The Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies
Conference 2003 Highlights
"The John Wayne Syndrome: Jung, the Hero Archetype, and the American Hero"
Although John Wayne died almost 25 years ago, he is still revered by Americans as their definition of the American hero. The courage, the tenacity, and the sense of honor in his characters -- "the unyielding hardness and monumentality of Wayne's body as bearer of moral absolutes" (Thomas 76) -- are all qualities that are admired by Americans. In time, Wayne's own personality became fused with those of his characters, and it was difficult to separate the two from each other. Thus, all of his characters -- from his first starring role in Stagecoach as the Ringo Kid (1939) to his last film The Shootist as John Bernard Book (1976) -- represent the public face (the persona) of John Wayne, and his Western and war film characters are all solidly positioned within the paradigm of the American Western folk hero.
The film Western was born out of the stories told in pulp fiction novels about the Western frontier. These dime-novel Western hero stories were based originally on the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. (Esselman 9-18) The concept of the knight errant was borrowed from these stories and used by the Western genre novelists to create the lone gunman, the cowboy "just passin' through," and the solitary Sheriff or Federal Marshall.
The traits of the lone just man as hero are straightforward and well known. They had their roots in Greek Stoicism, with elements from the Homeric warrior and his code of honour, and from the Platonic-Aristotelian singling out of universal virtues -- courage, justice, and a concept of prudence which includes both judgment and practical reasoning. (Carroll 28)
From this foundation, the basic structure of the Western hero was established, and this person followed the monomythic hero formula as described by Joseph Campbell. This hero is a man who leaves his family/community, passes through a period of initiation (many times this is service in the Civil War, mostly as a Confederate -- although occasionally as a Union -- soldier), and returns to his own or a new community a changed man, able to save the people from the evil which torments them.
Very early in the history of movies, films embraced the Western hero. At first, these stories were targeted for children and adolescents, with simplistic storylines and unlikely characters (one such being the singing cowboy). With the premiere of Stagecoach in 1939, the Western hero advanced into the adult realm, and the hero and his actions responded to adult expectations. Stagecoach was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne in his first major film role, a role which defined not only adult film Westerns but also the John Wayne film hero.
Max Westbrook describes Wayne as "our number one tough guy, big-hearted, All-American Hollywood hero" ("Night" 159). In the majority of movies he made throughout his career, Wayne epitomized what Americans preferred to see as their national image throughout the world; i.e., the take-no-prisoners, tough, strong, courageous, and honorable man who stood up to evil and ultimately won against it. "He had to have filled some need in his audience. . . . He stood for an America that people felt was disappearing or had disappeared -- for a time 'when men were men'" (Wills 40-41). At Wayne's death, President Jimmy Carter stated "John Wayne was . . . a symbol of many of the most basic qualities that made America great. The ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal conviction and courage -- on and off the screen -- reflected the best of our national character" (qtd. in Westbrook "Flag" 26).
Wayne took this hero icon he had built in his Western films and easily transitioned it to the war films of World War II. This fit especially well with America's self-image as the savior of the world and the guardian of democracy. Many times in these films we see Wayne's characters actively move from safety to the frontlines because that is where he is most needed. His character, of course, saves the day.
Wayne's most famous war film character is Sergeant Stryker from Sands of Iwo Jima. In this film (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor), Stryker trains new Marine recruits in the combat skills necessary for survival in the war against the Japanese. As with all military training, the individuality of the men is broken down and the concept of team dynamics is established. Stryker is the authority figure who must do what he can to destroy the enemy while keeping his men alive. He is the hero who separates from his community in order to fight for the safety of his country.
Boot camp is the initiation of his troupes and the continued initiation of Stryker in the Marine Corps. He has advanced to Sergeant-Major, but was demoted back to Sergeant "for reasons never made clear" (Eyles 119), and given his own squad to lead. He leads his men into battle and strives to keep them from making mistakes which would cost them their lives and the lives of their comrades. He even goes through a sacrificial death so that his men will live, which returns him to his community with honor. The enemy is defeated, the flag is raised over Mt. Suribachi, and Stryker is immortalized as the ultimate Marine.
At the landing on Iwo Jima, John Wayne as Stryker performs a decisive and typically Waynean heroic act, exactly what Americans came to expect from his characters. After several men are killed storming a bunker filled with Japanese machine gunners, Stryker removes his pack, grabs his gun, and storms the bunker, picking up the intended explosives from the body of one of the dead Marines. He runs up the bamboo stairway, and is (magically) unhurt by the flying bullets. In full view of the enemy gunners, he primes the explosives and waits until the last possible moment to ensure the greatest possible damage. He throws the explosives into the bunker and, as he runs for cover, the bunker explodes behind him, sending him flying through the air. He saves his comrades and ensures the continued advancement of the Americans to victory. This positive war hero fits firmly within America's choice of self-image and re-confirms the folk hero status of the characters played by John Wayne.
One of the most famous John Wayne roles, however, is that of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, a Western directed by John Ford. Richard McGhee calls Ethan Edwards the "most fully realized of . . . [Wayne's] roles as a romance-hero" (11). As with any hero story, Ethan must "undertake and complete a quest: this usually displays the special features which Campbell has outlined as a 'call to adventure,' 'refusal of [or resistance to] the call,' 'crossing of the first threshold,' and the various 'trials and victories of initiation'" (McGhee 11).
Ethan Edwards is a tragic hero, a man whose flaw is a mix of stubborn tenacity born out of self-righteousness and of his unwavering racist hatred of his Comanche neighbors. He is a Confederate soldier who returns to his family as a broken and bitter man. He is in need of spiritual renewal, and his anger is displaced against the Comanche who reluctantly share the land with the white settlers. These Comanche attack his brother's farm, killing the family and burning the homestead. Ethan's two young nieces are captured, and he leads a group of men to find them. One of them is Martin Pawley, a young man who is one-eighth Comanche, and, thus, contaminated in Ethan's point of view. The search party first discovers the dead body of the older niece, and then, after a long and unsuccessful journey, disperse back to their own homes. Only Ethan and Martin continue the quest to find Debbie, which takes them five years to complete.
Ethan's quest fits the separation - initiation - return paradigm of Campbell's monomyth. The damaged war hero has returned to his home spiritually incomplete. At a time when he is psychologically most vulnerable, his family is torn asunder. Ethan' sister-in-law originally was his own sweetheart, but she married his brother after realizing that Ethan would never settle down and build a life with her. Subsequently, Ethan is very close to her children, and his sister-in-law remains the love of his life. Her violent death and the abduction of his nieces is a devastating loss to him. He separates from his community and sets out on a quest to find these young girls, the last remnant of his family and his lost love. He is accompanied on his quest by the contaminated Martin who supports the hero and the quest, and acts as both the hero's boon companion and his guide to spiritual recovery.
The nemesis, or worthy opponent, is two-fold. First, it is the Comanche who have attempted to destroy Ethan's family and have abducted his nieces. Secondly, it is Ethan's own damaged soul which needs to be healed. His psychological damage is displayed through his open hatred of the Native American population. This allows him to justify the desecration of an Indian burial site by mutilating the Indian corpse, and the killing and mutilation of the Comanche warrior who abducted his nieces and who killed the older girl, assimilating the younger one into the tribe.
The Searchers is interesting to examine because it also presents the hero's personality symbolically through characters in the story. In viewing the film, it becomes easy to recognize the pieces of Ethan's personality, using Carl Gustav Jung's theories of personality. He represents his own negative Animus, that part of him which is easily recognizable as negatively aggressively male. Marie-Louise von Franz describes the Animus as the "male personification of the unconscious . . . [which can exhibit] good and bad aspects" (198). The damage Ethan has undergone in the Civil War remains with him as he reconnects with his family and community. This return is meant to heal him, and he visits with his brother's family, reconnecting with his former love, now his sister-in-law. His brother's children dote on him, and he accepts this affection with quiet relief. He is able to relax somewhat and take an examination of his life.
Ethan's Anima has been severely repressed through his humiliation and defeat in the Civil War. Negative aspects of his Animus are evident in his own "obstinate, cold, and completely inaccessible" presence among his people (von Franz 198). His sister-in-law represents his Anima, the female side of his personality. His brother represents the positive Animus, which Ethan has lost. He has returned to his family so that he can regain the balance he has lost by reconnecting with these symbols of his Anima and Animus. The healing process has barely begun when the representation of Ethan's Shadow, the Comanche leader of the raiding party, appears and destroys his family, killing his Anima and positive Animus.
Ethan's Shadow, the Comanche brave, is a mirror image of his former military self. As a Confederate soldier, he very likely had gone on his own raiding parties, burning the farms of Union sympathizers and killing the enemy. Ethan's war enemies were those fellow Americans with whom he has shared the benefits of life in the United States, as he also has shared the same land with them. In the war, he did battle with these men, destroying their lives, their families, and their property. The Comanche are to the settlers what the two sides of the Civil War were to each other; i.e., uneasy co-inhabitants of the same territory. Just as Ethan and the Confederacy fought their Union brothers for autonomy and freedom, so too the Comanche make war upon the settlers to maintain and secure their own autonomy and freedom. Ethan's Shadow invades his safety zone, reasserting itself and destroying his chance to rehabilitate his personality.
The hero quest begins as Ethan leads a group of men to find his kidnapped nieces. The Animus pursues the Shadow to face it and destroy it. The Animus also pursues the new representation of the Anima -- his nieces -- in order to reassimilate it. Ethan is devastated when one of his nieces is found dead. He is left with only one chance at redemption -- finding and saving the surviving niece, Debbie, his only remaining Anima. Joseph L. Henderson states that "one of the more important aspects of the myth of the typical hero . . . [is] his capacity to save or protect beautiful women from terrible danger. . . . This is one way in which myths or dreams refer to the 'anima' -- the feminine element of the male psyche" (115).
On this quest, he is joined by Martin Pawley, a young man who was adopted into Ethan's brother's family as a young boy. He represents both the Shadow (he is one-eighth Comanche) and the positive Animus (he is an accepted part of his community and in love with Ethan's best friend's daughter). Martin is the mediator between these two worlds and does not abandon Ethan, even when he is verbally abused by him. "The ambiguous relationship between Ethan and Martin . . . [suggests] cosmic as well as psychological adversaries that need to be reconciled before order can be assured" (McGhee 12). Martin is the representation of the balance of the Anima, Animus, and Shadow. He is self-confident and aggressive against his enemies, he is romantic and kind to his girlfriend (Laurie Jorgenson), and he physically resembles his Comanche cousins. As much as he is a mediator for Ethan, Ethan is a mentor to him. He learns from the older, more experienced man, and grows in his abilities to defend himself and his community.
In varying degrees the hero's relationships with his travelling companions become more important to his own spiritual journey than do his relationships with the objects of his quests (for vengeance, honor, or money) or with the blocking agents along his way. This is manifestly true in The Searchers. (McGhee 12)
The quest is long and arduous, with many false turns. The negative aspects of Ethan's Animus are evident in his overt racism against the Comanche. He defiles a Comanche's grave by scalping the corpse so that his spirit will be forced to wander the Earth forever. He is brooding and angry. When Ethan and Martin first discover Debbie, he sees her dressed as a Comanche squaw, living with the brave who abducted her and catering to his needs. Ethan is furious. She is assimilated into the tribe; she is perverted; she is lost to him. His last chance at re-embracing his Anima is destroyed, and, when he is able to see Debbie alone from the tribe, he attempts to kill her. He is unsuccessful only because Martin physically places himself between the vengeful Ethan and the terrified Debbie. She is able to run away, back to the tribe where ironically she will be safe. The Anima has found comfort with the Shadow. In Ethan's mind Debbie must be destroyed, just as a damaged horse is put out of its misery.
It is in the last segment of the film that the resolution of both the hero quest and the search for Anima is concluded. Ethan has found the Comanche camp and enlists his old friends once again to ride with him to free his niece and visit vengeance against his enemies. The rescue party has crossed into the desert to find the Comanche camp. In the last battle of the film, Ethan rides into the camp with both guns blazing, a brilliant manifestation of the warrior hero. Martin finds Debbie and takes her outside of the camp, while Ethan kills the Comanche leader and scalps him, again to assure that his spirit will be forced to wander the Earth forever. He and Debbie see each other. She turns and runs, and he pursues her, ignoring Martin's protests. At this point in the film, the audience is led to believe that Ethan will kill Debbie.
Ethan's redemption, however, is at hand. He rides after Debbie, and in this pursuit he races down a hill, running into the mouth of a cave. Richard McGhee remarks that the "journey through the desert-country and crossing the river are two standard motifs in the romance-quest" (11). The desert location and crossing is symbolic of the journey through the underworld which Ethan must undergo, and the mouth of the cave represents the entrance to hell or to a tomb. Debbie is at the mouth of the cave when Ethan reaches her, and she presses her back against the edge of it. Ethan looms over her, momentarily assessing her with his eyes, as if to drive her into the cave to eternal damnation. He then walks to her, picking her up in his arms. The Shadow has been defeated, and its power has been removed. Ethan as the Animus, wraps his arms around Debbie, his Anima, physically embracing her. Ethan looks at Debbie and simply, quietly says, "Let's go home, Debbie." At that moment the audience sees the redemption of the tragic hero, and the return once again to the beginning of the healing process for his damaged soul. His acceptance of Debbie is central to that healing. She is not the perverted girl he once saw but the missing niece whom he needs to return to their community and his family. "The moment that Wayne [as Ethan] spares Debbie is one of the great, enduring moments of cinema" (Eyles 154).
Ethan returns Debbie to the settlement where she is received with openness and affection. But Ethan is a tragic hero, and, although he has begun the healing process and has accepted Debbie back into his arms, he is still too damaged to return to his own community. The final shot of the film is from the point of view of the house, just inside the doorway. Debbie is joyously received and brought into the house, and by crossing this threshold is symbolically returned from her journey in the Shadow's realm. Ethan cannot join them, however. He stays outside, still too damaged to be able to celebrate the return of his niece.
While it is true that in The Searchers, as in a number of Westerns, the hero saves the community, that theme is subsidiary to interest in his own spiritual journey, supplying it with a narrative context -- at the end he is inwardly compelled to ride away. (Carroll 28)
His healing has begun, but it will take a long time and a lot of hard work to complete the process.
Sands of Iwo Jima and The Searchers are two major films representative of mid-20th century World War II and Western film making. These as well are just two of John Wayne's films which present either the American Western or War folk hero. The hero pattern -- first identified by Jung and later analyzed in depth by Campbell -- is recalled again and again in Wayne's films, and he has become the symbol of American heroism.
Perhaps most important of all was Wayne's portrayal of genuinely American heroes. His entire work can be described as the glorification of the American hero and the perpetuation of American ideals. . . . In his best roles he epitomized the national virtues of rugged individualism and that pioneer heritage that right and justice must always triumph over evil. (Levy 109)
In addition, The Searchers offers an interesting look at the symbolic artistic representation of the theories of personality formulated by Carl Gustav Jung. In doing this kind of analysis, a deeper understanding of the character of Ethan Edwards established which leads to a better appreciation of the film as well as Wayne's character.
Carroll, John. "John Wayne's West." Quadrant 41.11 (1997): 26-30.
Esselman, Kathryn C. "From Camelot to Monument Valley: Dramatic Origins of the Western Film." Focus on the Western. Jack Nachbar, Ed. Englewood Cliffs (NJ): Prentice-Hall. 1974. 9-18.
Eyles, Allen. John Wayne and the Movies. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1976.
Henderson, Joseph L. "Ancient Myths and Modern Man." Man and His Symbols. Carl G. Jung, Ed. New York: Laurel, 1964. 95-156.
Levy, Emanuel. John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life. Metuchen (NJ): Scarecrow P, 1988.
McGhee, Richard. "John Wayne: Hero With a Thousand Faces." Literature/Film Quarterly 16.1 (1988): 10-21.
Sands of Iwo Jima. Dir. Allan Dwan. Perf. John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker. Republic, 1949.
The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood. Warner Brothers, 1956.
Thomas, Deborah. "John Wayne's Body." The Book of Westerns. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye, Eds. New York: Continuum, 1996. 75-87.
von Franz, M(arie)-L(ouise). "The Process of Individuation." Man and His Symbols. Carl G. Jung, Ed. New York: Laurel, 1964.