John Wayne in Akron

June 30, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

Akron, Ohio -- It was not the kind of conference I am used to. This was a gathering where murmurs of enthusiasm greeted questions asked about ''Yak'' Canutt or Hank Worden. It was as if old friends were being remembered.

I was at a ''Big Trail'' meeting, a celebration of the 10th year of publication for the sponsoring magazine, also called The Big Trail. This newsletter keeps John Wayne fans informed of all things connected with their hero.

On a Friday workday, more than 400 people had paid the conference fees to see rare movies, talk to Wayne's widow and trade Wayne memorabilia. They came from England, Australia, Canada, Tasmania.

Dean Smith, a stuntman on 18 Wayne films, told how he created his most famous stunt for ''The Alamo.'' Harry Carey Jr. talked about Wayne's legendary efforts for the sadistic director John Ford.

Old posters went for as high as $2,000. The first editions of novels from which Wayne movies were made were put on sale. Wayne impersonators were on hand (to be avoided at all costs). Wayne's second talking role, in Ford's 1929 Annapolis movie, ''Salute,'' was viewed in a restored print.

All this attention may surprise people who have forgotten that Wayne was the most popular star in Hollywood's most popular genre, the western.

But he was not just a western star. He was the biggest box-office draw in history -- no one came close in his lifetime, though Clint Eastwood has moved nearer his mark in recent years.

For a quarter of a century, Wayne was in the top 10 moneymakers, as judged by box-office appeal. For about half that time, he was No. 1, period. That should tell us something about American culture -- comforting or otherwise.

In the Vietnam era, the drama critic Eric Bentley called Wayne ''the most important American of our time'' -- and he did not mean it as a compliment. He thought Wayne the most dangerous man in America. That is, in a way, a greater tribute to Wayne's power than were all the box-office surveys.

The best thing at the conference was Harry Carey Jr. and his wife, Marilyn. They are both children of western stars, and Mr. Carey was promoting his new book, ''Company of Heroes,'' published in the respected Filmmakers Series by Scarecrow Press.

The book is organized around the nine films Mr. Carey made for the mercurial ''Jack'' Ford -- a comic ordeal he repeated with misgivings, and about which he has affecting and ludicrous stories to tell.

His cast of characters is pungent -- Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, Yak Canutt (the greatest stuntman of all), Hank Worden (the rodeo rider who played Old Mose in ''The Searchers''). And Mr. Carey is unlike other Hollywood people. A brilliant raconteur, he did not use a ghostwriter. By the end of his book, one feels one has lived in the surreal conditions of a Ford set on location, where grown men were treated like children.

John Wayne, the tough hero, acted like a cowed hound around Ford. If you mistreat ''the most important American'' and get away with it, does that make you the most important man? If so, then Ford was the unrecognized despot of our culture, as well as of his acting troop.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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