Gunfight at the Stalinist Corral

Uncle Joe's showdown with the Duke


It sez right here that Joe Stalin was so incensed by John Wayne's anticommunism that he actually ordered his KGB goons to go kill the star. More remarkable yet, his goons went to Hollywood to do it. British writer Michael Munn has unearthed these surprises, and tells the whole story in considerable detail it in a forthcoming bio, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth.

Should we believe Munn? My opinion is that his story is too good to check. Stalin in his last years was a hopeless loon wielding total power. It's entirely credible that, had he lived long enough, Uncle Joe would have ordered everybody in the world shot, or sent to die in the Gulag, or both. Maybe Wayne was just the next name on Stalin's extremely long list. But why shoot Wayne and not other prominent Hollywood anticommunists? Why not shoot, say, Adolphe Menjou? My working theory is that Stalin did order Menjou shot, along with Ginger Rogers and Elia Kazan, and we're just waiting to learn the details.

On the other hand, Stalin may have been advancing a feverish plan of his own. Maybe he wanted Wayne out of the way to give a much-needed boost to the career of Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller, the great Olympic swimmer, was the original movie Tarzan, and Stalin had a thing for Tarzan; he'd sit up all night in the Kremlin's screening room, watching Tarzan and his chimp sidekick triumph in one adventure after the other. Indeed, there's a good case that Tarzan was Stalin's Rosebud. That is, just as Citizen Charles Foster Kane was, despite his power, fixated on his boyhood idyll of sledding, Joseph Stalin was no doubt haunted by an innocence fantasy in which he spent happy days brachiating through the jungle.

Anyway, by midcentury Weissmuller was too old and heavy to play the character anymore, and was relegated to a series of shorts about a fat man, "Jungle Jim," who goes panting around the rain forest floor. Maybe Stalin figured that with Wayne out of the way, Weissmuller could get into the Duke's saddle and rev up his moribund career. If Stalin had a good side, it would have manifested itself in just this way.

Come to think of it, Wayne had something on Stalin, something that might explain the attempted assassination even better. Here's the story: A popular Soviet movie released during Stalin's era was a Western entitled, The Journey Will Be Dangerous. It was about the struggle of American Indians against the expansionist policies of imperialist white settlers. How did the Soviets make such a film? Well, they took a print of John Ford's famous 1939 movie, Stagecoach, they recut it, and they made up a lot of new socialist-realist dialogue that they dubbed in over the original lines.

Now, here's where the plot thickens. Stagecoach is the movie that made John Wayne a big star. You're probably thinking that corrupting Stagecoach might be a reason for Wayne to shoot Stalin, not the other way around. Well, Stalin probably had exactly that thought. The result was that Stalin doubtless ordered Wayne killed in self-defense.

Don't think Wayne's fists—never mind his political rhetoric—weren't a threat to the Soviets. According to the Guardian's account of Munn's book, when the FBI told Wayne that a pair of KGB killers were after him, Wayne "told the FBI to let the men show up and he would deal with them."

Wayne apparently planned to abduct the assassins himself, then frighten them by staging a mock execution. Whatever happened, Munn's understanding is that "the two men stayed in the US to work for the FBI."

Wayne also formed a gang made up of loyal stuntmen, who supposedly infiltrated communist cells in Hollywood on Wayne's behalf. Munn told the Guardian that, at one point, Wayne "gathered all the stuntmen, went to the communist meetings, and had a huge fight." Although Nikita Khushchev is said to have cancelled the Soviet assassination order when he succeeded Stalin, there were to be yet more reported attempts on Wayne's life. One of them occurred in Vietnam, according to Munn, when snipers were ordered to take him out.

"One of the snipers was captured," Munn told the Guardian, "and said there was a price on John's head, put there by Mao Tse Tung."

Why would Mao focus on Wayne? There are some compelling theories to consider, but you'll have to wait for the next slow news day in August to read them here.