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Moving with Size and Grace Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties

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Moving with Size and Grace: Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties

“Which would you rather have? What’s behind, or what might be ahead?” These words are spoken by Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth in Red River, one of 11 films given a thoughtful close-reading in Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties, and it could be said that Meeuf himself takes this question as the foundation of his often convincing, revisionist argument for John Wayne’s global popularity in the 1950s. Meeuf’s book sets out to reject the incorrect, yet still widely held, notion that Wayne exemplified a masculinity that was “uniquely American” throughout the 1950s and that international audiences were receptive of the actor’s image due to “the oligopolistic hegemony of Hollywood studios in international markets.” Rather, Meeuf argues that Wayne’s global resonance had more to do with the actor’s body and image, which “dramatized the conditions of global capitalism and uneven modernization.” Moreover, Wayne’s films with directors John Ford and Howard Hawks offered global audiences competing modes of masculinity, not just from Wayne’s star persona and its trajectory within films over these years, but from paratextual materials such as posters and various advertisements, which often differed given the market.

Meeuf carefully delineates these claims with chapters devoted to simultaneously establishing regionally specific reception with a given film and mapping a global reception of Wayne during these politically hostile years. While the prose is repetitive at times in reasserting the goals and claims of each chapter, Meeuf’s research is intricate and his eye for detail precise. Also clear from reading is that Meeuf holds a complex understanding of the wide-reaching, global effects of popular cinema, in the way that only a cinephile can; that is, his arguments operate from a foundational interest in exploring the filmic text, rather than forcing a methodological agenda. In this case, he argues that Wayne cannot be dismissed as “a nostalgic icon of right-wing manhood,” since such simplifications reduce the effects Hollywood has on international markets and, furthermore, provides a reductive explanation of Wayne’s international popularity at the time.

Meeuf calls on much example-based evidence to support his claims, though the strongest arguably come from his compelling and enjoyable discussion of the difference between one-sheet posters in various nations. Namely, he begins the book comparing the American and French posters for Hondo, explaining how the American poster places Wayne as the object of actress Geraldine Page’s gaze, while in the French poster, Wayne is pitted between Page on one side and an approaching band of Native Americans on the other, with Wayne’s gaze looking off into the distance. For Meeuf, these posters epitomize competing modes of masculinity as were being defined by “an emerging, global economic order.” Thus, in Red River, Wayne’s Thomas Dunson rejects a vision of manhood that depends on his place within a nuclear family. Rather, Dunson prefers a homosocial “intimacy between men,” where degrees of professionalism construct masculinity.

Meeuf is careful to point out in a later chapter, in his discussion of Hawks’s Rio Bravo, that such identity isn’t inherent to professionalism as an end; instead, it’s tied to the amount of professional skill one possesses. Meeuf discusses the film in relation to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon; while Hawks’s film has often been read as a right-wing response to Zinnemann’s supposedly left-wing portrait of McCarthy-era anxieties, Meeuf stresses that a reading of each film in relation to male relationships within capitalism is potentially a more accurate and compelling account of what’s at work, since such readings along political lines, as Robin Wood has pointed out, don’t hold up under closer scrutiny, with Wood going so far as to call Rio Bravo “the more liberal of the two.” Coupling this discussion with Wayne’s self-directed The Alamo, Meeuf charts the growing cynicism in how Wayne’s characters interact and construct meaning with the surrounding milieu, culminating with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which the focus shifts from an “active celebration of a mobile, capitalist manhood” and more toward nostalgia, since such individualism became rapidly outmoded within the developing cultural climate of the 1960s.

While representations and offerings of masculinity receive the majority of Meeuf’s prose, chapters five and six examine several less seen Wayne films, all of which take place removed from the American west. In Legend of the Lost, the African setting suggests the pleasures to be derived from colonization and “reveals a shared sense of imperial responsibility and imperial superiority.” On the other hand, The Barbarian and the Geisha complicates such processes through both text and production history, since the film wasn’t only predominately shot in Japan, but at the time, the most expensive film ever made in Japan. Moreover, the film’s production consisted almost entirely of a Japanese cast and crew, which led director John Huston to claim the film had been produced “in a Japanese manner.” Such a negotiated encounter between Hollywood and Japan suggests for Meeuf a harnessing of Wayne’s body as visual spectacle, but also his function within the film as “an advocate for free trade and cultural exchange.” Indeed, the complexities of Wayne’s international star persona and politically minded actor are best revealed within these accounts.

If Meeuf discusses these two films with the most rigor of any throughout his book, it’s likely because he recognizes their potential unfamiliarity to many readers; yet, in these chapters, his discussions of globalization are at their strongest, as his revealing of the nuances between text and production history indicates. The book is also at its best when probing these issues, particularly the introduction, where Meeuf his college students’ responses to being asked about their impressions of Wayne and examines lesser known scholarly texts such as Thomas Guback’s The International Film Industry: Western America and Europe Since 1945, which explains that even by the early 1960s, more than 50% of industry revenue came from international markets.

Perhaps the weakest points of the book are in some of Meeuf’s prose, particularly when discussing masculinity. The issue is less about his claims, which are comprehensively intelligent, but that the word “masculinity” is used so frequently, that one wonders if the text couldn’t have been de-threaded a bit to avoid such redundancies. In the chapter discussing Red River, I counted four “masculinities” in one sentence! “Capitalism” and “modernization” are other words used repeatedly. While Meeuf puts his insights to convincing effect, the book might have achieved an even more startling clarity without becoming bogged down in such words and their overuse, eventually to a mildly numbing effect. Nevertheless, prose concerns aside, this is an important work as an addition to prior books on star texts, genre theory, globalization, and, of course, an essential read for anyone looking to understand the undeniable complexities that defined John Wayne in the United States, but especially abroad.

Russell Meeuf’s John Wayne’s World: Transnational Masculinity in the Fifties is now available from University of Texas Press; to purchase it, click here.