How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon

The actor’s persona was inextricable from the toxic culture of Cold War machismo.

Juan Esteban Rodríguez / Folio Art

John Ford first noticed him in 1928, herding a flock of geese on the set of Mother Machree, an otherwise forgettable shanty-Irish weepie. The kid was huge, but innocent—or at least innocent-seeming. He had (he later claimed) “no desire” to be an actor. He was just a college football player earning spare cash as a property boy, an extra. Ford noticed him, but concluded that he wasn’t ready. (“I wanted some pain written on his face to offset the innocence.”) Looking at a still from 1930, you see immediately that Ford was right: He is soft and creamy, a “come-hither” carved out of a half-baked cheesecake. It was Raoul Walsh who finally cast him in his first lead role, in The Big Trail, released in 1930, and who told him, after consulting with the studio bosses, to change his name to John Wayne.

The Big Trail bombed—magnificently, on the scale of Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate—and this sent Wayne back to Hollywood purgatory. He made dozens of Westerns for the so-called Poverty Row studios, disposable Saturday-matinee “oaters” for boys. (That Wayne endured making them for nearly a decade somewhat belies his claim of having no ambitions as an actor.) When Ford spotted him again, he was fishing off a pier in Long Beach, a B-level player whose confidence was shot. Ford didn’t care; he prized men for their mateyness. He invited Wayne onto his boat, the Araner, and after a while added him to his inner circle. One day in 1938, Ford—an Academy Award–winning director now—tossed his hanger-on a script and, calling him an “idiot,” offered him the lead in Stagecoach.

In the final tally, they made 23 pictures together. Three of them—Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)—are, by any standard, among the best and most important Hollywood films ever made. In their creative partnership, “the two men succeeded in defining an ideal of American masculinity that dominated for nearly half a century,” Nancy Schoenberger writes in Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero. Schoenberger, an English professor at William & Mary, gamely argues that the masculine ideal, as championed by Ford and embodied by Wayne, is still salvageable, honorable even, and she cites her admiration for her own father, a test pilot. Stoic, humble, gallant, self-sufficient, loyal—put that way, who could disagree?

But that is not the whole story. Schoenberger has hidden a provocative thesis inside a Christmas present for Dad. She asks us to remember the beauty of masculine self-mastery as Ford presented it in his very best films. And yet, from the bulk of the evidence here, masculinity (like the Western) is a by-product of nostalgia, a maudlin elegy for something that never existed—or worse, a masquerade that allows no man, not even John Wayne, to be comfortable in his own skin.

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In the long working “friendship” between the two men, unless I missed it, Ford never spared a kind word for his protégé. In fact, Ford was savage in his mistreatment of Wayne, even though—or because?—Wayne worshipped him. (“My whole set up was that he was my mentor and my ideal! I think that deep down inside, he’s one of the greatest human beings that I have ever known.”) From Stagecoach through Liberty Valance, their last Western together, Ford rode Wayne so mercilessly that fellow performers—remarkably, given the terror Ford inspired—stepped in on Wayne’s behalf. Filming Stagecoach, Wayne revealed his inexperience as a leading man, and this made Ford jumpy. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” he demanded, grabbing Wayne by the chin. “Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” And he hated the way Wayne moved. “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a goddamn fairy?”

Masculinity, says Schoenberger, echoing Yeats, was for Ford a quarrel with himself out of which he made poetry. Jacques Lacan’s definition of love might be more apt: “Giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” Ford was terrified of his own feminine side, so he foisted a longed-for masculinity on Wayne. A much simpler creature than Ford, Wayne turned this into a cartoon, and then went further and politicized it. There was an awful pathos to their relationship—Wayne patterning himself on Ford, at the same time that Ford was turning Wayne into a paragon no man could live up to.

Of all the revelations in Schoenberger’s book, none is more striking than this: After Stagecoach, a critical and commercial success, Wayne disappeared into mostly unmemorable films for another nine years. It was only in 1948, in the film 3 Godfathers, that John Wayne at last began to resemble the image we have of him in our heads. He was the apotheosis of a Cold War type—unsentimental, hard, brutal if necessary, proudly anachronistic, a rebuke to the softness of postwar affluence. He was turning, in other words, from an artist into a political symbol. “Unlike Ford,” Schoenberger says, “he ended up making propaganda, not art.” Wayne was an unyielding anticommunist; by binding up his screen image with his “ultra-patriotism,” as Schoenberger calls it, he posed himself against a liberal establishment that was feminized, and therefore worthy of populist disgust.

Schoenberger makes the case that we are confused about masculinity because we cannot accept men like Wayne as heroes. In flight from machismo, we have largely given up on adult male self-mastery. But isn’t it also true that, allowed at last to be confused about masculinity, we no longer accept men like Wayne as heroes? Schoenberger herself alludes, perceptively, to “functional masculinity,” and if I read her right, this is the core of her provocative argument. Masculinity as puerile male bonding, as toxic overcompensation and status jockeying—this is what’s unleashed when masculinity no longer has an obvious function. Divorced from social purpose, “being a man” becomes merely symbolic. So, for example, robots in factories and drones on the battlefield will only make gun ownership and mixed martial arts more popular. To push the thesis further, as men become less socially relevant, they become recognition-starved; and it is here that “being a man” expresses itself most primitively, as violence.

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The invention of John Wayne—is there a more primal scene of masculinity being stripped of utility and endowed with dubious political karma? If it was his idol’s cruelty, more than anything, that converted the beautiful boy in buckskins, with the wavy pile of hair and not a line of experience written on his face, into a Cold War icon, then we would do well to understand that cruelty. Henry Fonda, who made eight pictures with Ford, said of him: “Pappy was full of bullshit, but it was a delightful sort of bullshit.” He pretended that he wanted only to be a stuntman and was given the director job because he could yell; he pretended that he hired actors based only on their skill at cards. His whole persona was shot through with nostalgia for something he never knew. He altered his dress, head to toe, because “he was trying to be a native Irishman,” as one colleague noted, wearing his collar raised and the brim of his hat down, so the Irish rain would run off it, and rolling up the legs of his pants, as if he’d been stepping through the Erin dew.

You may not be shocked to discover that it was Ford who had the effeminate walk. His grandson said that Ford was “aware of his own sensitivity and almost ashamed of it,” that he “surrounded himself with John Wayne, Ward Bond, and those people because they represented the way he wanted to be.” Ford’s biographer put it this way: “Without question he preferred the company of men, and male bonding reached inordinate proportions.” (Inordinate! Oh my.) It was left to Maureen O’Hara, one of Ford’s favorite actresses, to be more direct. In her 2004 memoir, she speculates that Ford was gay. (She claims she walked in on the director kissing a leading man.) It is painful to read, now, about men who struggled as Ford apparently did; about how he would get so drunk that he would soil himself; about how between shoots he let himself go, watching TV in bed, wearing pajamas all day, his hair and fingernails allowed to lengthen; about how ominously remote his marriage was.

Jimmy Stewart once said of Ford, “He hated the human voice.” He would pause filming and insist the actors had been adding words, and when he was shown they hadn’t, he’d cut some. “If you can’t tell your story up on the screen,” Stewart recalls him saying, “if you can’t tell the story visually, without depending on the spoken word, you aren’t using the medium correctly.” Ford started in silent pictures and made dozens of them—and even in his talking pictures, it was as if speech itself were inauthentic, a contamination of the possibilities of action, and therefore of virility. So he hired an actor for whom speaking was a burden. (“It would take him years to learn how to deliver a line with unstudied ease,” Schoenberger writes of Wayne.) Wayne was not alone in this. It’s obvious once you say it, but the film actors of the 1930s, the first full decade of synchronized sound, had to learn how to talk on-screen, and many made an unusual speech pattern integral to their performance. Bogart lisped; Stewart stammered; Fonda spoke beautifully, but by wrapping each word in silence.

To read Scott Eyman’s Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart (another Christmas present for Dad, and a very good one) is to relive the fate of the Greatest Generation as it moved through war, affluence, routine, boredom, and finally, well-earned retirement. At the same time, the book reveals how defined by reticence the lives and screen personas of both Fonda and Stewart were. Neither was inarticulate, not in the least. And yet, though their performances are invariably described as natural, they were emotionally disguised men, each opaque in his way. (“Cold. Cold. Cold” was Katharine Hepburn’s assessment of Fonda; Stewart was so aloof as to seem almost of another species.)

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Their naturalness is bound up in the default mode being, for both of them, silence. Speech is always earned. In Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Fonda looks painfully underfed, and he’s done up to resemble the $5 bill, but the minute he speaks, the picture is set straight: “I presume y’all know who I am. I’m plain Abraham Lincoln.” It takes painstaking craft to appear natural on-screen, but that’s not quite right: It takes precision. In movie after movie, the great stars—Stewart and Fonda stand out—delivered taut, masterful, unembellished performances, suiting every gesture or modulation of voice to the purpose of the hero.

“Hank and I were never bigger than our roles,” Stewart said, which is another way of saying that their masculinity was always only functional. To the extent that any actor becomes an icon, he is bigger than his role, and John Wayne the icon has always appealed to men who are smaller than they think they deserve to be. A Western nearly always glorifies acts of violence, then justifies them as necessary because the state proves too weak to dispense justice.

Ford appears to have had misgivings about both Wayne and the Western, and expressed his ambivalence in his last great film. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a parable—I kid you not—in which the great moral precepts are enshrined into law, then made enforceable by the state. Along the way, in addition to a gunfight, a gender-studies seminar breaks out. The ugliest, most sneeringly unattractive characters in the film attempt to humiliate Stewart for wearing an apron. But he is not humiliated, and we don’t feel humiliated for him. The rest of the film is devoted to burying Wayne’s character in mawkish elegy. Ford was done with his creation; he never made another Western with Wayne.

The question I kept asking myself while reading Schoenberger was: Do we really still need white men to save us from white men? Unclear. But we will forever need precise speech to rescue us from bullies. In 1950, Cecil B. DeMille led a witch hunt against the directors’ guild, attempting to purge it of members who were suspiciously left-wing (and Jewish). His main target was its chair, Joseph Mankiewicz. At a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel, DeMille said his piece, after which Ford, who hadn’t yet said a word, stood up, turned to the stenographer, and said, “I’m John Ford. I make Westerns.”

He addressed the gathering: “I don’t think there is anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B. DeMille—and he certainly knows how to give it to them. In that respect I admire him.” Then he added, “But I don’t like you, C.B. I don’t like what you stand for, and I don’t like what you’ve been saying here tonight. Joe has been vilified, and I think he needs an apology.” Ford, who was never bigger than his role, concluded by saying, “I believe there is only one alternative, and I hereby so move: that Mr. DeMille and the entire board of directors resign and that we give Joe a vote of confidence. And then let’s all go home and get some sleep. We’ve got some pictures to make tomorrow.” The motion carried the day.

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