Over the last few weeks, conversation has begun over whether the Duke’s name should be removed from the Orange County airport in California. Starting with Michael Hiltzik’s February 21 column “It’s time to take John Wayne’s name off the Orange County airport,” published in the Los Angeles Times, and continuing with coverage and rebuttals in a variety of news venues like the CNN video featured here, the conversation is centered around a 1971 Playboy interview with the Duke that was pretty repulsive even back then.
The responses have been predictably annoying. Son Ethan Wayne’s CNN interview answers were admittedly dialed back from the belligerence and shamelessness that have characterized the typical Limbaugh-Land ode lyrics but still missed the mark by a long shot.
The reason why is fairly simple, John Wayne’s friends and mentors knew he was out of his mind in 1971 (they’d known it for 25 years at that point) and had never held back from squaring off with him in various Tinseltown enclaves over these proto-Culture War battles. In particular I think the perspective of the man who made him a superstar, director John Ford, merits consideration. Admittedly Ford was no saint, especially at the end of his life when he was cheer leading for Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, but he is a very useful litmus test because of being both Wayne’s contemporary as well as one of the most prolific and influential directors of films that propounded the American notion of alpha masculinity in the last century, meaning he was no yellow belly.
Contextually, understand there was a very distinct rift between Hollywood stars after World War II, those who had actually been in the military and those who had, for a variety of reasons, stayed on the homefront. This latter group included John Wayne, Ward Bond, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan. See the pattern?
War veterans came back to America with a certain sense of security and assurance because they had put some skin in the game. Those who hadn’t served began to magnetize towards right wing Republican politics, becoming the original Cold Warriors as McCarthyism infected the film industry like a virus.
In the case of Disney, he wanted to stave off unionizing efforts in his animation studios by organizers who incidentally were Communists.
Reagan, who had ties to the mob via RCA according to investigative journalist Dan Moldea, was ousting left wing reformists in the unions who were trying to make their closed shops honest. Bond and Wayne, who frequently starred in Westerns, behaved the way they did for a variety of reasons that included financial as well as psychological concerns.
Ford had been a Fellow Traveler of the Communist Party USA in the Depression, having sent funds to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War and described himself as a “Socialistic democrat-always Left!” The films he produced during the Great Depression were as pink as possible, whether it was his adaptation of the bestselling The Grapes of Wrath, a modest hymn to working class Welsh miners titled How Green Was My Valley, or Young Mr. Lincoln, which gave audiences a version of the Great Emancipator indebted to the Popular Front aesthetics of the period. (You can read more about this in my book Taxi Searchers: John Wayne, Robert DeNiro, and the Meaning of America.)
He also went into the military with the Navy and served in the photo division of the Office of Strategic Services (precursor of the CIA), at one point doing a tour of duty in the Pacific that included him making an insanely powerful documentary about the Battle of Midway (allegedly he was so caught up in the action he was seen wildly gesticulating to the various bombers flying overhead trying to direct them like he would usually direct actors) and also producing intelligence films about Japanese submarines.
When he returned stateside, where the Duke and Gipper had been sunning it up over the previous four years, Ford was disgusted by the Red Scare and attendant witch hunts. He famously called Cecil B. De Mille out for such behavior and antagonized Wayne and Bond on set owing in part to this.
Ford’s films continued to be ahead of the curve on the issue of race and racism. In a 1968 BBC interview, Ford said that he had always made his films to present his sympathies with the American Indians. African Americans were portrayed as important and respected characters. While the hindsight of nearly half a century provides critical responses to these portrayals as demonstrative of the historic shortcomings of American postwar liberalism, for his day Ford was about as far to the left side of the spectrum one could get within the margins of the classical Hollywood cinema paradigm.
All this is noteworthy because Ford was several years older than John Wayne. Indeed, Ford had singlehandedly made Marion Mitchell Morrison the Duke when he grabbed the otherwise-unknown B-level bit performer and made him the star of Stagecoach, a film that revived and reinvigorated the stale, tired Western genre. For the rest of their lives, the Duke would admiringly refer to the director with the appellation Coach. Theirs was a very clear example of mentorship, particularly as the years progressed and Ford gave Wayne background advising on his own pet projects, such as the 1968 pro-Vietnam film The Green Berets (of which the less said the better). While they both died as Republican Party supporters, the fact is that Ford was still far more progressive than Wayne at the end, claiming to be a liberal New England Republican in the vein of Nelson Rockefeller or John Chafee.
So the complaints responding to this Orange County airport discussion that Wayne needs to be “contextualized” or that the entire premise of the conversation is anachronistic are just simply untrue. In his own time and day Wayne was a reactionary amongst his peers and a chickenhawk.