John Wayne and the American Soul

By Richmond, Dick | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), April 20, 1997 | Go to article overview

John Wayne and the American Soul


Richmond, Dick, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


"JOHN WAYNE'S AMERICA: THE POLITICS OF CELEBRITY"

Written and read by Garry Wills (3 hours, abridged, Simon & Schuster, $18)

In a way, this inquiry into the enduring popularity of John Wayne by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is akin to fooling with a Rubik's Cube. Once the surface is broken and the pieces are moved around, you're going to spend time with an element that's really not all that important, and yet, when you finally put it down, there is that inexplicable feeling of frustration, because you sense you've lost something. Wills notes that, in 1995, Wayne topped a poll of America's favorite actors, astonishing inasmuch as the man had been dead for 16 years at the time. With that in mind, he examines Wayne's career without creating a real biography in that there's not much personal information about the actor included. Still, his fascination with Wayne seems to be as much who the actor was as what he came to represent. What Wayne portrayed is virility, strength of purpose and a political stance just to the right of Ronald Reagan. But in spite of all the battles he won in the movies, he was no Audie Murphy in real life. Unlike such stars as Clark Gable, James Stewart, Robert Montgomery and many others who volunteered for and served in the Armed Forces in World War II, Wayne was successful in keeping Selective Service at arm's length. What he seemed to have was an acute sense of self-service. In fact, in this account, the screen idol gives the impression of being plagued by character flaws. When the war erupted, Wayne had just emerged from making B-Westerns and apparently wasn't going to let Hitler and Tojo mess up his chances of stardom. In addition, Wills says he couldn't find where Wayne demonstrated any political stance at all until the late '40s, when communist-baiting became fashionable. In spite of this frank but no-cheap-shots assessment of the man, Wills admires the star's film work, especially those pictures he made with directors John Ford and Howard Hawks. To the author's mind, Wayne was the quintessential Western hero and a talented, graceful performer. But once the facts are laid out, and an analysis made of the actor and his movies, the conclusions reached by Wills about Wayne's relationship with the American soul seemed pretty subjective. It's like that Rubik's Cube, where you think you've come close to a solution but sense that there is no way to make it come out right in just one lifetime. So you quit with what you have. Simon & Schuster Audios may be found in bookstores. "DINNER WITH PERSEPHONE" By Patricia Storace (2 1/4 hours, abridged, Audio Literature, $17. …

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