the realities of Depression America, so it refused to deal honestly with the realities of America at war.”

Wayne did not mind that his films were accused for depicting false heroic and courage, thus contributing to a myth that had little correspondence with the reality of war. In November 1977, he hosted an ABC television special, “Oscar Presents the War Movie and John Wayne,” which included scenes from his Second World War movies, from Sands of Iwo Jima to The Longest Day; the Vietnam movie The Green Berets was conspicuously missing. Praised for being “an American as a Rocky Mountain,” he described the war movies as “an indelible portrait of the best of what we were.” Actors were praised for their service in the Armed Forces as well as for their contribution to the Government bond drives.

Wayne is reported to have been furious at the suggestion to include Stanley Kramer’s Home of the Brave, which deals with racial prejudice and hatred in the army. Unconcerned with the picture’s authenticity, he did not want the American public to remember the fighting men in such way. Where the image of American soldiers was concerned, he chose myth–not reality. He also ignored critics’ claim that the program depicted the war as “glorious and glamorous adventure.”

One critic specifically charged that the propaganda was presented “as if it were historical truth, placing us in past where everyone is June Allyson pure and John Wayne courageous.” This kind of “reactionary innocence” was found to be “insulting.” The deference to Wayne in this show was seen as an indication that his hawkish politics during the Vietnam War (and The Green Berets) were forgiven and forgotten.

Nonetheless, the myth of Wayne’s courage and heroics in the war movies seems to have had long-lasting effects. An unusual act of heroism during the Vietnam War was, in some circles, referred to as a “John Wayne act.” And another report noted than when an officer realized his unit was trapped in a Vietcong ambush, he rallied his men yelling, “Don’t worry, it’s only a John Wayne movie!”