Sunday, May 31, 2009

Guest Blog: John Wayne and the America I Love

Steve Latshaw
Burbank, California

Marion Michael Morrison had a birthday a week or so ago. I can’t begin to tell you how much that means to me. I can’t begin to tell you how much he means to me. You might know him by his screen name. He’s “Duke” to his friends.

To the rest of us, he’s John Wayne.

John Wayne. A name that brings up a lot of complicated emotions in people: smiles of nostalgia; an adrenalin rush; a bittersweet memory; or, even anger among those who consider themselves the enlightened, the intellectual elite, the folks that would just as soon pretend the middle of America--the heartland--didn’t exist.

Wayne as Ringo Kid in Stagecoach.

To me, in his early movies, like Stagecoach, Tall in the Saddle and the Fighting Seabees, Wayne is like the older brother I never had—always there to get me out of trouble. In later films, particularly Sands of Iwo Jima, he’s my Dad.

John Wayne as Sgt. John M. Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima.

Dad was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. He’s always reminded me of Wayne, the way he stands, the way he reacts, the way he sits with his head down, contemplating his shoes when he’s solving a problem. That sudden eye blink when he lets his guard down and shows some emotion or some appreciation for a job well done. The bit of tenderness and humor under the hero mask. Never more so than in Sands of Iwo Jima. All I have to do to revisit the Dad of my youth is to watch that movie.

I learned about being a father and a leader and a man from that movie and from that time. And from my Dad, or course, who sat on the couch next to me and watched it, and lived his life like a hero. (Of course Dad would say all this was bull; but, he was always more of a Robert Mitchum fan.)

In Wayne’s later films, he’s the tough old grandpa that--like the older brother--shows up to get you out of trouble, with a twinkle in his eye and a kick for your ass.

But that’s just what he is to me.

There was a time when John Wayne meant America to the rest of the world: East and West; good and bad. They admired us and liked us and wanted to be like us. Because they felt that way about him. These days, he’s still thought of as the symbol of America. But America has become a bad thing--to some--and so, by default, is John Wayne. The phrase “cowboy diplomacy” is spoken with bitter derision, even though our shores have been kept safe from terrorist attack since 9/11/2001. Our critics have much to say about what is wrong with America. And they’ve said the same thing about John Wayne.

They say our pride of country and heritage is naïve and ignorant of history.

They say our sense of right and wrong is intolerant, at best.

They say everything we all stand for is bankrupt and corrupt and arrogant, stupid, bloodthirsty and vicious.

They say we have no compassion for the world’s problems, only preoccupation with our own.

They say we are the great evil, the source of the world’s woes, the society that consumes the world's goods at the world's expense.

They say we delight in killing the world’s innocent. That we’re attacked by terrorists because we deserve it.

Or they say we did it ourselves. To justify our military actions overseas. Because we just can’t help but do evil in the world. (My response to this is--if we’re so compelled to do evil--why would we need an excuse?)

These are words that, traditionally, have always come from our enemies. These days, in some cases, they come from our friends. Our families. Our fellow countrymen.

Are they wrong? Well, hell, we aren’t without our blemishes. Neither was Duke. We put our foot in it from time to time and so did he. Mr. Wayne and the rest of us have taken that road to hell that’s paved with good intentions more than we’d care to admit. Maybe that’s part of being an American. We’re far from perfect but, by God, we’re trying our best to do what’s right.

In 1968, Duke Wayne directed and starred in a movie called The Green Berets. He got trashed for it back in the day. It was sloppy in places--Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, doubled badly for South Vietnam; there was some bad miniature work when a chopper crashes; and, at the end of the picture, the sun sets in the East! With a supporting cast including David Janssen (star of the TV's The Fugitive,) Patrick Wayne (the Duke's son), Jim Hutton (Timothy's father), Ed Faulkner, Bruce Cabot, Jack Soo (of TV's Barney Miller), Luke Askew, George Takei (prior to his Star Trek fame), and Chuck Roberson, the movie, as co-star Aldo Ray once said: “…smells like Batjac.” (Batjac was the name of Wayne’s production company, and I think Aldo Ray meant something else besides "jac.")

Wayne is Col. Mike Kirby in The Green Berets.

But most of the grief the picture got wasn’t because of the technical aspects, or even the script. Critics raised hell because Wayne; “praised the Vietnam War.”

Like hell. True, he tells the story like it’s a World War II picture and there ain’t a lot of shading in the cast of characters; but what Wayne is glorifying is the American fighting man. Like all good Americans, trying his damndest to do what’s best, to do what’s right.

Like John Wayne always tried to do. Take another look at that movie some forty-one years on. You’ll find some things that look a little hokey, but you'll also find some things that still hold up. Like dialogue that rings true all these years later: “Out here due process is a bullet.”

And unforgettable moments, like the ending. If you ignore that damned eastern sunset and watch the meat of the scene, you’ll cry, like I do, every time I see it. Wayne’s Colonel Mike Kirby kneels next to orphaned Vietnamese refugee Hamchunk and hands him the Green Beret worn by his adoptive American father, who died on the last mission. Here is their exchange--Wayne as Mike Kirby speaks first:

“You always knew it could happen, didn’t you?”
Hamchunk nods.
"But I didn’t want it to.”
“None of us did.”
Hamchunk turns.
“Was… was my Peter-san brave?”
Wayne kneels.
“He was very brave. Are you going to be?”
“I’ll try.”
“I know you will.”
Wayne gently places Lt. Peterson’s Green Beret on Hamchunk’s head.
“And I’m sure that your Peter-san would want you to have this.”
The boy pauses.
“What…. What will happen to me now?”
Wayne stands and puts his arm around the boy as they look off into the ocean.
“You let me worry about that, Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.”
And, as they walk into the sun, the classic theme music rises ...

“… back at home, a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
He returns, his last request
‘Put Silver Wings on my son’s chest.
Make him one of America’s best.
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day.
Have him win the Green Beret."

That’s what Wayne was glorifying. Americans have traditionally fought, lived and died to try to make the world a little better. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. It’s who John Wayne was and what he still represents. We show up. Because we give a damn.

Throughout history, sooner or later, the world remembers that part of us and smiles our way. Maybe even one day our own countrymen will remember a little bit of that pride. If they want. They don’t have to. I respect their right to hold a different opinion. So did John Wayne.

RC Note: John Wayne was born May 26, 1907 and died in 1979. Steve Latshaw is a screenwriter in Hollywood. Check out his credits on the Internet Movie Data Base.

Steve Latshaw Credits at IMDB

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi ... I found this link via Big Hollywood and it really struck a chord with me. Like Mr. Latshaw, I have always connected my father to John Wayne. As far back as I can remember (mid-1960s, as I was born in 1961) as a family we went to every John Wayne movie on opening night. When Duke first appeared on the screen, my father, sister and I would stand up and clap as my mom cringed. But that was my dad ... honoring a brave, wonderful man.
Laura in California

Yesterday would have been my dad's 76th birthday ... he's been gone for nine years now. Not a day goes by that I don't think of him, and the great legacy he left us ... love of freedom, America and heroes like John Wayne