Indeed, life is much harder if you’re stupid (especially if you’re deliberately stupid). True words, uttered by the hard-nosed (but soft hearted) Sergeant Stryker in the great old 1949 film, “Sands of Iwo Jima”, and portrayed so well by John Wayne (1907-1979), one of the most unique actors that American film has ever produced and who, despite his failures and shortcomings, was one of the most sincere patriots our country has ever produced. An iconoclast of leftist/progressive causes, Wayne was a strong supporter (in his later life) of traditional Americanism and the constitutional form of government given to Americans by our Founders, and he became a political conservative, much to the chagrin of the leftist vermin who increasingly dominated Hollywood during most of his career.
Wayne was an enigma in many respects: A liberal Democrat (a “socialist” in his own words) in his youth, he learned his craft (and earned respect) from liberal Democrat directors in Hollywood, especially from the legendary director John Ford, who became his lifelong friend and mentor, and from many old time true American actors and stunt men. (The young Wayne even met the real Wyatt Earp before Earp’s death in 1929). Always a hard drinker and often a “womanizer”, particularly in his younger years, by his prime years in the 1950’s and 1960’s he was usually rated as the most popular American actor in films (and remains one of the most popular 41 years after his death), and was taking strong stands against Communist infiltration in Hollywood. An early member of the patriotic John Birch Society, Wayne nevertheless supported President Jimmy Carter’s election, and supported Carter’s giveaway of our Panama Canal to the Panamanians, a decision that vexed and puzzled conservatives. He also strongly supported Ronald Reagan’s election as Governor of California because of Reagan’s increasing conservatism. So yes—John Wayne was an “enigma”, and remains so to this day. As he so often reminded us, “tomorrow hopes we have learned something from yesterday.” Perhaps reading some of his words will help that process.
The purpose of this article is not to summarize or judge Wayne’s life, but to discuss his many famous words and sayings, both from his private life and from his many films, spanning a period from the late 1920’s to his last film, and arguably one of his greatest—The Shootist, from 1976. So let’s explore some of the words from a man who was almost always “heroic” on the silver screen. In real life he had “feet of clay”, but despite his imperfections, he was still mostly heroic to me beginning in my teenage years, and he remained that until his death, for I saw only his “nobility” and not his weaknesses. He inspired millions of Americans from those “halcyon days” from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s, when men were men, when we knew who our enemies were (well, at least some of them), when patriotism was something to be extolled, and when our government was mostly pro-American!
“Hurry it up---we’re burnin’ daylight”, from the classic Wayne film, Red River of 1948. Back in the 1980’s, when my grandkids were coming along, I incorporated that saying into my vocabulary, and used it with great success for decades. Eventually one of my grandsons discovered from whom I had “borrowed” that saying, but I still use it when an emphasis on not being late is needed.
The next “sayings” are from Wayne’s westerns over the years, and still are worthy of respect. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do”. (I’ve always liked that common sense, from Wayne’s first major role in Stagecoach, in 1939). “A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by.” Which is still true. Younger people, however, seem to have trouble discovering their “code”, or “creed”. Sadly, many mature folks these days are as lacking in that regard as are our “millennials.” “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t talk too much”. Good advice, particularly for politicians, and for parents with kids who have trouble “listening”, and who might have been the target of one of Wayne’s movie characters: “You’re short on ears but long on mouth.” Wayne’s characters were famous for “keeping their word”, and refusing to back away from an oath or a promise. “That’ll be the day”, as Ethan Edwards (Wayne) reminded us in The Searchers, released in 1956 and recently rated as the “greatest western film genre” ever made.
How about this one? “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” We can’t argue with that wisdom. Courage is the ability to meet difficulties or challenges with firmness. Most of Wayne’s films over many decades portrayed his character or those he interacted with exhibiting this great human trait. How often we saw John Wayne facing down the bad guys, usually outnumbered, with only his steely resolve and his trusty 6-gun or well-worn Winchester rifle ready to do battle with evil. Good guys, we knew, always wore “white hats”, and in Wayne’s films the “bad guys” almost always wore “black hats”. It was reassuring when I was growing up to be able to tell the difference.
A couple of other gems of Wayne’s wisdom are: “I’m responsible only for what I say, not for what you understand”; and “What is the secret of success? Right decisions! How do you make right decisions? Experience. How do you get experience? WRONG DECISIONS!” In his films, Wayne sometimes made the wrong decisions, but those times were few. In his private life he later admitted to making many “wrong” decisions and learning from them. We all should do that.
As he matured into and past middle age, becoming an “American icon” and a thorn in the side of those who worshipped big government, he wasn’t afraid to speak out on issues which were fracturing his countrymen: “Gun control—requires concentration and a very steady hand.” “Generations of American patriots have given their lives defending the Constitution. If you come for my guns, I’ll be ONE of them!” Firearm freedom via our 2nd Amendment was always of prime importance to Wayne, who was never afraid to stand and face those who would disarm Americans. “When you allow unlawful acts to go unpunished, you’re moving toward a government of men rather than a government of law.” Too bad that Wayne isn’t around today to see what dastardly deeds have been committed in government circles, and which appear to be going “unpunished”.
“Sure I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure I love my country with all her faults. I’m not ashamed of that—never have been, never will be.” Liberals began to gnash their teeth and decry such “reactionary” statements as that, from Wayne. He also reminded his detractors that “I’m an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, flag waving patriot.” He countered the increasingly shrill liberal slander against him by stating, “We’ve made mistakes along the way, but that’s no reason to start tearing up the best flag God ever gave to any country”. Wayne countered the left’s attacks against him by observing, “Very few liberals are open minded. They shout you down and won’t let you speak unless you agree with them.” They went apoplectic when he said, “I’d like to know why well educated idiots keep apologizing for lazy and complaining people who think the world owes them a living”; and, “We’re being represented by men who are kowtowing to minorities where they can get votes, and I think it’s bad for our country, and I’m sad to see minorities make so much of themselves as hyphenated Americans.” In one of his films he used the phrase: “Republic. I like the sound of the word.” So did our Founders. So do I.
In 1976, Wayne’s last, and in my opinion one of his five greatest films, The Shootist, was released. It portrayed the final few days of an old lawman, J. B. Books, dying of prostate cancer, who had sometimes been on the “wrong side” of the law throughout his long and turbulent career. Wayne had fought cancer several times, and appeared to have defeated it, although he died of stomach cancer in 1979 and was sometimes too ill to continue filming The Shootist on schedule. (Despite a bout with pneumonia, he did finish his last film.) In a memorable scene, he shared the words he lived by with a young admirer: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to people, and I require the same from them.” Strong words, open to misinterpretation without a doubt, because he never appeared to be a man willing to “turn the other cheek”. But that was the “code” of “The Old West”, at least in certain times and places. It got Americans through some hard years.
Wayne’s philosophy always burst forth, either from his movie lines or his real life observations. “True grit is making a decision and standing by it, doing what must be done. No moral man can have peace of mind if he leaves undone what he knows he should have done.” He also reminded his countrymen that “a goal, a love, and a dream give you total control over your body and your life.”
Thank you, “Duke”, for a lifetime of great memories from your many films and from your common-sense conservatism. Whatever we think of John Wayne as a man, we should never doubt his patriotism and his love for America: “My hope and prayer is that everyone know and love our country for what she really is—and what she stands for.” And to John Wayne’s prayer, I can only add: AMEN!!