TV Eye

James Rampton
Friday 04 July 1997 23:02 BST

Adam Levy, a documentary-maker at the BBC, went for a holiday in a remote Californian mountain-range. When he reached his inaccessible cabin in the high peaks, what should he find but a huge poster of John Wayne decorating the wall.

"He's everywhere," says Levy, who worked as assistant producer on "The Unquiet American", the BBC's film about Wayne for the Reputations strand. "We went to visit a Marine base and over a sergeant's desk was a picture of Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima [a film shown every year as an inspiration to new Marine recruits]. That desk-sergeant venerated him as a semi- religious icon.

"He still lives in the minds of the deeply American Midwest," Levy continues , himself an American. "He's a mythic figure. People project their yearnings onto him. He represents the frontier spirit and a sense of clarity when everything seems in a muddle. I come from a New York, middle-class upbringing, not Wayne's home ground. Having said that, there is still part of me that does feel his power. He seems fatherly, assured, unconflicted, by-the- book, professional - all those deeply held American ideas about masculinity."

James Kent, the producer/director of the documentary, agrees. "He has become the lens through which Americans see their history. He stands for an America when men were men and for the basic American beliefs in pioneering and good winning through. He represents the American Dream - that ability to go from being dirt poor to a success story. Wayne reminds them how big their country is and how big their ambitions can be."

All of which means that "The Unquiet American" is not likely to go down too well in the Midwest. This Reputations shows the all-American hero to have been a draft-dodging, racist, illiberal, womanising drunk. For instance, Wayne managed to avoid the draft for the Second World War with any number of excuses - including that he couldn't fill in the call-up papers because there was no typewriter on his film set.

In Kent's eyes, the allegation of draft-dodging "tarnishes him more than anything else. It was a purely careerist move. He manipulated it so he didn't have to sign up and could fill the vacuum left by the other Hollywood stars who did. Later he found himself a flag-waver and arch Commie-baiter with no military record. He was one of the major cultural protagonists for the continuation of the Vietnam War. [His The Green Berets was Hollywood's only pro-Vietnam War film.] He kept telling people, `You should serve your country.' To say that, knowing that at the one point you could have served you concertedly avoided doing so, smacks of hypocrisy of a very high level."

In 1948, Wayne became president of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, "dedicated to purging the film industry of subversives". He was also thought to be active in Senator McCarthy's witch-hunt of Hollywood left- wingers. "It destroyed the careers of people like Carl Forman [the writer of High Noon]," Kent asserts. "Wayne was never the smallest bit apologetic for his role in that."

His hatred of liberals did not dim as he grew older. His daughter recalls him smashing in a TV screen when Teddy Kennedy appeared on it. "It is hard to sympathise with him on the civil rights issue," Kent sighs. "He went on record as saying that the civil rights movement was largely a mistaken crusade. He thought women should not work and that blacks should not be given equality until they were better-educated. He wanted to move to Mexico because he couldn't stand what we would see as the pretty mild Carterist government. In the 1970s, he became like King Lear, railing against the gale."

For all this, Kent still has a soft spot for The Duke. "Wayne was the kind of star who'd get into a really good conversation with a cab-driver. Like many right-wing people, he fostered the idea that `I can speak for the common man, although I'm very wealthy.' He was very hail-fellow-well- met. He'd have charmed me. He was funny, down-to-earth and he never whinged."

This was particularly true at the end of his life, when he fought a long and painful battle against duodenal cancer. It is more than likely that he contracted this in 1954 when filming The Conqueror in the desert just 90 miles from an American military nuclear testing site. Three-quarters of the cast and crew on that film died from the same form of cancer. The ultimate irony of his confused existence is that Wayne was probably killed by the thing he perhaps loved most of all: the American military.

Reputations: `The Unquiet American' is on Wed at 9pm on BBC2




Pride and Prejudice (Sun BBC1) The chance for a nation to swoon once more at Colin Firth's breeches.

True Stories (Tue C4) Over the moon with Chelsea's trainees.

Frasier (Fri C4) Is there a better current sitcom - on either side of the Atlantic?




Plastic Fantastic (Tue C5)

I think I can live without a 13-part series on plastic surgery, thank you.

Undercover Customs (Thu ITV) Do we need yet more surveillance footage of macho undercover operations?

Weird Science (Fri BBC2)

Sad adolescent sci-fi fantasy.




Mars: Death or Glory (Sat BBC2) How would someone cope with the two-year journey to Mars?

Fear of a Red Planet (Sat BBC2) Our historic fear and loathing of Mars.

The Natural History of an Alien (Sun BBC2) Intriguing probe into little green men.

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