Hollywood Blacklist: The Duke, draft-dodging opportunist

Still from the film “Three Faces West,” starring John Wayne. Courtesy of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

By Ed Rampell, Red Phoenix guest contributor, California.

(Note: This is the unedited text for the introduction to the April 16 screening of “Three Faces West,” at the Academy Museum for this series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Hollywood Blacklist.)

The Duke and the “Commies”

John Wayne and Marlon Brando were both in movies with Montgomery Clift. The Duke acted opposite Clift in Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River. Brando co-starred with Monty in the 1958 World War II drama The Young Lions, directed by Hollywood Ten defector Edward Dmytryk, after he’d recanted to HUAC. Brando won the first of his two Oscars when he was only about 30; the Duke was in his sixties when he finally scored that coveted Golden statuette. So, who was the better actor: John Wayne or Marlon Brando?

Brando was the Method actor par excellence. In his private life, Brando was reportedly a troubled, angry loner, much like the characters he often portrayed, in films ranging from the 1954 biker flick The Wild One to 1973’s Last Tango in Paris.

Wayne’s screen and public persona is that of a cowboy, soldier and ultra-patriot. But was he really any of these things?

The star of countless Westerns including John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach and 1956 The Searchers, according to his son, Michael Wayne, his dad “didn’t particularly like horses and preferred suits and tuxedos to chaps, jeans and boots.” The prototypical cowpoke also bought a luxury yacht and favored the sea over the prairie. He was part-owner of a cattle ranch in Arizona but settled in Newport Beach with a view of Balboa Island. 

The picture is clearer when it comes to Wayne and the military. Many of his contemporaries, including Henry Fonda, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, put on the uniform and went overseas during WWII. But the lead in movies such as 1945’s They Were Expendable, 1948’s Fort Apache, 1962’s The Longest Day and 1968’s The Green Berets NEVER served in the U.S. armed forces. Wayne was not only missing in action during the 1940s’ liberation of the Philippines and Europe, he wasn’t a cavalry officer, a Vietnam commando or a Leatherneck — flying or otherwise.

According to Gary Wills’ book John Wayne’s America, the man who portrayed the archetypal, battle-hardened Marine, Sgt. Stryker, in 1949’s The Sands of Iwo Jima, actually avoided the draft during WWII. Wills contends that the Duke did not reply to letters from the Selective Service system, and applied for deferments. Apparently, Wayne — who sought stardom after being relegated to B-pictures for years following the flop of Raoul Walsh’s 1930 frontier drama The Big Trail — got his big break during the struggle against fascism when many of his Hollywood competitors, action heroes like Tyrone Power, enlisted and shipped out overseas.

An outspoken hawk during the Vietnam War, Wayne co-directed and starred in the Pentagon-subsidized propaganda picture The Green Berets. Duke denounced antiwar protesters, reportedly saying: “As far as I’m concerned, it wouldn’t bother me a bit to pull the trigger on one of ’em.” Wayne’s third wife, Pilar, has been quoted as saying he became a “super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying at home” during WWII.

John Wayne’s relationship with communism is also hypocritical. In Film Criticism, The Cold War, and the Blacklist, Reading the Hollywood Reds, Jeff Smith lists the following movies in the category of overtly anti-communist agitprop pictures: Howard Hughes’ I Married a Communist (a.k.a. The Woman on Pier 13); My Son John; I Was a Communist for the FBI; and Big Jim McLain. At the height of the Reds-under-the-beds hysteria Smith writes, “during the late 1940s and the early 1950s… close to fifty such films were produced.”

Wayne starred in Red Scare movies such as 1955’s China-set Blood Alley and 1952’s Big Jim McLain, which was based on the actual case of the Hawaii 7, wherein suspected Communists, including longshoreman union leader Jack Hall, were charged with advocating the overthrow of the American government. Wayne busts Honolulu’s “commies,” playing two-fisted federal agent Jim McLain – whose name has the same initials as Senator Joe McCarthy. By the way, the Coen Brothers’ 2016 Hail, Caesar! had lots of fun spoofing Big Jim McLain.

Wayne projected the image of being a virulent anti-communist. He was president of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and cheered the Hollywood blacklist during HUAC’s purge of entertainment industry leftists. But the Duke didn’t let his reactionary scruples get in the way of his screen career, and he worked with many leftist talents, most of whom became blacklisted, when it was expedient for him to do so.

There’s a scene in the 2015 film Trumbo where Dalton Trumbo has a confrontation with John Wayne – but this scene may have been inspired by Duke’s interactions with another Communist screenwriter. In 1945, Wayne starred in the WWII Pacific Theater morale booster Back to Bataan, directed by Eddie Dmytryk and co-written by another Party member, Ben Barzman. In her book The Red and the Blacklist, Ben’s wife Norma Barzman recalls the playful banter between her husband and Wayne at a party. Duke “put his arms around Ben and embraced him with fervor. ‘You goddamned Communist!’ he accused lovingly. Ben hugged him back. ‘You goddamned fascist!’”

Wayne’s 1942 WWII flick Reunion in France was helmed by Jules Dassin, and after Dmytryk named Dassin as a Communist in his HUAC testimony, Dassin was blacklisted and went into exile. The credits for 1964’s Circus World are almost a “who’s who” of blacklisted and left-leaning scribes: Julian Zimet, Bernard Gordon, Nicholas Ray, Philip Yordan, Ben Hecht. Christopher Trumbo and Michael Butler, both sons of blacklisted screenwriters, shared the writing credit for Wayne’s 1975 policier, Brannigan. Michael’s parents were Jean Rouverol Butler and Hugo Butler, who co-wrote 1943’s Lassie Come Home.

Marc Eliot’s American Titan, Searching for John Wayne says Duke’s longtime collaborator on Westerns, John Ford, was “[a]mong the most liberal players at the time” who “donated an ambulance to” the Spanish Republic and claims the director of The Grapes of Wrath (which Eliot dubs “the prototypical leftist Hollywood film”) ran afoul of the blacklisters, but that “Ford’s distinguished war service may have saved his career.”

An even bigger irony is that Wayne won his sole Best Actor Oscar for 1969’s True Grit, which was written by Marguerite Roberts. Maybe Duke’s eyepatch blinded him to the fact that Roberts had joined the CPUSA and was blacklisted after she refused to testify before HUAC in 1951.

This brings us to tonight’s movie, RKO’s 1940 Three Faces West, which is similar to, but arguably far more radical than, The Grapes of Wrath. In it, Wayne portrays a Dust Bowl survivor in this pro-New Deal, anti-Nazi gem directed by Bernard Vorhaus and co-written by Samuel Ornitz. Note the premature anti-fascism of Three Faces West. Ironically, the feature co-stars right-winger Charles Coburn, who like Wayne, would join the Motion Picture Alliance.

In the 1950s, the redemption-seeking Dmytryk named Vorhaus to HUAC, and he was blacklisted. Ornitz, of course, became one of the Hollywood Ten. Sam, who was also a novelist, wrote pictures like the hard hitting 1932 chain gang drama Hell’s Highway. It was co-directed by John Cromwell, who was blacklisted despite his never having been a Communist, and is the father of actor Jamie Cromwell. In 1944, Ornitz’s anti-fascism matured in They Live in Fear.

Released a year after Stagecoach, John Wayne is quite good in Three Faces West. Duke was a careerist and opportunist but more than that, he was an actor. Whereas Marlon Brando often played versions of himself onscreen, John Wayne really acted – he pretended to be a cowboy and make-believe soldier, and convinced millions that he was the complete opposite of what this draft dodger really was off-screen. As we see, Wayne’s “conservatism” didn’t prevent him from taking roles in movies made by leftist talents. Although I don’t doubt he was a reactionary, like playing a cowboy and soldier, Duke’s anti-communism, too, was largely an act he was talented enough to pull off.

Now enjoy John Wayne’s lost lefty film, Three Faces West.

Schedule info for the remaining screenings of The Hollywood Ten at 75 film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures:

John Garfield double feature Force of Evil and He Ran All the Way 7:30 p.m., Thursday, April 27, introduction by K.J. Relth-Miller, Interim Director, Film Programs, Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Spartacus 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 29, introduction by Ed Rampell and Dalton Trumbo’s daughter-in-law, Nancy Escher.

Salt of the Earth 2:00 p.m. Sunday, April 30, introduction by Ed Rampell, followed by a panel discussion featuring Eve Bodenstedt, granddaughter of Salt’s star Rosaura Revueltas, who is flying up from Mexico for the event; co-star Will Geer’s daughter and granddaughter, Ellen Geer and Willow Geer; and Bill Jarrico, son of Salt’s producer Paul Jarrico.

For details visit the Academy Museum website.

Categories: Media & Culture, Movies

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