John Wayne's America: The politics of Celebrity
By Gary Wills
Simon & Schuster
380 pp., $26
John Wayne, a squinty-eyed, likable Paul Bunyan draped in Ross Perot fabric, is filmdom's best example of how the movie business created a star who became a symbol of values.
Wayne was 6 foot 4 in real life, but on the screen he exploded to 20 feet tall. Every nuance of his craggy face and smile was magnified in celebration of frontier virility. His rolling walk became the huge stride of a man defending virtue and the American way.
Gary Wills, in "John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity," describes the famous walk as "graceful, menacing, inescapable."
Yet Wills, the author of 19 books mostly about American men and politics, is the partial victim of the John Wayne big-screen myth: Wills concluded there would be enough substance in the construction of the Wayne myth for a book-length meal.
There wasn't. Wills's academic way of discussing Wayne's impact on the world could have been a long think-piece in Harper's or The Atlantic Monthly rather than a book.
What Wills overlooks in this odd book, is the fact that the movie industry is primarily a business dependent on technology. At times brilliant and memorable, movies are made within a value system. But they also promote values. Wayne once told a writer, "Sometimes I wonder about my career. I don't do much really. Just sell sincerity."
Wayne sold his two-fisted sincerity with technology as much as the values he personified. Movies were changing from small, black-and-white screen productions to huge screens telling epic tales. Spectacular locations were filmed by extraordinary cameras using powerful sound systems. Movies graduated from novelties to become an industry skilled in technological make believe.
This is not a book about John Wayne's America, or of a nation hooked on the image of the frontier. Nor is it about John Wayne as a man. Wills wants to trace the history of Wayne as an idea, an examination of the roots of the ideological image of this star. He believes that Wayne really carried the political impact he ascribes to him, an impact other critics have doubted.
The prologue, introduction, and the concluding chapter here help set the social and political context with worthy, formidable analysis. But in-between, much centers on the habits of allegedly mean-spirited director John Ford and a cryptic analysis of the plots of Ford's many movies and his directing. At many points Wayne simply disappears for pages, as couId be expected from an author dismissing a man in favor of the idea of the man.
It is as if Wills thinks movie scripts, changed continuously during filming, contain the secrets to Wayne's popularity, and therefore are the answers to his subsequent political impact. Hardly.
Another part of the story here - in addition to the film-makers' technological prowess in projecting images - lies with the audiences, and what in them responded to Wayne.
Aside from generalities and a few anecdotes, Wills gives short shrift to the cultural impact of Wayne on young men beyond House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Vietnam paraplegic Ron Kovic, both of whom say they were influenced by Wayne.
Wills also charges that women didn't like Wayne, but offers minimal proof. Add the assertion that Wayne didn't like horses, says Wills, and interest in Wayne, as a man, intensifies. Nor is there an attempt to persuasively link Wayne's true impact on the origins of the Vietnam War, although Wills quotes others saying that Wayne was "the most important man in America" because he helped start the war.
Wayne did not serve in World War II, a fascinating fact that again has little attraction for Wills beyond a cursory foray in determining why. What was needed here was a slight acknowledgment, maybe in a chapter or two, that Wayne presents a much more complex social dynamic at work than Wills's singular focus presents.
* David Holmstrom is a Monitor staff writer.