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continuation of John Wayne’s Public Image vs Reality



Less known is the fact that, just a few years earlier during WWII, Duke had been booed off stage by actual US Marines, who reacted negatively to his fake machismo. They also resented the fact that he had gone out of his way to duck the draft and avoid service during the war. Wayne spent the rest of his life berating himself – and overcompensating – for having avoided the fight during WWII. During the Great Depression, Hollywood director Raoul Walsh cast an aspiring actor named Marion Robert Morrison in his first lead role in The Big Trail, released in 1930. The movie was an epic flop, and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, the one good thing that came out of the venture was that the lead actor, on the recommendation of Walsh and the studio, had changed his name to John Wayne.
Over the next few years, Wayne toiled in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. He was saved from obscurity in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford offered him the lead role in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, during which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend. During the long working relationship between John Wayne and director John Ford, Ford seldom spared a kind word for his protégé. Wayne worshiped Ford: “My whole set up was that he was my mentor and my ideal! I think that deep down inside, he’s one of the greatest human beings that I have ever known“. Ford, by contrast, was savage in his mistreatment of Wayne, bullying him at every opportunity. That bullying helped create one of the most iconic pieces of John Wayne’s public image: his cowboy strut.
During the filming of Stagecoach, Ford seemingly disliked everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and berated him: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated the way Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a god*** fairy?” That one stung so bad, that Wayne changed the way he walked for the rest of his life. The success of Stagecoach secured John Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among the top drawer elites, such as Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star. Then late that year, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s subsequent entry into WWII.
John Wayne’s course of action during that conflict would forever after shape his self-image and self-perception of his manhood. His reaction to and regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life.America’s entry into WWII, triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory.
As the country armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do everything he could to avoid serving in the military. John Wayne was in his early 30s when America joined WWII – not exactly a youngster, but still prime fighting age. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist, including athletes, movie directors, and Hollywood superstars. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who was in his 40s when he enlisted. Another was Jimmy Stewart, who had to pull strings and get waivers to join the military (he was underweight). John Wayne, by contrast, pulled strings and got waivers to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark subsequently risked their lives on bombing missions over Germany. Wayne limited his contribution to USO tours, entertaining troops overseas. Even those, however, were done with the ulterior motive of keeping him out of the military. As he once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“. Post-WWII, many bought into John Wayne’s public image of manly toughness. During the war, that public image was not bought by America’s actual tough guys: the fighting men. As one wounded Marine veteran described a wartime incident: “after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii … Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us.
Before the film, the curtains parted, and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandana, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs.
He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said ‘Hi, ya guys!’ He was greeted by stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing.
This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left“. Wayne never got over that humiliation. John Wayne developed a guilt complex for refusing to sign up to fight during WWII. It was key to the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also played no small part in his starring in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career, playing manly heroic characters on screen, whom he wished he had been like in real life.
Four years after getting booed offstage by wounded Marines for being a phony, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it, and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a superpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“.

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