Quid De Cogitatione?

Quid De Cogitatione?

John Wayne

I have satellite television service and a standard television antenna that receives locally broadcast channels and their “subchannels.” Last Friday I was surfing those broadcast channels and came to local station WWCW’s subchannel 24.1, the “Grit” channel. Its main fare is western movies and television, beginning in the 1930s and running through the 1970s. It happened to be “John Wayne Friday.”

John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Iowa and grew up in southern California. Along the way he picked up the nickname “Little Duke” after his large Airedale Terrier, Duke. He preferred “Duke” to Marion, and the moniker stuck for the rest of his life.

He got into the film industry as a stuntman and “prop boy” in the early 1920s and by the end of the decade he had appeared in many uncredited roles in silent movies.

When director Raoul Walsh cast “Duke” Morrison in his first starring role, he and Fox Studios’ chief Winfield Sheehan cooked up the stage name “John Wayne.”

That first movie was The Big Trail (1930). Although it was a commercial failure, a movie legend was on the way, although real stardom would come after his role in Stagecoach (1939).

In the ensuing years John Wayne played, and established, the quintessential cowboy good guy. His characters were strong, self-confident, honest, and independent. And that independence didn’t make those characters free for solipsistic pursuits.

John Wayne characters knew right from wrong. They didn’t brook liars and cheats. They couldn’t be bought, bribed, or bullied by corrupt politicians, greedy developers, land-grabbing cattlemen, or compassionless swindlers.

John Wayne characters were nobody’s toady!

John Wayne characters were the champions of the powerless, the poor, the downtrodden, the unprotected, and the disenfranchised.

Those 1930s westerns were simple in construction with plots that didn’t quite make sense and lots of hard knuckle fighting and gunplay. But evil was always vanquished by the good guy.

It was the hard-scrabble days of the Great Depression, yet Americans were drawn to the optimism of those movies and a better future. The westerns’ simplistic trust that right would win out over evil and that the rule of law would protect the just was in stark contrast to what was happening elsewhere in the world where people were being manipulated with xenophobic hatred preached by demagogues.

Imperial Japan had brutally invaded China and was waging a war of conquest for resources on a weakly defended civilian population.

Italy had fallen under the spell of Fascist Benito Mussolini who dreamed of heading a new Roman Empire.

Russia had passed from the dictatorship of the aristocracy to the dictatorship of the personality cult.

In Germany, after winning the Chancellorship of Germany with a plurality, Adolph Hitler was consolidating his power with hate filled rhetoric and propaganda and building his own personality cult.

After an arson of suspicious origin burned the Reichstag, the “Enabling Act” was passed in 1933 by fawning and fearful German legislators. It gave Hitler and his lackey cabinet the power to enact laws without legislative oversight. Hitler’s thugs from the S.S. and S.A. attended that voting to intimidate the few remaining opponents of Hitler, the Christian Socialists. A year later during the mass purges called “The Night of the Long Knives” many of those opponents were brutally murdered.

With the legislative branch of the German government now packed with his toadies, Hitler was free to lead the German Reich to the greatness and dominance he craved.

Within twelve years Germany was in ruins.

John Wayne was still around, having boosted American morale with movies of triumphant good guys. Triumphant because those brave good guys stuck to the truth and prevailed over evil.

John Wayne was a conservative Republican, but his politics didn’t dictate what he believed in.

He voted for Democrat President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1936 election and admired his successor, Democrat Harry S. Truman.

He supported Nixon in the 1960 election, but expressed his patriotism when Kennedy won saying, “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”

He attended Carter’s inaugural ball in 1977 “as a member of the loyal opposition.”

He openly differed with Republicans, siding with the Democrats and Carter in supporting the Panama Canal Treaty.

He was to the end an independent cowboy who didn’t let anyone tell him what to do or how to think, relying on what he knew was right, not expedient or merely the party line.

The characters and plots in many of his movies might have been simplistic, but we can’t dismiss lessons that are all white and all black even though they may only exist in fairy tales, operas, and American westerns. We need to see clear-cut good and clear-cut evil in their purist forms, even if their portrayals lack nuance. Once we can grasp the ethereal paradigm of true right and know it from its opposite, we can then learn the greys and how to measure between what we may accept and what we must reject.

In his roles “Duke” brought that commitment to duty.

The News-Gazette

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