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Wayne's World : JOHN WAYNE'S AMERICA: The Politics of Celebrity. By Garry Wills . Simon & Schuster: 380 pp., $26

March 02, 1997|TOM ENGELHARDT | Tom Engelhardt is the author of "The End of Victory Culture" and co-editor of "History Wars: The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past." He is also consulting editor at Metropolitan Books

America's consummate screen cowboy, who rode the Chisholm Trail in "Red River" and guarded the frontier in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," feared snakes, loathed horses and had to remind himself to say "ain't." America's consummate screen soldier, who died leading the squad that raised the flag over Mt. Suribachi in "Sands of Iwo Jima," fought his most determined battle to stay out of World War II. America's consummate screen Cold Warrior, who routed the reds of Hawaii for HUAC in "Big Jim McLain" and ran the children of China down "Blood Alley" on a ferry to escape the Chinese Communists, entered the anti-Communist fray in Hollywood only after the battle of the blacklist was won. That protector of the American frontier family, who obsessively hunted for an abducted child in "The Searchers," married three times; that staunch individualist in our on-screen memories was a docile member of the Hollywood "family" of abusive director John Ford, always ready to "assume the position" and be booted in the butt.

Marion Morrison, as he was born, was a man, until success was well upon him, fiercely concerned only with his own career. As Garry Wills comments in "John Wayne's America," he "had no interesting ideas in his private life." Nothing about Marion Morrison, in fact, was worthy of a biography. However, his alter ego John Wayne, an image of a man inscribed in national consciousness as the essence of America, was another matter. From Wayne's self-assured walk to the way he sat in the saddle, from his ease twirling a rifle to his refusal to show fear, from his sense of authority to his aura of invincibility, "John Wayne" remains an image worthy of a book. Carefully crafted, assiduously maintained and constantly if subtly revised to suit changing times, his was an image so real that moviegoers came to believe they had lived with him forever, so real that Congress struck a medal to his prowess, so real that Morrison disappeared into him, dedicating his life to making movies, each of which would be, in Wills' words, a "monument to his idealized self."

As an image and as an actor, Wayne, though largely ignored by modern film critics and scholars, still seems monumental to many Americans--to judge, at least, by popularity polls. He stood at the far end of a great American imperial cycle. As Wills points out, where previous frontiersmen and Indian fighters like Davy Crockett or Buffalo Bill Cody stepped from frontier life into myth, Wayne reversed the process. "Beginning in myth, he entered the company of those who actually lived on the frontier."

Around his image gathered a near-religious cult. Wills aptly calls this worship "Wayne-olatry." He was probably the closest thing Cold War America had to a national religion--and a thoroughly male-centered one it was. A generation of boys growing up in the shadow of World War II, their fathers' war, idolized him. It was at his altar that they fanned their Matty Mattel six-shooters; it was in his name that they jumped into backyard foxholes to fight off banzai charges. The writer Ron Kovic went to war in Vietnam, in part, because of Wayne (and returned a paraplegic in part because of him as well). Newt Gingrich spent much time as an adolescent imitating his walk. A generation of boys adopted him as their substitute father, just as in his films, he always seemed to leave a special place for adopted sons (whether filled by Montgomery Clift, John Agar or Frankie Avalon).

The story of how that image of a war-fighting man came to be--the story, in fact, of how most images come to be--is normally a subject neither for biographers nor for critics, even though everyone agrees that we live in an age of the dominant image. A biography of an image is a much-needed project for our times. And who better to write about the Wayne image than our best popular historian of the ways in which religion intersected with politics, from the nation's founding to the campaign trail (in "Under God"), from the battlefield to the graveyard (in his gem-like "Lincoln at Gettysburg")? As an author concerned with image-making, anti-Communism and Hollywood in what is still the most intelligent biography of our first screen president ("Reagan's America"), Garry Wills seems perfectly positioned to assess Wayne's image, that great "popular expression of the tensions" of the Cold War. As a writer who has warned intellectuals that they ignore the fundamental (as well as fundamentalist) importance of religion at their own risk, there is a logic to his special interest in Wayne, another ignored but popular phenomenon.

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