John Wayne: World War II Propagandist

Santosh Sandhu profiles the career of silver-screen legend John Wayne and examines the influence of World War II on his body of work…


John Wayne (1907-1979) was the very embodiment of everything America would like to be. Jingoistic, brave, forthright and a fierce defender of the American way of life. After shooting to fame playing supporting characters in B-Movie westerns, he was initially cast as a leading man in Stagecoach (1939) which would see the emergence of the screen persona he would inhabit for the rest of his career. This also signaled the beginning of a long lasting relationship between the actor and director John Ford. Often depicting an everyman oppressed by authority, Wayne would come into his own having to do what was right for himself and those depending on him.

Wayne would spend the war years making patriotic movies such as The Fighting Seabees (1944) and Back to Bataan (1945). Unlike some of his fellow actors who signed up for active service including John Ford who made the documentaries The Battle of Midway(1942) and December 7th(1943), Wayne never did fight in the war, having been refused due to his wife and children. Instead Wayne served his country via his movies in which he often played a similar character, mainly the typical American hero with a clear set of morals and democratic principles. His films would feature stirring music, dialogue and credit sequences that pretty much explained a film to the audience so they were in no doubt as to the ‘message’ of the film. John Wayne and the other Americans were portrayed as brave men doing what their country required of them regardless of the sacrifice.

Such patriotism was reminiscent of Wayne’s right wing political beliefs and his strong anti-communist sentiments. A fierce supporter of the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, Wayne managed not only to distance his former colleagues but also John Ford, who suggested greater diplomacy was required when dealing with members of the film community. Whilst Ford was also an anti-communist he strongly distrusted the tactics of McCarthy whose blacklisting resulted in the destruction of many lives and careers.

Ford’s westerns Stagecoach and The Searchers(1956) had originally been seen as racist and disrespectful to Native Americans who were portrayed as nothing more than blood thirsty savages. Later in his career Ford did attempt to reconcile this by making more liberal films such as Sergeant Rutledge(1960) about a black cavalry officer wrongly charged with rape and murder and Cheyenne Autumn(1964) about a journey made by a group of Indians to the land of their forefathers. Wayne however never did make a film which contradicted his original stance. He made crude comments about Native Americans and the black community and was against the civil rights movement. His directorial effort The Alamo(1960) was a thinly disguised attack on communism.

During the Vietnam War, Wayne thought of South Vietnam as a brave little country protecting itself against the evils of communism and it was America’s duty to intervene. Using the same storytelling techniques established in his World War II movies, Wayne made The Green Berets(1968) which promoted US involvement in the Vietnam war. The film featured a group of US soldiers trained to go on a dangerous mission with a doubting journalist soon converted to accept the nobility of this war effort. Wayne’s friendship in the film with a Vietnamese boy laid on the sentimentality and manipulation. Wayne’s attitudes were therefore dismissed as severely right wing and out of touch.

The film was made with a total disregard to the civil rights movement and anti war protests which were so widespread in America at the time. It was obvious that Wayne deplored such anti-establishment sentiments and chose to disregard them entirely. His feeling that the American government should always be supported in whatever it does did not reflect the sentiments of the public. Whilst the film did make money at the time, today it is rightly regarded as an embarrassment due to its over simplification of a contentious issue. Wayne’s comments gave scant consideration to the napalming of innocent civilians and the drafting of young American soldiers mainly from ethnic minorities into a war they knew nothing about. Whilst John Ford only ever saw himself as a film director, Wayne often aspired to be something more.

Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.