Why John Wayne Still Matters

Recently New York Times blogger and humanities professor Stanley Fish referenced my Big Hollywood review of the Coen Brothers’ remake of John Wayne and Henry Hathaway’s True Grit. Though I have reviewed a film or two for various publications I’ve never thought of myself as a film critic. So Professor Fish referring to me as such was certainly interesting, if not flattering. Agree with my review or not, I am glad a western is making money, but Professor Fish had more heady matters on his mind.

Fish’s main point is that in the new True Grit, purposely there is no relationship between physical heroism and virtue. To the professor physical heroism is displayed by almost everyone in the new film, “‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and the universe seems at best indifferent, if not hostile.” He sees young Mattie Ross as far more heroic for her acceptance of the world as random and brutal, Jeff Bridges Cogburn’s heroism is merely an after thought. The professor didn’t in the least misunderstand my desire to instead see the kind of heroics John Wayne displayed in the original film when he takes on the outlaw gang single-handedly with his “Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch!” charge to glory.

Justifiable violent responses to real life threats are often not random. America has always had common men heroes and well trained professionals who can reach down deep into themselves and find the kind of inner courage needed to risk life and limb to save the life of another or stand up to the evil and power hungry. The elitist left who for the time being control most of the public debate on popular culture would have us believe that all is relative. Despite the current “no tolerance” foolishness in American schools, sometimes you have to hit back, and hard, or else the bully will take far more then just your lunch. You’re own personal dignity is indeed something worth fighting for.

A lying scumbag like Michael Moore might ridiculously offer up that al Qaeda terrorists are as brave or braver then our own and is awarded and feted for his cowardly idiocy. Physical bravery in the service of recognizable evil, whether it be Hitler’s SS or the Taliban and al Qaeda, irrevocably negates that supposed bravery, one that is also further negated by extremist brainwashing. Flying jets into civilian occupied buildings, suicide bombings – especially those directed at civilians and throwing acid into the faces of Muslim school girls isn’t brave, it is every bit as evil and perverted as Hitler’s death camps and Saddam’s torture chambers.

Professor Fish points out that in the new True Grit, there is no score card for the after life, “…in which damnation and/or salvation are distributed, as far as we can see, randomly and even capriciously.” Really…? God may be forgiving, but Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Manson, and others most certainly have a special place in hell that is personally reserved for them.

Which leads me back to John Wayne: Why do the liberal elitists and academics deny a healthy society’s need for the kind of physical courage John Wayne best represents in our popular culture? Most heroes in today’s films wear tights and sport some sort of super-human power in fantasy fare with no relation to the real world. Yet, just last year Wayne still ranked third in the annual Harris poll of most popular American movie stars, where he has been in the top ten every year since the poll’s creation in 1994.

John Wayne films like Stagecoach, They Were Expendable, The Sands of Iwo Jima, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man through Rio Bravo, The Shootist and yes, True Grit showed true to life heroics that represented America in a particular time and place. The men Wayne played weren’t super human, but possessed hard earned skills and a well defined moral compass. As Wayne’s character in his last film The Shootist tells a teenage Ronnie Howard, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I do not do these things to others and demand the same of them.” Sounds like a damn good way to conduct yourself to me.

Far better then the elitist left, Middle America recognizes the values that Wayne’s celluloid bravery represents. The seriously wounded and bitter Vietnam Marine Corps vet Ron Kovik damned John Wayne’s Sergeant Stryker in Born on the Fourth of July. Yet, far more seriously wounded American heroes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some suffering the loss of multiple limbs or first degree burns over ninety percent of their bodies, often react first with concern for their fellow soldiers and then a stoic “I guess I just had a bad day at the office.” Where do such amazing Americans come from today? Most often, though not exclusively, they come from traditional backgrounds and the South and rural West where John Wayne’s films are still shown to appreciative children and grand children.

Two years ago I was standing behind the chutes at a college rodeo in Cody, Wyoming with one of the rodeo committee members when we overheard two young bull riders talking about John Wayne’s excellent 1972 film The Cowboys, which had just played again on cable. It’s a film that in no small part is famous for Wayne actually being killed on screen, after beating the hell out of a murderous rustler leader while defending his very young trail hands.

“Two bad they had to kill the Duke off like that,” the one nineteen-year-old rodeo hand offered up. To which his fellow bull rider replied, “Maybe, but you know he did the right thing. He reminded me of my dad and grandpa, that’s how they would handle that kind of deal.” You won’t hear that kind of sentiment in Brentwood or on the upper West Side, but behind the bucking chutes at a rodeo in Wyoming waiting to get down on a 1500-pound bull, it’s about as normal as a really great slice of apple pie at the local diner.

Recently in the Los Angeles Times, Kim Darby, who played Mattie in the original film, told a wonderful story about a major star photo shoot on the Paramount lot soon after the filming True Grit ended. The shoot included, Clint Eastwood, Barbara Streisand, and John Wayne. “I was sitting on the curb a ways away watching,” she said. “The Duke stepped out of the picture and he said, ‘Hey, kid.’ He put out his arms and lifted me up and brought me over and put me in the center of the picture. How wonderful is that?” Wayne was the biggest movie star in the world at the time and Darby was still yet unknown. While Wayne was the ultimate representation of courage on movie screens, off screen he was also the most generous and giving of super stars, as well.

A nation and culture that denies physical courage in their own legends, fiction, and popular culture also denies the same bravery in real life, very much to its own peril, if not its own destruction. Go rent one of Wayne’s really good films, maybe even the original True Grit, and show it to your kids. His virtues on and off the screen need to be kept alive.


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