You might have noticed that one of the skirmishes in the culture war is being fought at John Wayne Airport (JWA) in Orange County, California. Typically, when one name is erased a more contemporary name is put forth, but in this case, local politicians are pushing to reinstate the original name of Orange County Airport. The current name dates from 1979, the year John Wayne died. He was a longtime resident of Orange County (specifically Newport Beach), docked his boat there, and is buried there.
Also on the chopping block is a 9’ foot statue of Wayne in western attire. Situated inside the terminal building, the statue is safe from vandals and iconoclasts as airport cops and TSA personnel would more than likely swoop down on any miscreants before they got very far. An airport is no place for berserkers.
Of course, the John Wayne internet movie database has not changed in the 41 years since his death, but Orange County has. Once a Republican stronghold with a sizable contingent of John Birch Society chapters, changing demographics have now put the county solidly in the Democratic column and the local pols (an apt abbreviation for politicians or poltroons) are flexing their muscles. Wayne’s conservative views were never a secret, and some controversial comments he made in a 1971 interview are still raising hackles among the perpetually oppressed and offended.
Erasing John Wayne’s presence from the airport in Orange County has obvious political symbolism, but it goes beyond that. Wayne was a major figure in popular culture, particularly in western movies. So by deep-sixing Wayne, the Orange County pols are not just repudiating his politics but also his westerns, and by extension all westerns, a genre near and dear to moviegoers — men more than women – for generations.
The west appealed to the male imagination long before movies were invented. Dime novels, exploiting the west while it was still wild, thrilled throngs of city boys and farm boys. When the movies came along, westerns were a natural. The first narrative film is generally considered to be The Great Train Robbery, a 1903 western. Cowboy stars (Tom Mix, Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, et al) were an integral part of the silent era. In those days a number of famous westerners were still alive and sometimes played bit parts or served as technical advisers (notably Wyatt Earp, who didn’t bite the dust till 1929). Some cowpunchers and rodeo performers found their skills were in demand as stuntmen, bit players, or extras; a few, such as Ben Johnson, went on to bigger and better roles.
When sound came in, audiences were treated to singing cowboys. Serials and low-budget double features were regular western fare at the nation’s movie theaters during the 1930s. Wayne himself emerged from B-movie purgatory to star in Stagecoach (1939), a watershed western that boosted oaters (as Variety used to call westerns) a few rungs higher on the ladder of respectability.
Presented with good scripts, A-list directors no longer hesitated to helm westerns, and some (Howard Hawks, John Ford, Anthony Mann) did their best work in the genre. Until recent years, one would be hard-pressed to name a leading man who had never appeared in a western. Around 1960 one even heard the phrase “adult western” tossed around every now and then. The genre was open-ended enough to provide a vehicle for any number of themes, fables, and allegories.
Even movie critics took note, and any number of books were written about the genre, the movies, and the filmmakers. These were not just coffee table picture books but scholarly tomes written by film professors and published by university presses.
Since the United States started on the east coast of North America and spread westward, the western became an unofficial national mythology. Of course, westerns were never intended to be 100% historically accurate but they were historically based. Aside from the occasional film that takes place in the modern west, every western is a period piece. In this regard, the western is a unique genre. Gangster movies and horror movies may or may not be contemporary, romcoms always are, and science fiction extrapolates the future from the present.
While the West was peculiar to America, it clearly struck a nerve in the Old World. To many a foreign audience, the image of America they saw in westerns was America. Some countries, notably Italy, produced their own westerns, mostly in southern Spain, a suitable stand-in for the American Southwest. Westerns were even made in Israel!
B westerns yielded to A westerns at the movie theaters, but during the late 1950s they took over network television. Westerns were so popular on the tube that at one point 30 western series were on prime time in one season. During one ratings period in 1959, eight of the top ten shows were westerns. Juvenile buckaroos with blazing cap pistols moseyed all over suburbia. In fact, I was one of them. I have the faded snapshots to prove it. Sad to admit, but I was all hat and no cattle.
During that stellar year of 1959, one of the shows that debuted was Rawhide, which introduced Clint Eastwood to TV audiences. Of course, he graduated to movie westerns and became a major star and later a director. Yet despite his megastar status in western movies, it’s been 28 years since he played a pistolero (The Unforgiven). Kevin Costner has tried his hand at a few, but his last western was Open Range in 2003. I can’t remember the last time I saw a western in a theater, and there are no western movie stars today. Sadly, it appears the western has finally been consigned to Boot Hill.
So the possible renaming of John Wayne Airport and the removal of his statute are symbolic of the current cinematic state of affairs. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why westerns present a problem to contemporary audiences. In fact, those reasons match up pretty well with the various complaints coming from the woke wing of the political spectrum. Let’s tick them off one by one.
John Wayne was the personification of the alpha male. Unlike a lot of movie actors, he was just as big as he appeared on screen (I met him once and can vouch for his listed height of 6’4”). He generally played loud, opinionated, assertive men. In short, he was too uncomfortably masculine for today’s nanny statesmen. Horror of horrors, his airport statue depicts him wearing a holster – with a gun in it! And he probably doesn’t have a permit!
Smaller men than Wayne carved out lengthy careers in westerns. The genre is male-oriented because the west was male-oriented. Oh, to be sure, there was a small ladies’ auxiliary of petty criminals (Belle Starr was far more formidable in dime novels than in real life) and cowgirls (Annie Oakley). Occasionally, a movie would feature a dominant dame (the baddest queen bee was Barbara Stanwyck, star of Forty Guns, The Maverick Queen, Cattle Queen of Montana, as well as The Big Valley TV series). Johnny Guitar, a 1954 offering starring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, has since become notorious for its lesbian subtext, among other quirks. Nevertheless, it has been inducted into the National Film Registry along with The Great Train Robbery, Stagecoach and other classic westerns.
For the most part, the western puts women in two categories: wife or whore (Stagecoach, though an exceptional movie, is no exception in this regard). Woke movie critics would doubtless say the duality is systemic. In truth, it is built into the genre because it is built into history. Men were the trail bosses of westward movement and the women were largely camp followers (pretty much true of nomadic Indian tribes too, come to think of it). But before egalitarianism became a national obsession, western movie lovers never had to apologize for it.
Then there is the matter of violence. You can’t have a western without gunplay. Well, you can, e.g., Four Faces West, a 1948 opus in which absolutely no firearms were discharged. No fistfights either. No toxic masculinity or anger management problems whatsoever! It flopped at the box office.
Guns, however, are a problem these days and not just because they fall into the category of things men like. Though firearms have been around for 600 years or so, the very thought of them turns otherwise rational people into jellyfish. God forbid a small boy should point his finger like the barrel of a gun and shout “Bang! Bang!” at recess. Intervention is assured. Boys will not be boys in modern public schools. Of course, if they want to be girls, the administration will be happy to assist them in their transition.
Another thing men like is steak. Of course, to have steaks, we must have cattle. And cattle are a major presence in a lot of westerns, thus indirectly glorifying red meat and the clown-shoe carbon footprints required to produce it. The killing and eating of wild game was also an integral part of life in the west, though I don’t think that’s what people mean today by living off the land. Of course, when the Indians did it, that was OK.
And that brings us to the indigenous people problem. Call them Indians, Amerinds, Native Americans, or whatever, their continent was taken over by the white man. There’s no way to put a happy face on it. The Indians were outnumbered and outgunned. They never had a chance. Call the white man a conqueror or call him a cancer; under his aegis, the Indian way of life was no longer sustainable.
The Indian is not the only dispossessed minority in the western, though he is the most sentimentalized. The case of the Mexican is a little trickier. Some of his dispossession was due to a war of secession (the Texas revolution), some to an old-fashioned declared war (the Mexican War of 1846-1848) and some of to a real estate transaction (the Gadsden Purchase). In truth, the relative ease with which the U.S. acquired the erstwhile Mexican land exemplifies an uncomfortable truth, and I don’t mean big fish eat little fish. Land belongs to people who are capable of holding onto it. Without a critical mass of population in place and a military/paramilitary presence, it’s fair game for anyone else who wants it. Call it realpolitik or call it nature’s way. Diplomacy is irrelevant.
The Mexican is not as “pure” as the Indian since his DNA is European to some degree and he speaks a European language. But for the most part, Mexicans are brown, so by definition that means they are automatically included among the oppressed. Still, it is worth pausing to note that the Mexican and Spanish armies were fighting the Apaches long before the U.S. Cavalry got into the act. It came with the territory.
Moving right along from brown to black…in the western, Black Lives Don’t Matter. It is a fact that there were numerous black cowboys in the West, but you wouldn’t know that from watching movies. Curiously, while lynching is largely associated with black victims, the dearth of black characters in westerns assures that the hangees, often horse thieves or cattle rustlers, are lily white! On the other hand, that pernicious white hat (good)/black hat (evil) meme…racist to the core!
As for homosexuals, the trans-gendered, the hormonally dazed and confused…well, let’s just say the subject never comes up in westerns. There is a longstanding cowboy fetish (remember Midnight Cowboy, Andy Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys, or the cowboy character in the Village People) in homosexual circles. It never broke through into mainstream westerns, aside from the modern western, Brokeback Mountain. The gay caballero was one stereotype that never caught on.
Then there’s the whole law and order thing. Western movies only rarely provide a glimpse of socialism or communism, and then it is usually reserved for otherwise patriarchal religious sects. Authoritarians and anarchists are the major antagonists. Typically, the anarchists might win in the short run, but the authoritarians prevail in the long run. If you could put an antifa goon squad in the WABAC machine and transport them back to the Seattle of, say, 150 years ago, sooner or later federal marshals, the county sheriff, the local police force, the U.S. Army or somebody would take them on and take them out. If they were not killed outright, a mass hanging a la Judge Isaac Parker (the renowned Hanging Judge, who presided over 79 executions) would not be out of the question.
Now I can’t say that the leftists in Hollywood are colluding to assure that westerns will never again darken the silver screen. It may well be that the audience just isn’t out there anymore. Maybe light sabers have replaced pistols in the hearts of America’s youth (gang members excepted). Wide open spaces are more likely to be glimpsed from the window of a spaceship than from a prairie schooner. The western got a head start on the science fiction genre, but the latter caught up quickly. The two coexisted amicably for generations, but now it seems science fiction has prevailed, possibly because it is easier to insert social engineering messages into movies about the future as opposed to those that deal with the past.
At any rate, if the JWA airport code changes to OCA or OCI or something else, few air travelers will notice, but some regular OC air travelers might notice that the John Wayne statue is gone and wonder where it went. I don’t think it will stay in storage long. It would certainly make a unique conversation piece for any movie fan who could afford it. More than likely, it will end up in a museum. The John Wayne Birthplace & Museum in Winterset, Iowa would be one possibility.
But what will happen when the forces of wokeness direct their spite towards all the western museums out there…the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the Autry Center in Los Angeles, the various Wells Fargo museums, etc., not to mention the numerous western art museums around the country? It’s just a matter of time.
Still, things could be worse. I’d rather Hollywood ignore the western than reimagine it. Hollywood used to remake successful movies; now they reimagine them. Typically, that doesn’t entail a burst of creativity but of propaganda: woke wine in old bottles. Based on the movies I’ve seen that purport to be reimagined, I can only conclude that “reimagined” is a synonym for “fucked up.”
Millennials may not mourn the loss of the western…just crusty old narratives as obsolete as the software of yesteryear. The western is at worst a national scandal and at best an irrelevancy in our enlightened progressive 21st Century.
What’s left to say except… Ride ‘em, soyboy!