dan barden   A Promise and a Problem  
photo of john wayne

  There's a picture of John Wayne on the cover of my novel, and for me it represents the most profound moment in his career. It's near the beginning of The Searchers, just after Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, learns that his family may be victims of an Indian murder raid at their homestead forty miles away from where Ethan now stands. Wayne looks over his horse and into the camera with an awesome resignation. Ethan knows better than anyone what is about to happen, and he knows exactly what it would take to stop it, but he also knows that he can do nothing--at a distance of forty miles, he might as well be on the other side of the world. The actor John Wayne is somehow able to embody this moment in a way that, as many times as I've seen the film, always breaks my heart.

John Wayne was more than anything else a vehicle for cinema. Cinema moved through him in a way that it hasn't moved through anyone before or since. A great movie actor is a very different thing from any other kind of actor. Becoming a movie star is almost a metaphysical trick, although it's certain that many movie stars work very hard at it. Wayne certainly did. But the skill he developed, a skill which brought him to be regarded as a worldwide icon for both America's promise and its failure, seems to me to be a very special gift--unique in the history of cinema--and one that had a great deal to do with who he was as a man.

When someone says that John Wayne only played one role--the role of John Wayne--they're saying a much more complicated thing than they imagine. What does it mean to play "yourself?" When John Wayne stares over his horse at the beginning of The Searchers, he was allowing the vast narrative weight of that film to move through him. Is the "self" that he's playing the self of a boy who reached for the top of American society from the margins of the lower middle class? Is it a young man who became obsessed with transcending the genre he'd been cast in? Or maybe the hard working actor who became a great artist while sacrificing relationships and family and his own youth? Or is it the "self" of Ethan Edwards, the bitter "never surrendered" Confederate officer, a man defined by his implacable rage and the rage of a whole nation as it pushes toward the new land and learns to bear the terrible burden of its desire. The kind of person who can physically embody these huge feelings and ideas has got to be more than just a puppet, and in some ways, much more than just an actor. As Wayne himself said,
When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing. It was as deliberate and studied a projection as you'll ever see.

Wayne was a physically large man, but I think he was also a spiritually large man. This is not to say that he didn't have great failings--on the contrary, I think it means he had great failings. John Wayne represents everything that I hate and love about America, the most spiritually gifted country in the world and the most spiritually depraved. The Searchers, for example, is a film about a man who forges himself to a great purpose--the recovery of what's left of his family from his enemy--and in the process of his search, he not only becomes his own enemy, he nearly destroys what's left of his family. Wayne himself, it seems to me, was that kind of man. He loved his country, but he didn't serve in the war; he adored his family, but he spent little time with them; he craved the transcendence of cinema, and as an actor, there was no one more influential--some of the best movies ever made are "John Wayne movies"--but as a director, he was, frankly, pretty awful.

One of the difficult things to understand about America is that we are the brightest hope of mankind and the greatest evil. The brightness of our hope, unfortunately, is often where the evil hides. Simple-minded people don't get America any more than they get John Wayne. Many people, for example, refuse to understand that Wayne often plays very troubled and dangerous men. Arguably two of his greatest roles, in The Searchers and Red River, are certifiable maniacs bent on destroying exactly what they love. Is this the cherished poster boy of the Republican Revolution? The icon for American's ascendance in the late twentieth century? I don't think so--at least not the way some of his boosters would have you believe. Rather, he's an icon who's better suited to his culture than anyone intended him to be. More appropriate, I would say, than Wayne himself even knew. And yet, if his boosters are ultimately disappointed by who he really is, so, to a large extent, are his detractors. Those homicidal maniacs that he played in his best movies are also beautiful and powerful and loving and generous and obsessed not only with destruction, but with the building of community.

Growing up in my home, we knew Wayne both as an icon and as a man. We knew that he was a promise as much as he was a problem. He was everything that we loved about our own father as well as everything we hated. He was strong, but suspicious; generous, but resentful; independent and fearless, but also completely bound to his own experience and always mindful of the opinions of others. He was someone who, within ourselves, we had to both love and destroy. As an icon, he provided a theology with which to understand ourselves. We were both horrible and magnificent at the same time, much like our parents, much like our country.

Read "John Wayne's Big Boat," another essay by Dan Barden.

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Copyright © 1997 Dan Barden.