Review of Nancy Schoenberger’s “Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship and the Forging of an American Hero”

tags: book review, Nancy Schoenberger, Wayne and Ford

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School and HNN’s senior book editor.

American masculinity today appears in crisis as more and more women are courageously coming forth with testimonials documenting the sexual harassment perpetuated by powerful men in business, entertainment, sport, and politics—not to mention everyday life. In addition, America is plagued by a growing number of mass shootings. Besides the possession of semi-automatic weapons, a common theme in these shootings is that the perpetrators are males, suggesting a correlation between masculinity and violence that is also found in growing rates of domestic carnage. Also, the growing political and cultural influence of the LGBTQ community has contributed to the recognition that gender identification is more complicated than the binary poles of masculine and feminine. Nancy Schoenberger, a professor of English at the College of William and Mary, seeks to address the contemporary crisis in masculinity by examining in her latest book a more traditional narrative of masculinity found in the films of Western icons John Ford and John Wayne, suggesting that their cinematic images may still offer guidance in these troubling and often confusing times. Schoenberger’s meditation on the influence of Ford and Wayne is sometimes a bit rambling and ambiguous, but in the final analysis, her musings, based upon a close reading of the men’s films, Ford’s personal papers, and interviews with such figures as director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich, offer insights into American culture that must be addressed if we are to move beyond patterns of exploitation and violence.

Schoenberger grew up with the Western films of Ford and Wayne which she identifies with the positive values of her military father. To Schoenberger, the values of Wayne and Ford are universal and should appeal to women as well as men, for their films instruct as to what it means to be an adult: “to be peaceful but to be ready, to respect women, to be loyal to friends and family, to be willing and able to change your mind, to master yourself, to mentor the young, and to face the end with dignity” (5). It is difficult to argue with these values, yet as Schoenberger acknowledges, the cinematic heroes projected by Wayne and Ford often struggled to reach these goals, and in their personal lives Wayne and Ford fell considerably short of their ideal cinematic images. In addition, the concept of the masculine protector of women and children perpetuates the power of the patriarchy.

Nevertheless, there is something in the struggle to master oneself and contribute to the formation of a better world that makes the Western masculine hero attractive. As a progressive, I am repelled by the political ideology Wayne presented in real life as well as much of his cinema, yet the screen image remains appealing. Behind that rough exterior seems to lay a sentimental and idealistic value system that is willing to embrace self-sacrifice in the effort to forge a better tomorrow. It is a belief in the potential of America despite the nation’s tragic history of racism and bloody territorial expansion. Schoenberger argues that in their first major collaboration, Stagecoach (1939), Ford presented Wayne as “the good bad man.” As the Ringo Kid, Wayne is escaping from jail to avenge the killing of his brothers. Westerns usually portray the triumph of civilization over the savagery of the frontier, but Ford’s Westerns often question the virtues of the civilized order. Those traveling in the stagecoach demonstrate the corruption and prejudice of society, and in the final analysis Ringo is able to achieve justice for his family and flee to Mexico with the ostracized but compassionate saloon girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) at his side. Schoenberger concludes that the Ringo Kid represents a hero who trusts his instincts over the norms of society, and who is willing to protect but not control the woman he loves. Women, however, were largely ignored in the Ford/Wayne post-World War II cavalry trilogy of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). These films focus upon a sense of duty and a community of men. In Rio Grande, Wayne’s character reluctantly and painfully chooses fidelity to his military obligations over his wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara). Schoenberger finds this sense of duty admirable, but confesses that those not brought up in a military environment may encounter difficulty in identifying with the masculine heroes of the cavalry trilogy. Yet these films embrace the violence of war even when critical of military leaders such as Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) in Fort Apache. Although outside the scope of Schoenberg’s study, Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) also equates masculinity with violence as Wayne’s character returns to Ireland and attempts to abandon fighting after injuring an opponent, but he is only able to win the heart of Maureen O’Hara when he battles her brother played by Victor McLaglen.

The subjects of violence and racism are at the core of perhaps the most acclaimed of the Ford/Wayne collaborations, The Searchers (1956). Wayne portrays Ethan Edwards whose brother’s family is murdered by Comanche warriors on the Texas frontier. The film concentrates upon his seven year search for his captive niece whom he intends to kill after she has become Native. Instead, Edwards returns her to white civilization, while the hero walks away from a family reunion. Schoenberger credits the film with looking at the dark side of western expansionism by suggesting that the hero is “a loner, living on the outskirts of civilization, without family, friends, or love” (122). Men are most prized for their ability to protect civilization, but because they resort to violence to save the family, they must live outside of the community and are denied the life of love and intimate family connections. This is an unfortunate reflection of what it means to be a man and may explain why some men are unable to express their feelings and retreat into isolation and alienation that sometimes culminate in violent behavior.

Ford and Wayne were also often unhappy in their personal lives. While Ford celebrated the family in films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941), his marriage to wife Mary was often turbulent. Ford preferred the company of men and heavy drinking over traditional domestic life. Schoenberger speculates that his frequent angry outbursts at Wayne and other actors might reflect the director’s unwillingness to deal with his own gay sexual desires. Ford could not acknowledge these desires that contradicted his carefully orchestrated male image, and he sought solace in drink. If this is true, then the director paid a terrible personal price for adhering to the heroic images of his Western films. As for Wayne, there is little indication of same sex attraction, but he suffered through three turbulent marriages. Wayne also had reservations regarding his own masculinity as he failed to serve during the Second World War, and he was frequently criticized by his mentor Ford who was quite proud of his military background. Schoenberger believes that Wayne’s super patriotism was an effort to compensate for his lack of heroism during war time. Ford’s politics were more ambiguous with leftist sympathies evident in The Grapes of Wrath, and the mentor criticized Wayne for the simplistic anticommunism of films such as Big Jim McClain (1952), The Alamo (1960), and The Green Berets (1968). Schoenberger concurs with this negative evaluation of Wayne’s political films, but she fails to address the implications of the actor’s Western image on ideas of masculinity during the Vietnam War.

Schoenberger, nevertheless, insists that some of Wayne’s last films provided him with the opportunity to project a more positive image for the youth of America by fostering the idea of mentorship. In his Oscar-winning performance in True Grit (1969) and The Cowboys (1972), Wayne protects and mentors a young woman and a group of young cowboys. In his final film The Shootist (1976), Wayne’s character J. B. Books, mimicking real life, confronts death and cancer with dignity. He mentors a young man played by Ron Howard, and after a final showdown which leaves him dying, Wayne throws his gun away as he does not want the youth to perceive violence as the path to manhood. Schoenberger concludes that in this final scene, Wayne imparts the following lesson: “have courage, be willing to face the end with dignity, don’t drink too much, don’t cuss, and don’t live by the gun. His role as a mentor has finally trumped his role as a shootist, a lesson sealed with his death” (206). Not a bad legacy.

In our troubling times when lonely and angry men resort to mass violence and prominent men are exposed as sexual predators, national leaders such as President Donald Trump refuse to embrace the Western heroic image of respecting women, exercising self-control, expressing humility, demonstrating an open mind, and exhibiting a sense of decency. There is much to question in the masculine Western image offered by John Ford and John Wayne, but in many ways it is preferable to the examples being offered by too many male corporate, entertainment, and political leaders. Nancy Schoenberger’s book on Wayne and Ford is a stimulating contribution to the contemporary discourse regarding what it means to be a man in America.  

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