John Wayne's America Essay - Critical Essays

Garry Wills

John Wayne’s America

In 1995 John Wayne, a star who had died seventeen years earlier, was voted the favorite actor of American movie fans. Wayne’s enduring popularity troubles historian Garry Wills, who sees the actor as a dangerous anachronism, even while respecting Wayne’s talent and personal qualities.

In JOHN WAYNE’S AMERICA: THE POLITICS OF CELEBRITY, Wills focuses on the contradictions in Wayne’s life that undercut the images his on-screen characterizations seek to create. Movies like STAGECOACH (1939), FORT APACHE (1948), THE ALAMO (1960), and numerous others cast Wayne as the masculine hero who saves the day through courage and skill. On screen he became the outsider who arrived on the scene, preserved civilization, and then moved on. In war movies he portrayed the staunch patriot seeing to it that American interests prevailed.

In the course of explaining Wayne’s development as a professional actor, Wills places him within a mythic context. Some myths, such as Wayne’s widely assumed prowess as a college football player, are actually legends about his life. In a larger sense, Wills finds it odd that America’s best-known hero of war movies avoided military service during World War II.

While Wayne’s roles were usually scripted by others, the book demonstrates that in movies like SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949) and THE ALAMO, Wayne himself did his bit to promote myths of masculinity known to be false. Yet, as Wills shows, Wayne embodies an American myth, now anachronistic, that harks back to Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson: that of the rural, agrarian, individualistic pioneer, uncorrupted by urban life, ever ready to solve his problems himself, usually with a gun. This myth Wills finds dangerous in modern, urban culture.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. March 2, 1997, XIV, p. 1.

Commentary. CIV, July, 1997, p. 59.

Commonweal. CXXIV, May 23, 1997, p. 23.

GQ: Gentlemen’s Quarterly. LXVII, March, 1997, p. 137.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 2, 1997, p. 3.

The Nation. CCLXIV, June 9, 1997, p. 32.

National Review. XLIX, April 21, 1997, p. 75.

The New York Review of Books. XLIV, April 24, 1997, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, March 23, 1997, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXXIII, April 7, 1997, p. 95.

People Weekly. XLVII, March 31, 1997, p. 37.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 24, 1997, p. 54.

Time. CXLIX, April 7, 1997, p. 80.

The Village Voice. XXXXII, March 18, 1997, p. 57.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, March 2, 1997, p. 3.