Growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood carved out of desert east of here, my buddy and I would break out soldier fatigues his father wore during the Korean War. Armed with stick rifles or toy guns, we'd load our pockets with dirt-clod grenades, roll around in the sand dunes poking up in the nearby wash, and, if hit by “enemy fire,” lie face up and motionless under the blazing sun . . . until one of our moms called us in for lunch.
It wasn't until several years later that I realized violent images of the Vietnam War from motion pictures and the evening news informed my childhood playtime. One movie repeated often on TV back then was The Green Berets (1968), which was directed by Ray Kellogg, an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy and the picture's star, John Wayne. With adult eyes and a steady diet of post-antiwar protest/Watergate cynicism, it's easy now to look at what was essentially a propaganda film and dismiss its schmaltz, broad strokes, overblown patriotism, demonization of peaceniks and that goddamn catchy theme song. But when you were a kid flopping around in the hot desert sand to dodge flipcats, horny toads and dirt-clod grenades, those were the things that made The Green Berets the coolest, daddy-o!
Back then, as now come to think of it, you sleep better knowing America's fighting soldiers from the sky are saints—all of 'em, from the Mekong Delta to the My Lai Massacre. Likewise, it's easier to deal with everyone from Ho Chi Minh down to the lowliest mortally wounded girl sniper begging, “Shoot . . . me, shoot . . . me” being the Devil incarnate. Okay, that last reference is from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, hich is so vastly different from the Duke's Beretsyou'd think they were set in different Vietnams. Jacket, of course, came many years later (1987), after the cynicism created by hippie radicals and Watergate criminals had totally hardened a tired, tattered nation's soul. But you get the point. No? Well, lissen up, pilgrim:
John Wayne is not about gray areas.
John Wayne is not about faggy fogs of war.
John Wayne IS America, the greatest country ever created by God, forever and ever, amen.
Ever notice that no one had the balls to even coin the term “metrosexual” while John Wayne still walked the earth? It's no wonder the rumors about the Duke being gay didn't surface until decades after his death.
Not that you kids even know who John Wayne is. Funny story: a former editor here was relating to an intern how no one in a class of young college journalists he'd just addressed could identify John Wayne.
“Who's John Wayne?” replied the intern.
Bigger-than-life bronze likeness at the airport? You know, the airport named after John Fucking Wayne? The same John Wayne who occupied the sprawling bayside estate that's the highlight of any guided Newport Harbor cruise? The burly guy who was superimposed into Coors commercials a couple of years ago? The deliberate drawl? Sashays across the screen? Hates commiepinkohippiescum? His taped “It's getting to be re-goddamn-diculous around here” quote played endlessly by Howard Stern?
Christ, almighty, go ask your Gramps who John Wayne was.
Better yet, go catch the Newport Beach Film Festival's screenings of a mere eight of the late, great actor's 42,648 films. Okay, that's a guesstimate because besides the monster motion-picture career Wayne enjoyed after his 1939 breakout role in John Ford's Stagecoach, the Duke had labored for years—even before the talkies—in strings of movie serials, mostly Westerns. Wayne was rail-thin, his voice was higher, he had a mop of hair, the Duke persona was a million miles away and the cowpokes he played suffered the same physical abuse that would be heaped on James Garner (a Wayne favorite) 40-some years later on The Rockford Files. But the 6-foot-4 actor sure cut an imposing figure in the saddle. You couldn't take your eyes off him.
John Wayne would turn 100 this coming May 29 were it not for the fact he's been dead since 1979. But Newport Beach loves any excuse to party, and its eponymous film festival has teamed with the city's visitor's bureau and Wayne Enterprises—the Newport Beach-based company that owns the John Wayne name, likeness, signature, voice and photographs—to present the John Wayne Centennial: Ten Decades of “The Duke.” Included are celebrity-filled parties, an educational symposium on Westerns and the genre's greatest star, and the launching of the first-ever official fan club and website (www.JohnWayne.com).
The American icon who was born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, is being feted because he is an Orange County icon as well. He raised his last batch of seven kids by three wives in Newport Beach. They include the youngest, former soap star Ethan Wayne, who now manages Wayne Enterprises. His mother is Pilar Pallette Wayne, a Peruvian actress-turned-artist who lived here for several years before moving with her current husband to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2005.
Longtime Newport Beach residents will tell you stories about bumping into “average guy” John Wayne at the local hardware store or corner bar. His yacht Wild Goose is still moored in Newport Harbor. (Floating aboard the former minesweeper several years ago, I could not fathom why one man needed a pleasure boat this big. I supposed you'd need to be larger-than-life like John Wayne to understand.)
Newport Beach legend has the city responsible for Wayne's stellar film career. Marion Morrison supposedly injured himself bodysurfing at Balboa's Wedge, was forced to quit the USC football team, and later fell into acting and a stage name. But Wayne has made it sound as if the injury came on the gridiron. “If it hadn't been for football and the fact I got my leg broke and had to go into the movies to eat, why, who knows, I might have turned out to be a liberal Democrat,” he once said.
The truth is Wayne's politics were all over the map throughout his life. He claimed to have been something of a socialist during his early Hollywood days, and it was only until someone explained what a Democrat was that he switched his party affiliation to Republican. He spoke at one GOP National Convention, but when asked whether another Orange County icon, then-President Richard Nixon, had ever advised him on the making of his films, Wayne replied, “No, they've all been successful.” And when Nixon's dirty tricks were exposed, the Duke noted, “I never trust a man that doesn't drink.”
John Wayne is Orange County because John Wayne is still here. After dying of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, he was interred at Pacific View Memorial Park in Corona del Mar. His grave was unmarked for 20 years because of fears Vietnam War protesters would desecrate the site. A bronze plaque was finally put up in 1999, but his tombstone did not read what he had requested: “Feo, Fuerte y Formal,” a Spanish epitaph meaning he was ugly, strong and had dignity. Instead, his family pulled a quote from Wayne's 1971 Playboy interview: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learned something from yesterday.”
Whoever curated the festival's selected screenings obviously understands that John Wayne the man is not nearly as important to the American psyche as the characters John Wayne portrayed. Kicking things off is True Grit (1969), which finds a young tomboy of a girl recruiting a tough old lawman to avenge her father's death. Wayne received his only Academy Award for playing Marshal Rooster Cogburn despite serious competition from Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight (for Midnight Cowboy, a film the Duke loathed), Peter O'Toole (Goodbye Mr. Chips) and Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days), who Wayne is alleged to have later tossed his Oscar to and telling, “You should have this, not me.” And who originally handed Wayne that statuette? None other than Barbra Streisand. Imagine that.
Wayne's acting was never really respected by critics because he always essentially played himself. But others—including the director most associated with him, John Ford, famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg and Wayne's Rooster Cogburn co-star Katharine Hepburn—all said it was his naturalness at reacting on camera that made him extraordinary. “I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor,” Wayne said of Ford. “I know now though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he'd respected me as an actor since Stagecoach, even though he hadn't let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he'd never said anything to me, until the right time.”
Ford's Stagecoach (1939), the next Newport screening, featured Wayne as the Ringo Kid, his Hollywood breakout role. (Another local connection: the film's leading lady, Claire Trevor, was the stepmother of The Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren.) It's the story of disparate passengers riding in the same stagecoach and withstanding a brutal attack by injuns. Barry Goldwater reportedly visited the set, beginning a long friendship with Wayne.
Next up is Rio Bravo (1959), a film by another legendary director, Howard Hawks. Wayne plays a small town sheriff trying to keep a powerful rancher from busting his murder-suspect brother out of jail. Because some of Wayne's films in the '50s weren't making bank, the studios started pairing him with teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and, in Rio Bravo, Ricky Nelson.
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) was the only other film to garner Wayne an Oscar nomination and one of seven in which his character gets (spoiler alert!) killed. The scene where he gets it is pretty hammy, too. Otherwise, Allan Dwan's film where Wayne plays an embittered Army sergeant who takes his misery out on his men is not too shabby. When Wayne was honored with a square at the Grauman's Chinese Theater, the sand used in the cement was said to have been brought in from Iwo Jima.
In Ford's 1952 drama The Quiet Man—which the festival is presenting as this year's Irish Spotlight film—Wayne plays American boxer Sean Thornton, who returns to his native Ireland and pursues a poor-but-beautiful maiden played by Maureen O'Hara. I found the film rather slow, but it's a favorite of Wayne's grandson, Father Matthew Munoz, an Roman Catholic priest who has served in Orange County. “My mother was in The Quiet Man, as was Maureen O'Hara,” Munoz told an Orange County Register interviewer years ago. “Maureen was at my ordination and is a wonderful Catholic woman. She was a good friend to my grandfather and was a positive influence.” Wayne converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
Call me crazy, but I've always thought of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) as a Jimmy Stewart film. He plays U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard, who returns with his wife Hallie to the dusty little frontier town they met in 25 years earlier to attend the funeral of Wayne's character Tom Doniphon, whose story is told in Stewart's flashback. Valance is among several films where Wayne addresses people as “pilgrim.”
In Mark Rydell's The Cowboys, Wayne is an aging cattle owner who faces financial ruin unless he takes a collection of young boys as his drivers after his men abandon his herd for the gold fields. The 1972 film struggled to find an audience upon release, although most critics uncharacteristically loved it and Wayne's performance.
The festival rounds out the screenings with Wayne's best film, The Searchers (1956). This may have been the closest he got to playing the type of antihero Clint Eastwood would later turn into a cottage industry. As Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards, Wayne goes on a crazed search for the niece (lil' Natalie Wood) who marauding Indians kidnapped while wiping out the rest of her family. But Edwards does not want to save the girl; he wants to kill her because, in his twisted view, she's been infected by the savages. Nothing against ol' Rooster, but this is the turn that should have won Wayne the Oscar (it was ranked among Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time). He named son Ethan after the character. Remind me never to piss off Ethan.
Okay, Newport Beach Film Fest, where in Sam Hill is The Green Berets? Yes, it's been unmercifully ripped over the years—”Did you ever see reviews like that?” the Duke once said. “Reviews with hatred and nastiness.”—but it's also got historical value. When Wayne wrote to Democrat Lyndon Johnson requesting military assistance for his pro-war production, Jack Valenti told the then-president, “Wayne's politics are wrong, but if he makes this film he will be helping us.” Johnson gave Wayne the firepower he needed. That's not all he had backing him up. During shooting, the fiercely anti-Communist Hmong people bestowed on Wayne a silver bracelet he wore in Green Berets and all subsequent pictures. The U.S. Special Forces, which the film depicts, to this day carry copies of The Green Berets into foreign countries.
It's no wonder: these days a lot of those countries have kids lying face up in sand dunes.
WAYNE AND THE WESTERN AT FASHION ISLAND. SAT., APRIL 21, 2 P.M. FREE.
TRUE GRIT AT EDWARDS ISLAND. SAT., APRIL 21, 5 P.M. $10.
JOHN WAYNE CENTENNIAL GALA AT ISLAND HOTEL. SAT., APRIL 21, 7 P.M. $100.
STAGECOACH AT EDWARDS ISLAND. SUN., APRIL 22, 2:30 P.M. $10.
RIO BRAVO AT EDWARDS ISLAND. SUN., APRIL 22, 5:30 P.M. $10.
THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA AT EDWARDS ISLAND. MON., APRIL 23, 4:30 P.M. $10.
THE QUIET MAN AT REGENCY LIDO. WED., APRIL 25, 7:30 P.M. $20, OR $40 WITH POST-SCREENING GALA.
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE AT EDWARDS ISLAND. THURS., APRIL 26, 4:30 P.M. $10.
THE COWBOYS AT REGENCY LIDO. SAT., APRIL 28, NOON. $10.
THE SEARCHERS AT REGENCY LIDO. SAT., APRIL 28, 2 P.M. $10.
For information on screenings and events, call (949) 253-2880 or visit NEWPORTBEACHFILMFEST.COM.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.