Tag Archives: John Wayne

On WWII, Hollywood & The Homefront

In my current list obsessed state, I’ve been working through the NFR list at a furious pace (I’m up to about 360 of the 500), which lead me to watch a couple of WWII documentaries filmed by Hollywood directors (William Wyler and George Stevens respectively) aimed at helping the war effort.

I’m very much intrigued by the relationship between Hollywood and WWII, as there was virtually universal support by Hollywood of the war effort, with various directors and actors enlisting (James Stewart, George Stevens, William Wyler among many others) and many actresses getting involved in humanitarian efforts (Myrna Loy), selling war bonds (Carole Lombard), or simply by being dutiful wives living in humble army accomodations (Gene Tierney). This in addition to the wealth of war pictures made during the period…all of which seemed to aimed at villifying the heinies and glamorizing the allies.

I’m struck by the contrast between that era and modern times…where U.S. involvement in war is marked by public dissent, political strife, and an almost universal opposition by those in the arts and in Hollywood. Furthermore the art created about war during these times is always critical, cynical, or satirical. No one makes good ol’ fashioned propaganda no more.

I’ve been wondering about what caused such a radical shift in ideology among the arts community…from united support to dissidence. Obviously the calamities of Vietnam and the radicalism of the 1960’s did a great deal to undermine the sense of patriotic fervor regarding the war. Interestingly in stark contrast to WWII, Hollywood generally avoided making pictures that dealt with the Vietnam war effort. John Wayne‘s ridiculously patriotic “The Green Beret” was one of the few films of the era to depict the American involvement in Vietnam, and was met with general disdain upon its release. The younger generation was not interesting in mythmaking about the war.

I think the dissolving of the studio system in the early 1950’s also did a great deal to shift Hollywood’s war ideology. With actors, directors, producers, and writers no longer bound to a singular studio, it became much more difficult to present a cohesive ideology in the movie industry. More daring films could be made, and the talent wasn’t obligated to toe the line for fear of reprisal.

I realize I’m overly sentimental and nostalgiac in writing what I’m about to write, and the fact that I didn’t live during WWII means I can only see it through rose-colored glasses, but a big part of me wishes we could go back to that time again. Reading various accounts of Hollywood folk from the era, I’m struck by the level of cohesion there was amongst the movie industry, the media, and even the general public. The sense was that the war was worth fighting, that licking those japs, or kicking those krauts…or even “sinking the japanazis(!)” was a goal that everyone could get behind. It was good vs. evil. I’m in awe of the idea of unity and teamwork and of a supportive homefront. I like the idea that it was honorable and right to serve your country dutifully, knowing full well the risks. Jimmy Stewart enlisted, ditto Ted Williams, and neither were given cushy promo gigs, they both fought admirably in real battles. They gave up highly paid, highly publicized jobs in order to serve. That strikes me as rather heroic.

I’m aware that the homefront wasn’t as unified as I imagine. I know that the U.S. didn’t enter the war for 2 years and that there was a huge support for maintain an isolationist policy…that American involvement in the war was purely out of self-interest. I know that anti-semitism was still going on in America, even as it was being fought against overseas. I know there were the Zoot Suit Riots, and segregation both at home and in the service. I know there was sexism and opposition to women in the workplace. I know that there were Japanese internment camps and anti-German sentiment. I get all that.

But I want to believe in the myth that people at one point worked together, that fighting for your country didn’t make you a murderer or a baby-killer, I want to believe in John Wayne and unity. I want to believe things were simpler once upon a time. I want to believe in America (I’m Canadian by the way).

Manliness is next to Godliness.

58. Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)

Now that’s a fucking poster. John Wayne wasting man, woman, and child(well no children exactly) with a rifle, all while Ricky Nelson looks on approvingly. Aside from the clash of the red font for the title, and the blue font for the actors, this poster is sublime. If I saw that poster today, I would think: “John Wayne killing people? Yes please.”

Anyway this film represents a number of firsts for me. It was the first John Wayne film I ever watched, the first Howard Hawks film I knowingly watched (I watched Bringing Up Baby on TCM one time without knowing who Howard Hawks was…yes I was once a very naive and sheltered boy), and I believe it was in the first batch of films I signed out of the library when I started all this list craziness. I think High Noon and The Seventh Seal were in that batch too.

I think it might also be the first classic western I ever watched, save for High Plains Drifter (which though entertaining isn’t especially classic). My brother always tried to get me to watch the Leone westerns, but I just didn’t care. It’s only with my watching Rio Bravo that I discovered how totally bitching the western genre can be. Dudes shooting each other while acting manly is something I find entertaining.

My appreciation of the western is rooted in my appreciation of the gangster film, they both make me feel gangsta. When I watch John Wayne I live vicariously through him. He talks tough, has the occasional witty line, shoots suckers left and right, and comes out on top. That’s a combination that appeals to me.

As an aside, when I was a kid, PBS used to show an Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet marathon each Christmas, and for whatever reason I would watch it. The show wasn’t especially funny, and obviously being a 1950’s family sitcom it was sappy as hell, but I still dug it. If I have to name a reason why I watched and enjoyed it, I suppose it would be that Ricky Nelson was cool (and a hunk too!). I mean he was handsome, charming, and he played rock n’ roll, he’s like James Dean without the undercurrent of rebellion and sexual frustration.

Anyway since then I have kind of admired Ricky Nelson, I used to take his CDs out of the library, and his cocaine addiction, and death in a plane crash satisfy my interests in the seedy and the macabre. My admiration for him is such that I’ve even forgiven him for this. It’s kind of a shame he became a victim of excess, because he is damn good in the film.

Exhibit A:

John Wayne and Ricky Nelson are enough to make the movie, but then add in Dean Martin as a cowardly drunk and Walter Brennan as Walter Brennan, and you have awesomeness coming out of every pore. Such gloriously fun stuff.

I should mention that I adore Walter Brennan. I mean sure his politics made John Wayne look like a commie, and sure he cackled with delight when Martin Luther King got shot (alledgedly), but dammit he is just so much fun to watch. He is one of those actors like Edward Everett Horton, Charles Ruggles or even Guy Kibbee where you see there name in the credits and you know the film will be decent at the very least, simply because of their presence. They might have a couple lines or maybe a couple of scenes, but you know they are always going to be quality.

Awesomeness of the highest quality.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film 10/10.

High School is where I learned how to lie.

7. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

I want to tell you a story about my grade 11 English class. It wasn’t just a regular class but rather English 20 LRC(Learning Resource Centre). The difference was simple, there was this binder at the front door of the class, with sign-out sheets, which basically meant that once you “finished” your work, you could sign out. This basically meant that you could do nothing, claim you did, and then sign your name and leave the class. A fucking brilliant concept in my humble opinion.

Now I was in that class with my friend Gavin, and about 5 or 6 other people. Why we were afforded such a wondrous opportunity I cannot say, but I remain eternally thankful. One of the people in my class was a girl name Alison Shaw who I had a brief crush on in grade 7. Now she belonged to a program called GATE(Gifted and Talented Education), which indicated one of two things: she either had potential or she was a brainiac. As an aside most GATE kids were big dicks(except for you Sonnenberg), really stuck up and clean cut, future conservative types. They were the closest thing my high school had to a “teen-movie” archetype.

Ok, back on track here. So Alison was both smart and she applied herself. Anyway at one point we had to read a book called “The Stone Angel” by Canada’s own Margaret Laurence. It was pretty terrible, at least for a 15 year old. Old women who live in small towns are generally boring as hell to read about. Ok, so every week in class we would have to sit in a circle and discuss what we had read during the past week. I don’t really remember finishing the book, though I might have, unlike grade 10’s required reading of “To Kill a Mockingbird“(eat it, Harper Lee). So basically I having made minimal effort to read the book, was kind of stumped about how to fake my way through these discussion periods. My solution: let Alison Shaw speak first, and then just repeat what she said using different words. Genius.

I am not sure if it’s really a good thing, but I have always had a talent for coasting on my large vocabulary and ability think on my feet. If this were combined with ambition and drive I could be a great success, but instead its coupled with apathy and a love of sleep. Oh, well.

Anyway this worked wonders as I would get 8’s and 9’s(out of 10) for my responses. My friend Gavin however, wasn’t quite as fortunate. Like me he thought the book sucked, but unlike me he wasn’t good at thinking quick on his feet. So his usual response was to repeat the question, and go “hmm”. This went on for a couple of weeks, until I explained my technique: Let Alison speak first and then just copy her. Well the big moment came: Alison gave some long and eloquent talk about something or other, Gavin is ready to respond. Here it comes…and nothing comes out. Gavin froze and then stumbled through some one sentence answer. Utter and abject disappointment.

As a postscript, Gavin has since gone on to finish high school, get a degree from DeVry(he was serious about success), buy a condo and now plies his trade in a well paying job for the city. I also believe his bullshitting skills improved immensely during his long tenure as a phone-monkey for Telus.

You may be asking how does this story relate to “The Searchers“? Well, basically I have nothing original to say about this film. Rather than try and impress you with my verbosity and unoriginal interpretations, I will simply pass on this link which contains an excellent and scholarly synopsis of the film and reveals how deep and nuanced the film really is.

On filmaffinity.com I gave the film 8/10, primarily because my research after watching the film shows it to be much more than I initially thought. It’s a solid western, John Wayne is badass, and I enjoyed it, but it’s not really fun or gangsta like “Rio Bravo“.