The silhouette. The swagger. That drawl. While John Wayne remains one of Hollywood’s most recognisable stars he has often been reduced to caricature. Despite a varied career, when we think of Wayne he is visualised against the backdrop of a mythic frontier. He appears as an artefact: emblematic of a supposedly lost and rugged type of masculinity. Whether one views this image of Wayne with nostalgia or derision is, undoubtedly, a political question. From his support of Hollywood’s anti-Communist blacklist to his support of the Vietnam War, Wayne’s public right-wing politics informed his career choices and made him a divisive figure. Combined with his heavy association with the western, Wayne was fixed – for better or worse – as a uniquely American star. Yet, as Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transitional Masculinity in the Fifties seeks to remind us, Wayne appealed to audiences outside of the United States during the very period that Hollywood was courting newly reopened and profitable global markets. Indeed, in a 1952 Hollywood Foreign Press Association poll, Wayne was voted the most popular film star in the world. John Wayne’s World seeks to explain why Wayne’s films and performances appealed to so many varied audiences across this period.
Zeroing in on John Wayne’s films of the 1950s, Meeuf’s central goal is to offer a reassessment of Wayne’s star text through a ‘cultural-studies inspired textual analysis’ (p. 11). Meeuf argues that, far from being framed as a mythic artefact, in the 1950s Wayne was a far more dynamic and contemporary figure – even when shot against the backdrop of the historical west. It was in the 1960s, with roles such as Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), that Wayne’s persona began to transition to the aged and isolated patriarch we tend to think of. Conversely, Wayne’s films of the 1950s ‘dramatize the cultural tensions of modernization, global capitalism, and U.S. global power, providing elaborate fantasies of male subjectivity within a modernizing world’ (p. 15) which, Meeuf argues, formed the heart of Wayne’s global appeal.
Meeuf examines commercial successes and failures, but John Wayne’s World works best when dealing with Wayne’s more obscure films; the material on Wayne’s westerns suffers somewhat from familiarity. While Wayne may not have received much specific attention in the last two decades, the same cannot be said of the western. Meeuf owes a debt to Stanley Corkin’s Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History and other recent reassessments of the genre (1).
The four chapters on Wayne’s 1950s westerns use the work of sociologists, such as Immanuel Wallerstien and R.W. Connell, to highlight how contemporary tensions played out against historical backdrops. As such, the post-Civil war cattle drive undertaken by John Wayne’s Tom Dunson and his adoptive son in Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) has global appeal because it depicts male intimacy within ‘an increasingly mobile and transitory capitalist system’ (p.19). Dunson’s cutthroat imperialist capitalism, contrasted with his adoptive son’s neoliberal corporate approach, recreates the dynamic tensions in the management of transforming industries across the globe.
In this vein, the rag-tag multi-ethnic group of men and women on the edge of the frontier in John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy (1948-1950) reflect the ‘unevenness and spatial transformations that make up so much of modern life’ (p. 72). The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) and Hondo (John Farrow, 1953) present fantasies about ‘how the male body survives and labours in a borderless and exploitative world’ that speaks to ‘the bodily vulnerability and powerlessness experienced by men in the culture at large’ (p. 88). So too, Meeuf argues, the claustrophobia of westerns like Rio Bravo (Hawks, 1959) and The Alamo (Wayne, 1960) explore the ‘oppressive possibilities of unregulated capitalism’ (p. 177).
The analysis and arguments are compelling, but at times John Wayne’s World feels a little vague. While Meeuf’s project is not historical, more specificity about international box office receipts and the marketing of Wayne for overseas audiences would serve to make his claims more robust. John Wayne’s World starts with a great deal of momentum. In the introduction, a range of rapid-fire anecdotal evidence of Wayne’s complex and, perhaps, unexpected transnational appeal is provided, from the popularity of his often vehemently anti-Japanese war films in Japan to his status as Nikita Khruschev’s favourite star during the Cold War. Similarly, Meeuf close reads the alternate French and U.S. posters for Hondo (Farrow, 1953) to consider how Wayne was framed differently for international audiences. The promise of John Wayne’s World’s introduction is only occasionally met. Granted, it would be an unwieldy task to fully detail Wayne’s international popularity. Yet, lacking in these colourful lynchpins, the chapters on the western can feel leaden. More troublingly, Wayne’s appeal and success within the rather vague sphere of the ‘global’ is not fully engaged with or evidenced.
John Wayne’s World is at its best when it explores Wayne’s lesser-known films, freed from the burden of working in the wake of other critics. Meeuf offers a brief but compelling chapter on Big Jim McLain (Edward Ludwig, 1952) and Jet Pilot (Josef von Sternberg, Jules Furthman, 1957), both anti-Communist films about tourism, arguing they presented ‘the sights, sounds, and experiences of a modern capitalist vacation’ as a ‘battleground against communism’ (p. 75). However, Meeuf’s strongest chapters by far are those that afford more room for production history. The U.S-Italian co-production Legends of the Lost (Henry Hathaway, 1957) finds Wayne trekking across the Sahara in search of treasure with a wealthy French explorer and a local prostitute. Filmed on location in Libya and in the Italian studio Cinecitta, Meeuf makes a convincing argument for Legends of the Lost as an allegory ‘of European versus U.S. visions of Africa and the developing world’ (p. 113). Here, the ‘global’ looses it vagaries as Meeuf considers the context of on-going French attempts to maintain colonial control in Algeria alongside the presentation of Wayne’s French companion as effete, ineffectual, greedy and doomed. As such, Wayne’s natural ability to lead himself and a local prostitute across Sahara becomes an allegory for America’s “natural” international leadership role through capitalist, rather than colonial, control.
Similarly, The Barbarian and the Geisha (John Huston, 1958), set around the 1858 U.S.-Japanese Trade agreement and filmed in Japan during Hollywood’s internationalization, is an ‘allegory for the 1950s renegotiation of the Japanese as strategic allies and friends’ (p. 132). Wayne portrays a diplomat who seeks to bring the two nations together, just as promotion from the film publicised that Wayne and the U.S. crew travelled to Japan in an effort to foster cross-cultural understanding. This was, according to John Huston, part of ‘cementing international goodwill’ (p. 136). Meeuf’s analysis of the film alongside Twentieth Century-Fox’s internal memos illustrates how the production’s revisionist history was intended to appeal to the increasingly large Japanese market. It is an astute, rigorous and sensitive chapter: a real contribution to the body of work on Wayne.
Overall, John Wayne’s World is a convincing but somewhat uneven reassessment of Wayne’s global appeal. Meeuf has gone far to dispel the myths that surround Wayne, showing a career that had more variety than audiences and scholars often assume. According to Meeuf, Wayne provided a ‘model of masculinity that helped manage the ideologies and often-harsh realities of modernization and capitalism’ (p. 186). Across the 1950s, Wayne embodied the values of capitalist modernity, regardless of whether he was performing in anti-Communist romances, gun-slinging westerns or international adventure pictures. Yet, while Wayne was undoubtedly popular across the globe during this period, Meeuf’s avoidance of reception history means that, ultimately, he is unable to synthesise his findings. He does not draw out why John Wayne appealed more to audiences, both domestic and international, in westerns rather than in more contemporary settings or what this might imply about whether audiences consciously recognised Wayne’s modern capitalistic masculinity. Arguably, something very interesting lurks on the periphery of this project. More focus on both the international promotion and reception of these films may have illuminated this and, perhaps, could have enabled Meeuf to push even further his discussion of the differences within this model of masculinity alongside the continuity in Wayne’s star image across the decade. Regardless, John Wayne’s World is an important revival of critical approaches to John Wayne and a useful addition to film scholarship that seeks to consider Hollywood’s importance beyond North America. Astute and sharply written, one is left hoping that, inspired by Meeuf, more scholars will seek to complicate the caricature that has some to stand in for one of Hollywood’s most popular and contentious stars.
Russell Meeuf, John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2013).