How can I hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?” So asked Jean-Luc Godard, and that for me, too, is the essence of the John Wayne problem.
A great star but an all-too-human being, Wayne was a World War II chicken hawk (too busy to serve) who beat the Japs and sacrificed his life on the screen. Typically more bluster than action, he loudly opined against the Communist plot to take over Hollywood—particularly as it was manifest in the movie High Noon—then beat the drum most strenuously for the war in Vietnam. (“I gave my dead dick for John Wayne,” Ron Kovic laments in Born on the Fourth of July). Goldwater was the least of Wayne’s political sins: The actor was a (secret) member of the John Birch Society and an unabashed white supremacist who (privately) supported George Wallace in 1968.
And yet there’s no disputing the Duke’s stature as the supreme action star and dominant male personality of his generation. (Theater critic Eric Bentley considered Nixon and Reagan to have been mere Wayne handmaidens.) The Museum of Modern Art’s tribute, John Wayne Centenary, is restricted to six movies—Wayne’s 1930 debut, The Big Trail, and five later films from the Cold War height of his career. (It’s a tribute to Wayne’s dominance that a freshman film-studies major would have little difficulty rattling off another six vehicles equally as strong.)
With the exception of Howard Hawk’s autumnal heart-warmer El Dorado (1967), all five were directed by John Ford: the grim PT-boat saga They Were Expendable (1945), the elegiac cavalry western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the rowdy action-comedy Donovan’s Reef, and, of course, The Searchers (1956). Just as Ford was the only American director who could have possibly made this rich, strange, sagebrush Moby-Dick, no actor but Wayne could have embodied the part of the pathological Indian-hater Ethan Edwards and made him as American as apple pie. June 20 through 30, MOMA.
Out this week on DVD from Criterion is a tribute to another great (if naturalized) American, the radical Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. A movie that, had he been compelled to see it, would surely have given John Wayne a stroke, Dusan Makavejev’s 1971
WR: History of the Organism is a quintessential celluloid expression of Sixties counterculture, the most Godardian flick Godard never made. This crypto-dramatization of Reich’s
Mass Psychology of Fascism intercuts interviews with Reich’s American disciples and travelogue footage shot among the weirdos of the East Village with a narrative staged in Yugoslavia that suggests a form of self-conscious socialist realism. Suffused with a raw vitality, Makavejev’s survey of the new sexual morality remains transgressive to this day; more than that, his cautionary tale of the doomed romance between a winsome Yugoslav Reich disciple and an uptight Soviet champion ice-skater is the ultimate critique of Communist illusion, a satire as funny as it is heartbreaking.