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On "Dear John Wayne"

Joshua Eckhardt

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

Jaime Brunton

In Lousie Erdrich’s “Dear John Wayne,” the depiction of an on-screen battle between John Wayne’s character and a Native American Indian tribe mirrors a larger ongoing cultural battle between white colonizers and Native Americans. Italicized lines voice a rhetorical battle between the poem’s narrator and the figure of John Wayne as representative of the colonizers. Ultimately, it is the narrator who strikes the last, and most powerful, blow.

From its first lines, the poem sets up a scene suggestive of battle. In stanza one, the audience (composed of Native Americans) in cars at the drive-in movie can do nothing "to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes" who "break through the smoke screen for blood." This violent imagery carries into stanza two, which begins to describe the action of the film, but without clarifying that this action occurs on-screen rather than in the present moment in the real-life space around the audience. The film screen is, like "the smoke screen," easily ruptured, suggesting the possibility of that the textual violence of the film can produce material effects. This conflation of on-screen space with 'real' space points to the power of popular representation to supply distorted cultural narratives about the history of colonization. It also reveals a hierarchy of values attached to indigenous bodies (which the film’s white characters seek to eradicate) versus bodies of:

[…] 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. 13-16)

The end of this third stanza reminds us again of the presence of the screen, and acknowledges how the present moment is informed by "the history" portrayed there.

Stanza four again dissolves the barrier of the screen as John Wayne's face fills not the screen, but rather the entire “sky." His giant "face moves over" the crowd of Indians "in a thick cloud of vengeance" directed at real people in the present moment. Wayne’s scars "make a promise: It is / not over, this fight, not as long as you resist." This call to battle continues in the next line, set off between the stanzas: Everything we see belongs to us. The white face that expands to cover the audience’s literal field of vision reads as a gesture to the saturation of whiteness in our cultural field of vision, as well as to the expansive white colonization of physical space.

As the narrator watches Indians in the crowd laughing (perhaps at the camp quality of the film?), she offers her counter to this claim of white ownership: "The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind. / Death makes us owners of nothing." John Wayne, a mere image, cannot answer back, and the movie ends with the poem’s narrator seemingly getting in the last word.  

Yet despite the confident claim of their spokesperson, in the "true-to-life dark" the film’s spectators become "speechless and small." They are "back in our skins" -- that is to say, out of the diegetic world and back to the real and present world, where their "skins" (i.e. their racial identity as Native Americans) determine the material conditions of their lives. In this sense, John Wayne's assertion of ownership is accurate, as the narrator goes on to suspect in the final stanza, imagining Wayne's voice again:

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,
the flip side of “the sound track”, 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. 36-40)

The last two lines of the poem, however, offer a surprising evaluation of Wayne's philosophy, and act as the battle's final blow to the now-deceased actor and what his films represent:

Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.
Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins. (ll. 41-2)

The lines are open to multiple simultaneous readings. At the most basic level, they assert that what takes everything destroys everything (even itself), just as that cancer that killed Wayne in real life died along with his body. The philosophy of domination and imperialism, Erdrich suggests, destroys both the owner and what is owned. Imperialism is figured as a self-defeating enterprise.

On another level, this ending can also lend agency to the Indians watching the film, highlighting their active resistance to imperialist domination. The repetition of "skin" -- the poem's final word -- echoes the earlier line that depicts the film's audience being "back in [their] skins." That the cancer cells are described as "burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins" also points toward the generative nature of both the disease and the act of colonization: the cells can be read as the colonized, who, burning with rage, will multiply and retaliate by “splitting out of their skins” -- that is, by exceeding the limits imposed upon them by virtue of their status as racial minority. Cancer acts here as a literal punishment to John Wayne and a metaphorical outcome of colonization. In this way, Wayne's earlier promise that the fight "is / not over... not as long as you resist" becomes recast as a rallying cry to the colonized.

Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton



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