- John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties by Russell Meeuf
Russell Meeuf’s new study takes on the difficult task of reframing an icon of postwar American popular culture as an avatar of globalization. The image of John Wayne as the quintessential American male has survived the gradual fading from memory of his body of work. Meeuf anecdotally reports that though few of his students will have seen a Wayne film, “every student is able to explain clearly the values that Wayne represents: toughness, patriotism, militarism” (3). The persistence of this vision of Wayne and its accompanying assumptions about his abiding Americanness, Meeuf argues, obscures the complex relationship between Wayne’s “star text” and the expansion of global capitalism in the immediate postwar period, and especially how the deployment of his image around the world mirrored the contemporary transformations of accepted forms of masculinity. Meeuf lays out a new model for understanding Wayne as an eminently exportable star who represented “not the dominating military hegemony of a jingoistic United States, but rather a set of styles and values at the core of an American-style capitalist modernity” (186).
Unsurprisingly, the majority of the films that Meeuf examines are Westerns. Emphasizing the genre’s construction of cinematic space over its oft-cited concern with the historical transition between wilderness and civilization, Meeuf reads its spatial configurations as reflecting the heterogeneous social organizations that accompany “uneven modernization.” Meeuf persuasively argues that the films of John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy “offer a compelling fantasy of borderlessness and nomadism tied to the increasingly mobile world of international migration” (63), while the “claustrophobic sensations of Rio Bravo mirror the anxious transformations of space within global capitalism, dwelling on the tensions of immobility in a world where movement is power” (160). Given that modernity is not a monolithic temporal progression but is expressed variously in different geographical contexts, this emphasis on space over time is useful in drawing out some previously unexamined implications of the international dissemination of the Western genre film.
Nonetheless, and rather curiously, Meeuf posits a linear trajectory from the genre’s use of open to confined spaces over the period he is examining. Indeed, the periodization of 1948-62 neatly encompasses the postwar resurgence of the classical Western from Red River and Fort Apache to the emergence of the elegiac Western in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Arriving at the end of this period, Meeuf suggests that “the somewhat flimsy-looking sets of Liberty Valance forecast the restrictions on space and mobility that a more complete modernity and nation-state provide” (180). This statement, coming as it does in the coda of a chronologically arranged work, calls to mind the developmentalist modernization theories that Meeuf argues against. While it is a valid explanation of the vicissitudes of the Western genre itself, the application Meeuf makes of it here seems rather too broad. While Meeuf’s expansion of historical-reflection genre studies beyond U.S. borders is intriguing, it often takes the form of simply reframing existing scholarship on canonical texts into a global context. Meeuf’s most interesting and evocative treatments come when he recuperates neglected films like Hondo and The Alamo, which fit the above-quoted arguments about space and migration just as aptly as those more well-known works.
Meeuf is likewise on surer footing when he discusses films that explicitly deal with international relations, all of which are relatively obscure. In a chapter on two anti-communist films of the 1950s, Big Jim McLain and Jet Pilot, he convincingly develops his thesis about Wayne’s projection of Americanness as consumerist modernity as opposed to military might. By placing Wayne and his love interests in exotic but still American locales (Hawaii and Palm Springs, respectively), these films offer tourism, leisure, and consumption as antidotes to the communist menace. Furthermore, the quasi-domestic scene of the characters’ lavish hotel rooms manages the tensions between mobility and domesticity that are so prevalent in Wayne’s westerns and that Meeuf sees as essential to the [End...