John Wayne: Mattie McGrath references an emblematic, problematic American

A limited actor and probable racist, he is still the go-to icon for frontier bravado

Actor John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Photograph: Warner Bros/AP Photo

Actor John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Photograph: Warner Bros/AP Photo

 

Among the waves of bizarre news last week, one gobbet stood out for lovers of cinema. For a day or so, Mattie McGrath caused his own name and that of John Wayne to trend in all the usual places.

Addressing the National Public Health Emergency Team’s preference for increasing Covid-19 restrictions, the TD for Tipperary South spoke of Dr Tony Holohan, the chief medical officer, “as riding back like John Wayne with his six-guns swinging around [saying] ‘I am going to close the whole country’.”  (Mr McGrath later offered a sincere apology for the tone of his remarks to Dr Holohan, whose wife has been seriously ill.)

It is now 113 years since John Wayne was born. He died just over four decades ago. Though not in the very first flush of youth, Mr McGrath is not old enough to remember Wayne in his prime. The Searchers emerged two years before his birth. He would have been not even an eye-twinkle when the big man broke through with Stagecoach. Yet Wayne is still the go-to avatar when summoning up frontier bravado.

Awareness of golden-era cinema is no longer what it was. University Challenge contestants who can, without pause, tell muons from nuons struggle to distinguish Cary Grant from Rock Hudson. That knowledge has become the preserve of experts and hobbyists. Like Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart, Wayne has, however, survived the memory cull. This is partly because, more than an actor (scarcely that, to some critics), he has come to represent an American archetype. To whom did Alan Rickman’s Eurotrash villain compare John McClane in Die Hard? To whom do you think? “This time John Wayne does not walk off into the sunset with Grace Kelly, ” he said towards the close of that 1988 smash.

The man himself, a conservative Republican who stood up for the Vietnam War, is celebrated as a patriot in the red states. Meanwhile, US tourists in quieter resorts are still accused of being “John Wayne” when they bluster too loudly. Nobody ever got compared to Richard Widmark for sending back a steak in the Canary Islands.

Though Wayne played increasingly divided figures after looming over Montgomery Clift in 1948’s Red River, the actor and his characters forever blur into a curious melange of New World mythologies. Never mind that he somehow failed to serve in the second World War — something about which he remained sensitive. Wayne became the spirit of the warrior nation in a way no other US performer managed.

Just this summer, during the protests over George Floyd’s death, those quotes led to calls for the name of John Wayne Airport in Orange County to be changed

It would be nice to say he staged the greatest debut entrance in movie history. That’s not even nearly true. Born and raised in Iowa, Wayne had acted in dozens of films before, in 1939, John Ford cast him as The Ringo Kid in Stagecoach. But his appearance on a deserted road in the western that properly made his name really does feel like the unveiling of a legend. A halo rests around Wayne as he spins his rifle, and the camera, alerted to a phenomenon of potentially historic magnitude, races towards the still boyish face. That’s the sort of image they put on money. It’s the sort of image they put on flags.

To complain that Wayne was a limited actor is to misunderstand the dynamics of American cinema. Such was the actor’s confidence within his two or three octaves that the industry began shaping roles to those capabilities. In Howard Hawks’s Red River, Wayne played the belligerent tyrant. In Ford’s The Searchers, among the greatest of all US films, he allowed surges of racism into his avenging anti-hero. The movies were, before the 1950s had ended, already critiquing and unpacking the archetype that Wayne and Ford perfected for Stagecoach.

None of this cautious deconstruction was enough for the coming young generation. David Thomson, author of The Biographical Dictionary of Film, screened Red River for American students in 1971. As Thomson stood to applaud at the end, he became aware the audience was sitting on its hands. They liked Clift. They loved the action scenes. “But ultimately Red River never had a chance because they would not stomach John Wayne.”

Little wonder. As recently as 1968, with The Green Berets, Wayne had directed and starred in one of the few films that supported the Vietnam War. The year of Thomson’s screening, he gave an interview to Playboy featuring racist attitudes so antediluvian they caused a scandal all over again after resurfacing in 2019: “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility,” he said. Just this summer, during the protests over George Floyd’s death, those quotes led to calls for the name of John Wayne Airport in Orange County to be changed.

The fact that anybody cared what Wayne told a reporter nearly 50 years ago is some measure of his continuing resonance. The best actors in the world will fade from consciousness a few decades after their deaths. It’s harder to erase the memory of an icon, an emblem, an avatar. Just ask Deputy McGrath.

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