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John Wayne as an American Archetypal Figure

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Here's a passage from a Roger Ebert review of RIO LOBO, a Howard Hawks film starring John Wayne:

Both "El Dorado" and "Rio Lobo" deliberately avoided any innovations in the basic Wayne role, as it was invented and shaped since the 1930s by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Hawks himself, and minor directors who copied them. Hawks apparently felt that he'd already had his day an an inventor of archetypes, and now that he was in his '70s (and Wayne was in his '60s), it was time to mine the vast deposits of memories, conventions and nostalgia from all those earlier Wayne films.


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In this case, the story itself doesn't matter much. We go to a classic John Wayne Western not to see anything new, but to see the old done again, done well, so that we can sink into the genre and feel confident we won't be betrayed. To some degree Wayne movies are rituals, and so it is fitting that they resemble each other. "El Dorado" was a remake of Hawks' "Rio Bravo" (1958), and "Rio Lobo" draws from both of them. (It is said that when Hawks called Wayne and offered to send over the script, Wayne replied, "Why bother? I've already made the movie twice.")


Just what was that "John Wayne role" --or perhaps we could even say "John Wayne archetype"-- and what is there that should be said about it, both in terms of what's worthy about that John Wayne heroic figure, and what is wrong or problematic about it?

I note that Ebert says "betrayed," meaning that we in the audience have some of our hopes tied into the enactment of the John Wayne archetype. Yet there are also such limitations, so many human qualities that are sacrificed to create the archetype.

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(Please note that the invitation here is to do BOTH-- to appreciate what is admirable and to criticize what is amiss. Part of the core problem in America today is the polarization between right and left that the Bushites have fostered and exploited as a political strategy, and part of the healing process is the work of attempting to bridge that widening gulf. This can be one small effort in that process.)

Here are several responses this invitation elicited when I issued it on my own website:

Phil Z. wrote:

I’ve never been a huge John Wayne fan. I found him to be more of a characature than a real person. What I find worthy about the archetype is the way it embodies certain longstanding American values: rugged individualism, courage in the face of heavy odds, the sense of manifest destiny — with the limitless possibilities that that phrase suggests. He was always tough and macho, but in a way that protected the women and children. He always knew the right thing to do and he acted swiftly and decisively to do it. What true American would not appreciate these values?


John Wayne, however, is not a man for our times. We are long past the time when we as a country can dictate to the world — unilaterally, and on our terms — how a particular geo-political situation should be handled. Yet the John Wayne mindset seems still to be what prevails in the Republican administration today. Did John Wayne ever ask for help? Did he ever display any uncertainty, vulnerability or weakness?

Might might have made right for John Wayne, but it is an increasingly dangerous and wrong-headed approach to solving global problems today.


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Layne Longfellow wrote:

Our love of Wayne (I can’t think of his non-stage name just now) is delightful.
Think of his walk - it’s that of a sissy. It was learned and practiced and perfected, by the way. Consciously and deliberately. Compare it with that of any other classic masculine power figure — Stallone, Willis, Eastwood, whoever.
Now think of the shape of his face, and the twinkle in his eye. Neither were classically masculine-tough.
Androgyny is the key; both men and women could love him comfortably.
But the extra added secret ingredient — his brimming confidence.
The more I think about it, the better I feel about us: John Wayne was a confident androgyne.
Blend the masculine and the feminine, add a little self esteem, and you get a cultural icon we can all embrace, pull close to ourselves, and still expect respect in the morning.
Or is it all hypocrisy? It is, after all, manufactured, calculated, studied, almost as though it were a marketing campaign filtered through focus groups. We been had, and we laid back and enjoyed it, as Bobby Knight enjoined us to do in his immortal recommendation.


Andrew Bard Schmookler wrote:

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)

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