For Americans abroad, old 'Duke' flicks can transport us home

As a new arrival in Tokyo, fresh off the boat with no housing or job, I stayed at a “dorm” for the Chinese staff of a barbecue restaurant.

The shabbiness of the place was staggering. A grotto without electricity, ramshackle, depressing and dank, it had “no visa” written all over it.

Alienation set in, but then my eyes fell on a film poster warped on the wall — a token escape left behind by a previous dweller, perhaps a down-on-his-luck Chinese who liked Westerns. Despite the Japanese titles, I recognized the movie as being “Hondo” from the yellowed 1950s John Wayne firing his rifle in a crouch and defending a damsel against Indians.

Alone in another country, suddenly, mythically, I was home. Perfectly self-realized.

Like many boyhoods in the Western hemisphere, mine unfolded in the shelter of movies. They were a safe, reliable sort of magic, accessed through matinee tickets on weekends or a button on a TV remote, the screen of our trunk-size family tube coming to life with a comforting “blomph.”

Movies are times with our favorite people — old friends dropping in for rainy-day reruns or double features on nights without sleep. As we ourselves change in ways we embrace or not, actors persist in our mind as anchors to the past, preserved in soft focus like actual, beautiful memories.

As a teenager I saw “Magnum Force” at a movie theater in Vienna, the sole attendee beside me a short man with a necktie and glum Slavic features. In silent communion we sat in the dark while Clint Eastwood roamed San Francisco and exterminated vigilantes. It was the most genuine bonding with a native I had in two years of living in Vienna.

The joys of youth are the soul food of the adult. Especially when you live abroad, even a waft of real pizza can stir a sense of identity. But unlike Japanese overseas, who well up in wordless ecstasy upon tasting authentic zaru soba, legal aliens from the West don’t go hunting around ethnic grocers for the foods that connect with home.

Our Americatown is the corner DVD shop, where we know who we are and have roots. It is here, scanning the shelves with the cold eye of the connoisseur, that we discover obscure gems and duds, that we dig up Steven Seagal embarrassments we didn’t even know existed. And it is here that I rent oldies starring John Wayne, perhaps the most in-your-face of all Americans in people’s faces.

If nations are imagined communities, they need actors to sustain the narrative. America needed someone to be John Wayne, and so Marion Michael Morrison — nicknamed Duke — grew into the job. In over 100 pictures, most of them Western and World War II shooters, he was an icon of self-reliance, integrity and intent, idealizing America to itself and the rest of the world.

“I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been,” said Wayne, whose stage name was chosen by a director. He knew the line between person and persona, and conceded, “I sometimes think the myth is what makes belief possible.”

It certainly made registers ring. In a career spanning 50 years of Hollywood history, Wayne was a top 10 box-office star from 1949 to 1973.

“He was so like his country — big, bold, confident, powerful, loud, violent and occasionally overbearing, but simultaneously forgiving, gentle, innocent, and naive,” write Randy Roberts and James Olson in “John Wayne: American.”

Most ironically, he was a patriot who didn’t serve. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, many Hollywood stars enlisted, whereas Wayne got deferments and sat out the war, unwilling to stall a career that was finally taking off. Haunted by guilt for the rest of his life, he kept playing the fearless soldier to make up for his combat no-show, drawing legions of young Americans to sign up to fight in Korea and Vietnam. Some recruits would come to regret it, resenting Wayne as the barker who bailed.

Yet on encountering other cultures, Wayne stood his ground like a surly expatriate. Other toughies abroad — such as Gene Hackman in “French Connection II” or Michael Douglas on a Tokyo job in “Black Rain” — were out of their league and got brutalized, marked forever by the experience.

Not so the Duke. Whether defending democracy in the Pacific, saving villagers from Communist China or attacking the Viet Cong — even negotiating with Edo shogun as the first U.S. consul, Townsend Harris (in the epic lemon “The Barbarian and the Geisha”) — Wayne remained vaingloriously unchanged, a professional who could navigate, even subject to an American imperative, any part of a strange foreign world.

In an odd historical aside, Emperor Hirohito, on a tour of America in 1975, asked to meet with Wayne and then meekly received an autograph at a luncheon, prompting the actor to quip, “Between all my movies, I must have killed off the entire Japanese army.”

As a child I didn’t see the politics, the queasy condescension, behind this. Only in college did Wayne’s movies become guilty pleasures, his chauvinistic brand of conservatism, which he trumpeted on- and off-screen, revealing itself as knee-jerk. A liberal in the making, I was supposed to loathe rednecks like him. More perplexing was that, in interviews and accounts from others, he appealed to me as a likeable guy, full of bluster yet always forthright. So was it OK to like Wayne or not?

From the vantage point of an expat in Japan, such concerns of political positioning seem moot. I recently read a review of “McQ,” which stars the Duke as an aging cop in Seattle. Playing a different kind of American — the East Coast intellectual disdaining the tastes of Middle America — the critic Pauline Kael proceeds to demolish the movie: “Incompetence like this prostrates me. I got so stoned on the boringness that I forgot to get up and go home.”

There is no accounting for taste. Myself, I just ordered “McQ” on the Internet, giddy with anticipation of where it was certain to take me: home to a trunk-size TV and a comforting “blomph.”

Nicolas Gattig is a teacher and writer from San Francisco. Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about life in Japan. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp

Coronavirus banner