Richard Lutz gets all gung-ho about the most intriguing movie on the box this week
Henry Fonda. Jimmy Stewart. David Niven. Lee Marvin. But not John Wayne.
And why not? Because The Duke, the American movie hero maximus, never fought in the Second World War. But the four others did.
It was to haunt the movie star all his life. He was mercilessly bullied by his favourite director John Ford for turning his back on fighting for his country but playing exactly that role in movie after movie. And making loads of cash doing it. It’s the stuff of Hollywood gossip, half truths and rumour. Records show the actor was listed as 3C. That meant he couldn’t sign up because he had dependants. But didn’t others?
Whatever the truth he starred in big films such as Sands of Iwo Jima (Wednesday, 2.50pm, Film4).Wayne plays a tough sergeant who relentlessly whips his new recruits into shape for the fight to take a small but highly strategic island from the Japanese. The 1949 story included the important symbolic raising of the US flag on the bloody island’s mountaintop, made famous in sculpture.
Wayne’s Sgt Stryker, played by a man who didn’t enlist, is portrayed alongside leading actor/veterans such as John Agar (Air Force), Forest Tucker (Army), Arthur Franz (B24 bomber navigator), Richard Jaeckel (Navy). The list goes on.
In one scene Wayne actually teaches the actor Hal Baylor how to march. Baylor was a decorated Marine. Then Wayne’s character teaches a trio of recruits how to raise a flag. They’re the actual three ex-soldiers who put up the flag on Iwo Jima five years before the film was made: Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes and John Bradley.
Also in the movie are senior military who commanded thousands of men during the island action: a Medal of Honour winner, an amphibious corps commander and the top soldier who led the notorious Mt Surabachi assault where the emblematic flag was first flown.
And where was Wayne, the tough guy actor, when all this action took place? In Hollywood playing soldiers and cowpokes. George Wills, a right wing commentator wrote: “He was, in reality, a draft dodger, America’s apocryphal soldier who was, in fact, a chicken hawk…”
So, when you sit down to watch The Sands of Iwo Jima or any other Wayne war film and you feel a chill of patriotism or red white and blue pride…think again. All you are watching is a civilian actor playing a role that thousands of others played for real, with real blood, real fear and real heroism. In effect, real soldiers.
Fellow star Kirk Douglas recounts telling The Duke: ‘It’s all make believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne.’
Douglas, now 100, recounts Wayne looking baffled. Uncomprehending. Not understanding.