Wolcott Went to War on Oscar War Movies

‘I was ready to attach a bayonet to a broomhandle and patrol the war-torn streets of Greenwich Village’


In his Medium Cool column in the December 12, 1977, Village Voice, James Wolcott ruminated on the man many might still want to see as the fifth face on Mount Rushmore: John Wayne. The Voice television critic pulled no punches in his review of Oscar Presents the War Movies and John Wayne:

On the surface the special — written by Charles Champlin, film critic for the Los Angeles Times — was just another star-struck salute, full of noise and confetti. The show was hosted by Wayne…and several guest stars were on hand to pay homage, one even toasting Wayne for being “as American as a Rocky Mountain.” From the fawning deference shown to him it was evident that the Yahooism of the Vietnam years was now forgiven, forgotten. Okay, fine. But what’s not okay is the way the show plundered our movie past to make war seem a glorious, glamorous adventure. In its celebration of militarism, Oscar Presents… was the most nakedly propagandistic show I’ve ever seen on network television.

Film clips from over a hundred World War II-era films whizzed by like shrapnel. One moment Andy Hardy was whining, “Dad, I don’t understand these modern girls,” and the next, Japanese planes were strafing the cast of From Here to Eternity. If you leapt up to take a quick piss you might have missed Bob Hope arriving at boot camp in Caught in the Draft, or Donald Duck talking to a radio, or Irene Dunne singing up a storm to an insipidly granitic Spencer Tracy in A Guy Named Joe. As flag-waving propaganda, the montages were often rousing — at one point I was ready to attach a bayonet to a broomhandle and patrol the war-torn streets of Greenwich Village.

The show tried to make light of the racism directed at the Japanese in World War II–era films, but Wolcott pointed out the ways in which propaganda robs the “other” of their humanity: “In their depiction of Japanese as slant-eyed sadists, Hollywood war movies contributed immeasurably to the sort of racist hysteria that lasted long after the war ended.”

“Those of us born after Hiroshima were offered a counter-cultural spokesman,” Wolcott notes. “Jeff Bridges, who looked as if he had just sauntered out of a Doonesbury cartoon, introduced passages from Hollywood’s more cynical war movies, none starring Wayne. But the cynicism was all on the surface: Mister Roberts is pure popcorn; Stalag 17 and The Caine Mutiny have twist endings that soften their daringness; and Catch-22 is so hysterically incoherent that even General Jack D. Ripper would find it inoffensive.”

Although Wolcott copped to liking many of these films, he worried that programs like Oscar Presents present “propaganda as if it were historical truth.”

And so it goes.