But it turns out that the man she idolized on TV didn’t always measure up to her fantasy, and opened her eyes about her own dad.
As a child, I thought John Wayne was the ideal of masculinity. I grew up in Texas, so perhaps it’s not surprising that my mother was obsessed with Westerns. Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Jimmy Stewart, and countless others rode through my childhood playing out the many myths of the taming of the West, but John Wayne stood out over all of them.
Here is what I learned:
John Wayne was a good man, a strong man, a man of few words. He wasn’t anything like my father, an alcoholic Vietnam veteran who lied and wept and lashed out and who, when drunk, babbled out torrents of nonsensical words that frightened his daughters. In the flicker of the television’s light, my mother forgot the stresses of her life and imagined herself on the frontier. John Wayne was her hero, her protector, a reminder that there had once been such things as bravery and honor.
Because she loved him so, I also came to idealize John Wayne and to wish that he was my father. Unlike my real father, John Wayne would protect and provide for us; he would never leave my mother to plead with the landlord and the bill collectors for just a little more time. Like Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, he might drink, but he would still do his duty. When he fought, it would be for honorable reasons, and he would always win. Like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he would sacrifice his own happiness to make sure that those he loved were well cared for.
It wasn’t until I got older that I began to question whether John Wayne—or, more to the point, his movie persona—was really the kind of person that I would want in my life. Even though his characters loved their families, they seemed to have a lot of difficulties expressing that love. I remembered how, in The Searchers, Ethan wanted to kill his niece rather than allow her to remain living among the Comanches who had taken her from her home; in Big Jake, Big Jake’s family is emotionally devastated by his desertion, a situation resolved only when he is needed to rescue a kidnapped grandson.
In his films, Wayne often portrayed the difficulties of wartime and of adjusting to life after combat; his characters function in emotional isolation and self-medicate with alcohol. In real life, Wayne never saw combat. Although he regretted it later in life, his age and a threatened lawsuit by Republic Pictures kept him out of World War II. It was men like my father—ordinary, nonfamous, often poor and nonwhite—who fought the real battles in wartime and at home. Those veterans like my father who proved unable to shake off the painful memories and reintegrate totally into peacetime life must have felt shamed by the super-patriotic movie Duke, who, despite having seen war, was able to meet every challenge the silver screen could throw at him.
My father is long dead now, his body undone at last by the trauma of war and the ravages of addiction. Although he was far from anyone’s ideal, I know now that he did the best he felt he could for us. I regret that we parted in estrangement, and I wish we’d tried to make things right before the end.
As for my movie dad, John Wayne, even in death, he triumphs over all cinematic foes, a powerful talisman evoked to this day as a symbol of the old, pure America that many imagine once existed. But there never was any great nation, any shining city on the hill; there were only ordinary humans telling each other stories to forget their troubles. Among them once dwelt one Marion Robert Morrison, a man catapulted by a surfing injury and a made-up name into the myths of the West, and of my family, forever.