Joshua Eckhardt: On "Dear John Wayne"

In Thomas King's 1993 novel, Green Grass, Running Water, the characters gathered at Buffalo Bill Bursum's electronics store find that the John Wayne movie with which they are all familiar, and are now watching on Bill's monstrous wall of t.v. sets, has been doctored. Where the cavalry has in the past always appeared on the hilltop to trap and kill the Indians in the river, in the "fixed" version of the movie, the cavalry suddenly disappears halfway down the hill. Having gained an unprecedented upper hand, the Indians blow John Wayne and Richard Widmark to bits, to the bewildered frustration of Buffalo Bill and the delight of his employees and patrons, particularly Charlie. Charlie's father, known in Hollywood by his ridiculous pseudonym Iron Eyes Screeching Eagle and distinguished by a fake nose intended to make him look more Indian, plays the lead Indian role in this movie. And so rather than again watching his father die at the hands of John Wayne & company, this time Charlie sees the Western genre entirely overturned, his father made the hero, and John Wayne reduced to his victim.

Nothing, or decidedly less, has been fantastically altered in the John Wayne movie featured in Louise Erdrich's 1984 "Dear John Wayne." The drive-in is packed with patrons and mosquitoes. On screen, the Indians are spotted by the lookout; they attack the settlers:

 

who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds

into the history that brought us all here

together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear. (ll. 14-16)

 

With this invocation of a common history--as represented by the trials of white settlers braving the savagery of Hollywood Indians--a properly Fanonian problem emerges. Central to Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks is the dilemma of a racially marked colonial subject who identifies with the heroes in films and magazines, as the audience is intended to. The problem, though, is that he is not intended to be part of the audience. Where he may think of himself as John Wayne (to stick with the present example), all of the white people in the audience see him as the villain. In King's novel, it is Lionel who is most caught in this trap: he was a John Wayne enthusiast as a kid and always thought he looked more like John Wayne than the film depictions of Indians (especially given the phony nose his uncle had to wear on screen). Sometimes ashamed by his father's fame, Charlie resists Lionel's full-fledged allegiance to country western ideology. And while the lines quoted above may show the audience at Louise Erdrich's drive-in rather taken in by the pseudo-history presumed by the movie, the poem goes on to articulate the former's generic ideology in all its inconsistency.

The following stanza is dominated by the larger-than-life, larger-than-horizon projection of John Wayne:

 

The sky fills, acres of blue squint and eye

that the crowd cheers. His face moves over us,

a thick cloud of vengeance, pitted

like the land that was once flesh. Each rut,

each scar makes a promise: It is

not over, this fight, as long as you resist.

Everything we see belongs to us. (ll. 17-23)

 

The clouds and sky around and on the screen give way to a close-up of John Wayne's facial features, the land-like ruts and scars of which silently make traumatic promises: your resistance ensures continued warfare; "Everything we see belongs to us." This, the poem goes on to claim, is John Wayne's "disease" (l. 41). The poem does not reach this statement before audience members climb off the hood of the Pontiac and Wayne's huge close-up yields to credits and the movie is over. Back in the car, "We are back in our skins" (l. 35). This return to everyday existence suggests an end to the brief community imagined in lines 15-16 and quoted above: that community linked by the common "history that brought us all here / together." This history could be read as both that assumed in the movie (brave settlers ruthlessly attacked by Indians) and that revisionist history furthered by Erdrich (which could include the history of Hollywood, history textbooks, and other U.S. national myths). Regardless of which history one prefers, it seems that, "back in [their] skins," audience members are less likely to be duped into identifying with John Wayne and more capable of clearly hearing the movie's actual political message. This is just what happens in the last stanza; the second person plural continues to hear Wayne's voice, "the flip side of the soundtrack still playing":

 

Come on, boys, we got them

where we want them, drunk, running.

They'll give us what we want, what we need. (ll. 38-40)

 

John Wayne's "disease," it turns out in the next line, is this obsession with his boys' wants and needs; the ludicrous but serious implicit conviction that "Everything we see belongs to us"; "the idea of taking everything" (l. 41). This disease was an epidemic. Unlike King's novel, Erdrich's poem does not revise the movie so that the Indians beat the cowboys. But the audience in Erdrich's poem hears what John Wayne actually says: that American cowboys get to keep everything they see. Taking Wayne not at his word but at his word's political effect turns out to produce an effect as subversive as King's: even if Erdrich doesn't stage Wayne's slaughter, she does diagnose him with the disease of western expansion.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Joshua Eckhardt

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Criticism Overview
Title Joshua Eckhardt: On "Dear John Wayne" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joshua Eckhardt Criticism Target Louise Erdrich
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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