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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 465-477
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"Print the Legend":
John Wayne and Postwar American Culture
James T. Campbell
Garry Wills. John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity. New York: Touchstone Books, 1997. 384 pp. Notes, film index, and index. $14.00.
Randy Roberts and James S. Olson. John Wayne: American. New York: Free Press, 1995. 772 pp. Notes, film index, bibliography, and index. $32.50 (cloth); University of Nebraska Press, $25.00 (cloth).
Amid the pitched battles of the History Wars--the Enola Gay controversy, the attack on the National Endowment for the Humanities, the fracas over national history standards--a historian could be forgiven for overlooking reports of a recent skirmish at the Alamo. Over the last decade, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT), who oversee the site, have come under pressure to present visitors with a more inclusive, critical history--a history that treats Santa Anna and his troops as more than cannon fodder, while acknowledging such awkward facts as Texans' support of slavery. The controversy eventually came to focus on a single image: a prominently displayed portrait of Davy Crockett, one of the late, lamented defenders of the besieged fort. After considerable debate, the DRT agreed to remove the portrait, amidst predictable charges of "forgetting the Alamo." What transports the story out of the realm of the ordinary is the fact that the visage in the portrait bore less resemblance to Crockett than to John Wayne, who played the Tennessean in his bombastic Cold War epic, The Alamo (1960).
The American West has long been a place where life imitates art, where reality and representation have become so interwoven as to be inextricable. Kit Carson, the prototype for generations of western heroes, must have known something was up that October day in 1849 when he found amidst the remnants of a wagon train stampeded by Apaches a copy of a dime novel celebrating the exploits of . . . Kit Carson. 1 A century and a half later, the cluster of meanings invested in Crockett and Carson, and perpetuated in the persona of John Wayne, continues to inform American life. As the newspaperman declares at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), the last great collaboration between Wayne and director John Ford, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." [End Page 465]
From his first film appearance as a teenage extra in Brown of Harvard (1926) to his final role, fifty years later, as an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in Don Siegel's elegiac The Shootist (1976), John Wayne appeared in nearly two hundred full-length films, more than any other actor in Hollywood history. In the process, he became not only one of the most recognized figures in the world but one of the most influential, the seeming quintessence of American manhood. For a quarter century, from 1949 to 1974, he graced the list of Hollywood's top ten box office attractions, a record of endurance that will likely never be broken. As late as 1995--nearly two decades after his last film and sixteen years after his death--Wayne topped a Harris poll of Americans' "favorite stars." An abiding presence in American imaginative life, Wayne resurfaces in the most unexpected places: in the lyrics of rap pioneer Gil Scott Herron; riding to the rescue in a Coors commercial; in the film The Birdcage, in which Robin Williams, trying vainly to teach his gay lover how to behave like a "real man," imitates Wayne's legendary, rolling walk. Virtually all of the Vietnam movies churned out in the last twenty years contain some implicit or explicit reference to Wayne. The lead character in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket intones his name as a kind of mantra: "Is that you, John Wayne? Is that me?"
For conservatives, in particular, Wayne has long been an icon, an embodiment of authority, masculinity, love of country, and other allegedly endangered American virtues. Pat Buchanan rallied his supporters in 1996 with Wayne's signature line from The Sands of Iwo...