Oh, the hazards of Duke — two new films are contributing to the Hollywood legend's declining appeal.

By Andrew Essex
August 14, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Old soldiers never die, they just fade in and out of fashion. Nearly 20 years after his death, John Wayne — arguably the greatest screen soldier of all — is again under attack. The critical and commercial assault of Saving Private Ryan is causing fresh casualties, and the biggest victim (not counting Jim Carrey’s Truman Show Oscar chances) may well be the Duke himself.

With its graphic display of blood, guts, and glory, Steven Spielberg’s Ryan makes Wayne’s war movies look staged and simplistic. As Spielberg told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, ”I wanted to achieve reality.” And Ryan‘s unprecedented realism is reaching back and shaking Wayne off his pedestal. Adds Mark Gordon, a Ryan producer: ”The archetypal war-movie hero has changed. We’re more attracted to people who are average, like us.”

Ryan isn’t the only movie taking aim at Wayne’s world. Smoke Signals, the $2.4 million-grossing Miramax art-house hit written by Native American author Sherman Alexie, includes an Indian chant called ”John Wayne’s Teeth” that pokes fun at the stately Wayne manner. ”My career is based on dissing him,” Alexie says. ”I’m interested in honest archetypes.”

Not so long ago, these statements would have been out of step. In 1979, Duke had the posthumous honor of having the Orange County, Calif., airport named after him, a distinction usually reserved for ex-Presidents. And in 1995, Wayne nailed first place in a Harris poll of America’s favorite movie stars — a popularity contest that included such warm-blooded thespians as Mel Gibson and Tom Hanks. It was no longer fashionable, as it was in the Vietnam War era, to beat up on John Wayne.

Since the last year, however, it’s become open season on Wayne again — kicked off perhaps by Garry Wills’ probing book, John Wayne’s America, which revealed that Duke hated horses and had to remind himself to say ”ain’t.” Though Wayne’s two finest films, Stagecoach and The Searchers, appear on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best movies, his war films, particularly Sands of Iwo Jima and In Harm’s Way, now pale in comparison with Ryan. ”I’m not going to say anything bad about John Wayne,” says Gordon, ”but we’re no longer interested in this thing that made you sit back and say ‘Could anyone really be like that?”’

Of course, John Wayne had fought these battles before. ”My dad’s been scrutinized and insulted since the ’40s,” says Wayne’s son, Michael, 63, a film producer. ”My father had great respect for the U.S. military. He tried to portray men of character. Spielberg has a right to portray these other men. But I think it says something about him.”

The younger Wayne predicts that after the current rerelease of The Searchers (part of Warner Bros.’ 75th-anniversary celebration), his father’s reputation will be restored. In the meantime, son, like father, takes it on the chin: ”In the long run, we’ll see which films last.”

Alexie, for one, already concedes defeat. ”Have I made a dent in the Duke?” says Alexie. ”Are you kidding? This is just like the movies. It’s one little Indian boy against John Wayne, and the Indian boy always loses. I know I’ll never make any Harris poll.”

-QUOTE-

”John Wayne’s teeth. John Wayne’s teeth. Are they plastic? Are they steel?” — from Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals

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