Wills' John Wayne: -- on Mount Rushmore? jTC

December 22, 1996|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity," by Garry Wills. Simon and Schuster. 289 pages. $26.

This latest book by Garry Wills, like many of the author's other works, is unclassifiable. It is at once history, sociology, a chronicle of Hollywood films and the life of an actor - all of these, and none of them. It might be considered the biography of an idea.

While Abraham Lincoln rallied the nation around the eloquence of his Gettysburg Address, Garry Wills suggests that John Wayne became an American icon, due in part, to his inarticulateness. He expressed himself through body language, his loping gait, his agility in vaulting from the back of one horse to another (no matter that his equestrian daring was actually performed by a movie stuntman) and his manly courage was denied by his avoidance of any active participation in World War II. His roles as an archetypal cowboy hero were merged with his own persona and they were malleable to the skills of his chief director, John Ford.

"Stagecoach," a Ford product, has many of the ingredients for Wayne's fame. In dramatic light and shade, we are shown a desolate prairie roofed by an immensity of sky and frowned upon cliffs harboring Indian tribes in ambush. A fugitive cowboy gallops toward an unlimited horizon, while inside the stagecoach lesser pioneers huddle in a claustrophobic intimacy. Only Wayne is the loner, at once the subduer of Nature and its friend. It is he who embodies America's imperialist ideals.

During the years of his success, bolstered by the hype of publicity and the continuing popularity of Western films, Wayne remains largely, unchanged. Only the political climate altered, but in the bland power of Wayne's projected image, new uses were found to fit new causes.

Although he did, occasionally, appear in parts depicting contemporary events - "The Green Berets" is one - his box office appeal depended most of all, upon Westerns. The conquering cowboy was reinterpreted to represent armed Discipline and the vague banalities of his folkish utterances could be employed for Cold War, Vietnam and McCarthy propaganda. "When I came to Texas I was looking for something I didn't know what - Had me some money, had me some medals ... but it's like I was empty. Well I'm not empty any more - that's what's important, I feel useful to this old world."

The simple, healthy, physical presence continued to stand for the wide open spaces of America, now opposed to the rise of cities, their sophistication and vices and the threats and treacheries of foreigners.

As old age approached, Wayne still held fast to his celebrity. But in a kind of backward evolution, the young lion became a dinosaur and to his fans, nostalgia for the old days supplanted an earlier hero-worship.

Wills concludes, "There was a social dimension to his aging, a sense that a period of history was slipping away, not just one man's powers. The anachronism was still impressive though doomed."

"John Wayne's America," its motivating idea of a phenomenon film star-national hero, left me with a vision. I see the stone portraits of the presidents of the United States carved into the sides of Mount Rushmore; among them the unlikely addition of a moving picture actor is detected through the work of Garry Wills, a brilliant, original thinker.

Dorothea Straus is the author of six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species," and " Under the Canopy." She was publisher of Harpers Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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