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Ding Dong

REST IN PIECES

By David B. Edelstein

JOHN WAYNE died a week ago at the age of 72. He fought a long and courageous battle with cancer; he called it "the big C," and said he had licked it. But in the end "the big C" licked him back, hard. When he died John Wayne was almost completely hollow, empty, like those shells of cicadas you find sometimes in the summer. His body had become an objective correlative of his mind.

But that mind continued to function, in its own queer way, long after his body could no longer support it-a final proof that, as had long been suspected, Wayne's pronouncements had been beamed in from UFOs. When Wayne went to that big Chuck Wagon in the Sky, he went with a Congressional decoration tacked to his left pap honoring "the actor, the man, the American." The Duke, as he was known; a fine name for a dog, a big dog, a Labrador maybe, or the kind of dog they eat in places like Vietnam.

As an actor, Wayne could only play one role- himself. They called him larger than life, and his ungainly bulk probably had a lot to do with that. He towered over Injuns, Nips, and Gooks. Most of Wayne's movies had one-word titles-McClintock, Branigan, McQ, Chisum, Stagecoach- so that his legions of addled fans could remember them. And his movies were all Black and White; Panavision never brought the colorings of moral ambiguity to these flicks. You were a baddie or you were a goodie; those who opposed the Duke were deranged sadists who frequently had sex, too.

As an "artiste," Wayne made The Green Berets, perhaps the only movie yet filmed that should be banned as obscene. People tend to underestimate the influence of a movie like that on the wardheelers and bored millionaires whom Americans elect to send them to wars. Wayne knew nothing about Vietnam, about killing babies and shooting smack and blowing your lieutenant's head off after he told you to take Hill #34. He shot the movie in Georgia, where people think they know about war but it takes 40 of them for a lynching.

WHICH BRINGS US to John Wayne the Man. He may have won a Congressional medal, but he could never have won a Purple Heart; 20 years before he called for draft resisters to be jailed and beat in the kidneys with large branches, he was a draft dodger himself, along with Hubert Humphrey and other hawkish cancer victims. No, Wayne didn't want to fight Hitler-he might get hurt. But he didn't mind thrashing his wives, who couldn't fight back, Puerto Rican women he found in Personals in El Diario.

You had to expect it, though. Because the man who came to be the symbol of drink bourbon/rape women/roll fairies American masculinity was born Marion Morrison, and there was always a suspicion that, deep down, John Wayne wanted to be the Mayor of San Francisco.

And John Wayne, the great American, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. That's quite a laugh, at least now it is. Calling John Wayne a great American says things about this country that are kind of hard to deal with. But who called him a great American? Omar Torrijos, the head of the Panamanian cocaine mafia, or Elizabeth Taylor, who testified on the Duke's behalf before Congress, looking as if she had eaten all the sweetmeats that doctors had cut out of him.

DUKE reached his epiphany, as it were, on his deathbed, when he converted to Catholicism. That's not American, that's Italian. That image sticks with you: Wayne gone puling in supplication to God, a pathetic last-ditch stab at atoning for a lifetime of atrocities before his bulldozer goes over the cliff. But it was too late for John Wayne. When he died he met 50,000 American ghosts, and quite a host of Vietnamese. They had a lynching party for John Wayne in Heaven last week. They ripped out his guts and they ripped out his spleen. And then there was nothing left to rip out.

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