Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Don't Mess With The Duke: John Wayne Fans Torch Me

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Ouch.  That'll teach me.

I messed with John Wayne, and his fans are not happy.

In a blog entitled "Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and My Dad," I thought I was writing a paean to actor Jimmy Stewart, who distinguished himself in World War II.  In fact, he won two Distinguished Flying Crosses and the French Croix de Guerre.  In a nutshell, Stewart was offered cushy stateside service but chose to pilot combat missions over Germany.  He started the war as a private, ended as a colonel and later became a Brigadier General in the Air Force Reserve.

Then I waded into dangerous territory.  I called John Wayne a "pretend hero" who was content to make war movies and allow Republic Pictures to seek deferment-after-deferment for him.  All of which is true.

Perhaps I underestimated the symbolic importance of the actor to many people.  Or maybe I just don't get it.  Now, I can understand hero worship of AUTHENTIC World War II combat veterans like Audie Murphy, Jimmy Doolittle, and Pappy Boyington.  I appreciate the celebrities who valiantly served,  instead of seeking deferments.  Besides Stewart, I could point to Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Paul Newman, Rod Steiger, Kirk Douglas, and so many more. 

I just don't think Wayne gets combat credit for making "Flying Tigers" or "Sands of Iwo Jima."

But here are some of the blasts I took from readers over on my Facebook Author Page.

Martin Williams: "What a prick."  (That got four "likes.")

Liam O'Flaherty: "Talk all the trash you want.  John Wayne would have slapped the taste out of you and your Daddy's mouth."  (Two "likes.")

Actually, Liam, in real life, Wayne had trouble in a fistfight/wrestling match in Mexico with the much smaller Budd Schulberg, author of "What Makes Sammy Run?" and screenwriter of "On the Waterfront."  To be fair, both men were stinking drunk at the time, a not-uncommon event for either.

Scott Redfield:  "Paul, you completely miss the impact that John Wayne had in inspiring the young people in the U.S. during the war.  You owe him an apology."

Actually, I think Scott is right.  I missed that point, and I'll apologize just as soon as Wayne apologizes for supporting the Vietnam War.

Douglas R. Colley: "A nobody making controversial statements just to gin up interest in himself."

Gee, I thought I was ginning up interest in Jimmy Stewart.

Dennis Neyland: "I'll never buy any book you write."  (Two "likes.")

Another reader chastised me for not enlisting after the September 11 attacks.  Just what we needed in Afghanistan and Iraq.  A 53-year-old private!

But the 9-11 reference makes me think of another hero.  Pat Tillman.

He gave up his football career.  He gave his life.  Nothing pretend about him. 

Paul Levine


  1. And got killed by Friendly Fire for his sacrifice.

  2. Jimmy Stewart had guts and humanity as a man and as an actor. I wasn't alive during WWII, so if John Wayne inspired people back then, good for him.

    And prick? That's a good thing. Right?

  3. You should read our friend's Scott Eyman's bio of John Wayne. He's the guy to talk to on all things Wayne>

    Jim B

  4. Eyman is one of the great Hollywood biographers. I'm just about to listen to his interview with Diane Rehm.

  5. I'm with you, Paul. No matter how many patriotic movies he made, he always had a stunt man. He never put his life on the line like his contemporaries. In fact, John Ford continuously insulted him for not serving. John might have made patriotic movies, but Stewart et al were actual patriots.

  6. Thank you so much for everything you write, including this blog! I am a librarian, so I both read and buy your books and will continue to do so. I'll take a quiet WWII hero (like my dad) over any war-glorifying so-called "hero" like John Wayne. The real heroes generally don't have very much to say about their own experiences. Of course, my father has since been a proud and progressive patriot, as well as a pacifist. I have learned a lot from him.

  7. Paul - you make a completely valid point (although you did miss the symbolic reality!) about Wayne's lack of service. Then there is Ronny "Raygun," another would-be tough guy whose image was created by Hollywood and advertisers all the way to the White House. In Reagan's case it meant he could not tell the difference between movies and reality, which left him free to say anything at all and think he was connecting to reality.

    So , count me as a supporter of your piece! Thanks,.

    Ron Ein

  8. Great post!!! Had no idea about Jimmy Stewart.

    Christina Huffman

  9. I knew about Jimmy Stewart and thought as you did that he was a true hero. John Wayne was a male chauvinist and his movies reflected that. Those trolls apparently do not know anything about the backgrounds of these two. Thanks for writing.

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  11. In late life, Wayne once commented in an interview, when asked about why he did not serve in WWII, "Let's just say they wanted to make me a Private, and that didn't sit too well with me."
    Lost all respect for him, I'll take the quiet humble Audie Murphy any day.