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.
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.
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.
By Stephen Metcalf
proces. by MOVIES