Recently, I was reading a post about the Top 15 John Wayne movies in honor of his centennial birthday. I grew up on John Wayne movies and have always loved his patriotism and said as much in the comment section. Another commenter replied that John Wayne was the “most racist actor/filmakers of all time.” Let’s take a closer look at John Wayne.
The commenter’s exact post was:
John Wayne may be iconic in american film and culture (and granted the western would be incomplete without his contributions); but off the screen (and sometimes on it) he was one of the most racist actor/filmakers of all time. A patriot in the most minimal, and narrow view.
When asked to elaborate, the commenter replied:
Well there is his infamous playboy interview in which he states he believes in white-supremacy; and further states that blacks should be isolated until they become educated enough to participate in society. His rants on Native Americans and how they were “savages,” are well known; and during the Vietnam war there were numerous interviews and accounts of him making racist remarks against the Vietnamese. In terms of him being a racist on screen…well most westerns in those days were not kind to the Native Americans. Simply his on screen persona did not match his real life personality a bit. He had a ferocious temper that often came out negatively in interviews (his response to the question of everything being black or white “why the hell not!”); and he was a draft dodger in WWII, choosing to pursue his acting career.
However, I have to disagree with the commenter on several points.
First, I think that John Wayne’s on screen persona did match his real life personality (from what I’ve read about him. I’ve never met the guy). Both on and off the screen, Wayne was a tough, gritty guy that told you frankly how it was without sparing any thoughts for your feelings. A very candid man, he was unwavering in his beliefs regardless of whether than conflicted with yours. And he never, ever backed down from a fight — even that of lung cancer (which he beat) and stomach cancer (which he did not).
Secondly, he was not a draft dodger. He received a 3-A deferment for dependency reasons, as did most men who had more than two children. Records indicated that he never personally filed for a deferment claim. I assume it was Republic Pictures that filed for the deferment because they needed their money maker, their leading man, at home.
True, he could have enlisted or appealed the deferment. I don’t know why he didn’t. And everything I’ve read says that he regretted not doing so. But not serving does not mean he didn’t answer America’s call. He was a stanch supporter of the war efforts — both WWII and Vietnam. Not only did his films serve as inspiration to the fighting men and women, he toured with the USO, as did many other entertainers who did not serve. Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his service to America on May 26, 1979.
As for his comments, I ask you to remember that he lived in a different era. Things were different in that time — nobody was politically correct. Everybody said things back then that were socially acceptable that would not be uttered today.
I’ll freely admit that he is known for his remarks being controversial. In fact, I think he did that on purpose to stir up issues. When asked about the reaction to the infamous 1971 Playboy interview, he said, “I must have said some things a lot of people have been thinking, but were afraid to express.”
I was not able to find a copy of the interview (I don’t have back issues of Playboy just laying around). I was, however, able to read excerpts in the book John Wayne: American. Although they were contentious, I personally didn’t find them offensive. I don’t necessarily agree with some of them, but I think he was just expressing his opinion. I think the remarks are open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a fight, then you could find one.
Likewise, I could find no references to Wayne calling Native Americans savages. He did call them selfish in the Playboy interview, but that’s a matter of opinion, not racism.
Regarding his comments for the Vietnamese, he was a strong supporter of the American solider and at the time the Vietnamese were the enemy. I’m not saying it’s right, but I know I’m not above calling my enemies a few nasty names (or even my husband when he’s made me mad).
As for racism in his movies, let’s not confuse fantasy with reality. Just because you play a racist in a movie — not that I can remember him doing so, but I haven’t seen every movie he did — doesn’t mean you are one. Regarding Native Americans in his movies, I think that John Wayne movies often had the best portrayals of them — strong leaders just trying to protect their families and lands. Often in these movies, his role was that of the liaison between the settlers and indians.
Besides it’s a movie. I’m not upset by the portrayal of women in his movies. Granted if my husband ever tried to spanked me or tar and feathered me like Wayne’s character did Maureen O’Hara’s in McLintock, I knock him into next week. But I still love that movie and think that scene is hilarious. O’Hara apparently wasn’t appalled either, the Irish actress had this to say about Wayne:
To the People of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor and a very fine actor. John Wayne is the United States of America. He is what they believe it to be. He is what they hope it to be. And he is what they hope it will always be.
Did Wayne have a temper? Both on and off screen from what I heard. I also understand he had some pretty old fashion theories about women, at least by today’s standard. By the way, all three of his wives were Hispanic. Was John Wayne perfect? By no means. But I dare you to find me someone that is. I take my heroes just like I take my friends — the good with the bad. Nobody’s perfect. And what John Wayne did well, he did very, very well.
John Wayne remains an American patriot — albeit a flawed one — in my book.
(McLintock photo courtesy of jwaynefan.com)