Cinema: John Wayne as the Last Hero

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Fundamentalist Character In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter once defined the fundamentalist mind as "essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities." Wayne's fundamentalist character was not against the American grain; it was in it.

Aging and raging, he began to take on all enemies in the same spirit: Commies, Injuns, wrongos, Mexicans — and his wife Esperanza. "Our marriage was like shaking two volatile chemicals in a jar," he said. She recalled the night he dragged her around by her hair. He countered with a claim that when he was on location she had a house guest named Nicky Hilton. During the divorce proceedings, Wayne uttered an aside that could have come from one of his early oaters: "I deeply regret that I'll hafta sling mud."

Though in the divorce his name had been linked with such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich and Gail Russell, Wayne had a different altar ego. His new wife —like the others—was of Latin extraction: a Peruvian exactress named Pilar Palette. "Just happenstance," he claims. "Whenever I've had free time I've been in Latin America."

In 1964, for the first time in his life, Chain-Smoker Wayne began to feel kinda poorly. Pilar persuaded him to consult a doctor. He dropped out of sight for a few months, then surfaced after a successful operation at Good Samaritan Hospital to utter his most quoted line: "I licked the big C." He was minus one lung, but his energy had not diminished one erg.

Obviously, a man who can vanquish cancer is indestructible. Still, even if he was immortal, he wasn't getting any younger. There was catching up to do. At a time when other men start to think about bifocals and social security, Wayne began to learn his lines for The Sons of Katie Elder, a typically nuance-free Wayne western about four lusty, brawling brothers. But that was just for loot. Now that he was back on his feet, some things were griping him. The moral backslide, for one. He stumped for his friends Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. "I said there was a tall, lanky kid that led 150 airplanes across Berlin. He was an actor, but that day, I said, he was a colonel. Colonel Jimmy Stewart. So I said, what is all this crap about Reagan being an actor?"

Another thing that bothered Wayne was the war. He was for it. When ordinary men feel that way, they sound off at home or in saloons. Wayne did it in a picture. The Green Berets was probably the only prowar movie made in the '60s. It was so pro that New York Congressman Benjamin S. Rosenthal accused Wayne and the Army of conspiracy. The movie, claimed Rosenthal, "became a useful and skilled device employed by the Pentagon to present a view of the war which was disputed in 1967 and is largely repudiated today."

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