inside film

John Wayne: The toxic legacy of one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars

As the new Tom Hanks film News of The World pays tribute to the controversial Wayne western The Searchers, Geoffrey Macnab asks if the actor’s work can still be enjoyed today

Friday 15 January 2021 06:31
John Wayne in The Searchers
John Wayne in The Searchers

These are uncomfortable times for John Wayne fans. The “Duke”, as he was nicknamed, came to define the western genre. From John Ford’s Stagecoach, The Quiet Man, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Howard Hawks’ Red River and Rio Bravo, and Henry Hathaway’s True Grit, Wayne appeared in multiple cast-iron classics. However, in the era of Black Lives Matter, many find his political views repellent. No one has forgotten the interview he gave to Playboy in 1971 in which, using homophobic language, he advocated white supremacy.    

The backlash against Wayne is well under way. There were calls last summer for John Wayne airport in Orange County, California, to be renamed. Meanwhile, an exhibition dedicated to him at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts was taken down in July amid a heated discussion about “systemic racism in our cultural institutions”.   

Film lovers are therefore having to wrestle with the John Wayne paradox: one of Hollywood’s most beloved stars is also a symbol of much that is toxic about white America.  

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