‘Making Peace with the Duke’ by David Daniel

Making Peace with the Duke

By David Daniel

TCM was running a John Wayne retrospective, and Lacey, the bartender, had it on the TV. “Isn’t there a Bruins game?” I asked.

“What, you got a problem with the Duke?” someone on the stool to my left said.

He had shoulders you could’ve parked cars on. A wedge of gray hair angled down toward bristling eyebrows.

“It’s not that, it’s—”

“It’s what?” There was a whiskey-edge on his voice.

“He’s got an acting style I’m not big on,” I said neutrally. “It seems mannered.”

The guy looked at Lacey. “You catchin’ this?”

“Yeah.” Lacey had her arms crossed, staring at me as if I’d said I peed sitting down. They were waiting for me to explain. I could’ve smoothed things by offering that maybe some John Wayne films were okay, or that The Quiet Man was my dad’s favorite movie . . . but the thought of Wayne had touched some nerve.

My distaste for the actor went back years, back to my army basic training days when the rifle instructors used to rag us. “Don’t John Wayne it, trainee.” Their way of saying don’t try to look heroic and phony. Theirs was a scorn bordering on disgust. Wayne was a showoff, in their view. His characters were headstrong and brash and full of a bullshit braggadocio. It was there in films like The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Flying Leathernecks and the truly crappy Green Berets. And the fact that the Duke never served really galled those sergeants, made it feel like chickenhawk chickenshit.

Hell, I wasn’t much of a soldier myself. No, my brief against John Wayne was his acting. It never felt true to me. Even his character in The Quiet Man, although leavened by touches of sympathy, loses my vote when he starts beating on Maureen O’Hara. More, I sensed something slightly girlish in his persona—the little fits of pique, and the swagger—“Don’t say it’s a fine mornin’ or I’ll shoot ya.” He had a kind of self-satisfied, stiff-hipped waggle, as if his having been born Marion Morrison left a mark that could never be effaced, and that the same star-maker machinery that lathed Archibald Leach into Cary Grant, or Roy Scherer, Jr. into Rock Hudson wasn’t quite perfected. “Take it easy there, Pilgrim.”

Then, some years ago, I was on vacation in Hollywood, and on the Walk of Stars outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater I saw where John Wayne had put his hands and his feet in wet concrete. I had to look twice, and read the name again. The prints were smaller than I’d expected. I put my own hands and feet in for comparison, and I had a sudden illumination: Duke Wayne’s feet and hands were no bigger than my own! And therefore, I realized, his life forces were not bigger, either!

This was transformative. We were suddenly contending along a whole new power gradient. The Duke was just another mope, like me. Better known, certainly better paid, but take away the quick v. dead angle and we were more alike than different.

And that was why I had no need or desire to watch him on the bar’s TV now. It would be just a glorified selfie. Better to watch a game, where the outcome is uncertain. But there was no way to make this case publicly. Not in a room without allies and a few drinks in me. So I turned again to my neighbor. “Nah, the Duke’s okay,” I said. “The Searchers, all that . . . but we know how this one turns out, right?”

He looked at me, waiting.

“So what I propose is that we ask the congenial Ms. Lacey to switch the channel, and you and I have a friendly wager on the hockey game.”

I watched him turning this over. “I get to pick?” he grumbled.

“Absolutely.”

“I got a tenski says Toronto mops the ice with ‘em.”

“Ten it is,” I said. “And a generous tip for our barwoman.”

Lacey rang the bell and reached for the remote.

David Daniel, a frequent contributor to this site, is a prolific novelist and writer, and a former high school teacher.

15 Responses to ‘Making Peace with the Duke’ by David Daniel

  1. PaulM says:

    Enjoyed this from the get-go, Dave. J. Wayne is a complicated dude according to biographies. He began to believe his legend after a while. As a kid, I was all in for him when I watched his war movies (all eras). The John Ford westerns are classic films but are now seen more clearly through a cultural justice lens regarding the native tribes depicted on screen. He’s a major figure in our pop myth. After seeing from a boat his large waterfront house in Newport Beach, California, I tried to write a good poem about him but failed. At the time it seemed like a significant moment, like the Hollywood Walk of Stars described in the story. I wanted to memorialize the experience of being “this close”to John Wayne. In the end it was disorienting. I’m glad I didn’t see him walking in his yard.

  2. Steamboat says:

    And at the end of the day…even the tallest of cowboy boots are just set side by side.
    Great treatment of the hero mythos.

  3. James Byrd says:

    I was also trained in the “don’t John Wayne it” era. Those DIs were right. I saw kids die because the enemy doesn’t always come at you from the front like in JW movies. I agree, Dave, the mystique outgrew the man. My older brothers are probably cussin’ me out in Valhalla right now but they’ll get over it. Good chunk of writing.

  4. Judy Baldwin says:

    Great article. I grew up watching John Wayne movies with my dad. That’s the great memory- time with my dad. When he was a in a nursing home, we’d spend all day Saturdays watching these, Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
    I agree with your assessment of him BTW.

  5. JIM Provencher says:

    Marion Morrison, with that name, you ain’t going nowhere! I like that he lost his football scholarship at uni after breaking his collarbone bodysurfing. I like him in ‘In Harm’s Way’–a sprawling Otto Preminger 1965 WWII family saga war epic…a tender side starting to leak out of The Duke–gruff
    Admiral father resolves the war with his upstart Lt. son and softens up in a heartfelt romantic
    reawakening with war nurse, Patricia Neal. In real life, a right-wing, war-mongering racist, but as a silver screen icon, he had presence…think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, the avenger in The Searchers, think of Hondo et al the Westerns. The Man and the Myth are not one. What would Marion have become if he didn’t morph into John Wayne. Who would Bob Dylan be if he had remained Robert Zimmerman? A Man’s Man has license to be homophobic, I guess–“I can’t stand those two fags in Midnight Cowboy!”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Burt Lancaster in Lawman is a better tough cowboy for my money than John Wayne ever was. If Gregory Peck has to meet John Wayne at noon in front of the saloon, my money is on Peck. Or Steve McQueen. He could lose and still be a more memorable character. I agree Dave-hockey is preferable to John Wayne.

  7. David Daniel says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. No question the Duke was more nuanced than my thumbnail portrayal. It seems, for varied reasons (the family time we remember watching his films, the more skillful of his performances, the politics, the antics), he looms large on the landscape, and large figures make easy targets. RIP John Wayne.

  8. CVR says:

    John Wayne epitomizes to me the trouble that America has with heros. I’m a huge fan of the mythos that John Wayne is as long as you understand the time and thinking when those movies were made. I can’t use today’s standards to judge the movies of the past, and I actually have stopped reading his biographies because it took away from the mythos that I liked. It seems today in America that we are never satisfied with the mythos of our heroes, and are only satisfied when we find all the dirt we can on them. I grew up in split family without a real male figure and and ended up picking bits and pieces of what I could see in society as my role model. As I matured and understood which pieces were of value and which ones should be left in the past I discarded some, but John Wayne was part of that mosaic of figures that I used to for myself until I was old enough to find my own path. Great article, it really got me thinking.

  9. Nancye Tuttle says:

    Love this story, Dave, as I do all of your stories. On a personal note, my late aunt Marjorie Davies McKnight, an actress, worked with Wayne in the film “They Were Expendable,” a war movie shot during World War II. She played a nurse. I had a still from the film of her, Wayne and Robert Taylor that I used on the dedicatory panel included in my 1993 exhibit “Picture It: Lowell Goes to the Movies” at the Mogan Cultural Center. I dedicated the exhibit to Aunt Marge’s memory. Now I just wish I had asked her more about the many people she worked with, including Wayne, when she was alive.

  10. Bob Sanchez says:

    Hey Dave,
    It’s such a pleasure to read your great writing again. America loves its heroes, real or not. When I was a lad, I admired Audie Murphy.

    We’ve been out of touch for too long, my friend. I hope all is well with you and yours.

    Bob Sanchez

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