John Wayne and the Shah of Iran

How John Wayne galloped through Iran and the myth of "American Exceptionalism"

Andy Warhol once said, “Everybody has their own America…that you’ve custom-made from art and schmaltz and emotions just as much as you live in your real one.” 

John Wayne is the America that lives in our fragmented subconscious.

My John Wayne is my dad throwing me into a public pool and saying, “that’s the way I learned.” He is the Disneyland ride that felt too big for me. He is my uncle’s hooded eyes gazing into the belly of a gutted trout. He is why Newport Beach feels like the official headquarters of the “master race.” John Wayne is why so many of us headed west for a frontier that only existed in the cinema.

May 1972: The shah of Iran wears a tuxedo fitted for a movie star. Flashbulbs explode around him; the miniature medals draped over his lapel sparkle. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi looks like an Iranian war hero, and yet he has never seen combat. He is the product of a Swiss boarding school education. In Abbas Milani’s The Shah, the young prince is described as a “timid” soccer player who did not like taking chances. “He was, as one diplomat said, almost Hamlet-like in his indecision.” With the meticulous attention to detail of a trained actor, he is playing the part of an Indo-European monarch—Iran’s Aryamehr, the “Light of the Aryans.” He is a paradoxical figure: an absolute monarch who is puts America’s interests ahead of his own crown’s. In tailored suits and leather loafers, his secret police, known as SAVAK, imprison and torture leftists (i.e., Communists). The shah’s interests are those of America’s during the Cold War. He is “America First.”

In July 1973, the New York Times reported that 150 protestors gathered around the White House to protest the shah’s visit: “They carried an eight foot cardboard puppet of the shah with cardboard hands marked ‘C.I.A.’ holding the strings to the puppet.” Iran’s version of McCarthyism included a prison in the northern hills of Tehran called Evin. “Hanging from the wrists while your hands were handcuffed crossed behind was the most intolerable torture,” said a former prisoner of Evin.

Here’s what Foreign Policy wrote about the shah in a brief dated March 16, 1979: “The shah’s regime reflected American interests as faithfully as Vidkun Quisling’s puppet government in Norway reflected the interests of Nazi Germany in World War II.”

The shah was as much of a manufactured patriot as John Wayne, who avoided service during WWII to tryst with actress Marlene Dietrich. Ball player Ted Williams—who has been described as the “real John Wayne”—missed three seasons to train as a fighter pilot. During the Korean War, Williams flew 37 combat missions, including one crash-landing in his F9F Panther. Williams gave up five years of professional baseball to serve his country. When Williams was asked to name the best team he ever played for, he replied, “The U.S. Marines.” John Wayne did everything he could to avoid the front lines. He would go on to make 13 movies during the war (many of which were in the “national interest”). Garry Wills in John Wayne’s America: “Wayne was prepared to do anything to avoid such a fate. He wrote torturous excuses to John Ford, who had rushed into military service. He had his studio contrive ever-new exemptions for him.”

While other men his age were fighting the Nazis, John Wayne was bedding an “un-American” movie star from Germany; someone he described as the “most intriguing woman I’ve ever known.” Marc Eliot in American Titan: Searching for John Wayne: “He wasn’t quite ready to give her up for anything, even, perhaps, his country…” It’s been said that when she first saw John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich leaned over to director Tay Garnett and whispered, “Daddy, get me that.”

Wayne was married when their dalliance began on the set of Seven Sinners (1940). Dietrich would spend the next three years gobbling up bits of the actor as if he were knuckles of sauerkraut. 

“She would put [John] Wayne on his knees,” writes Eliot, “and hold his face close between her thighs and make him recite the Pledge of Allegiance to something even higher than his flag and his government.” 

Just as John Wayne was hypnotizing Americans with his six-gun mystique, while gunning down the leftists in Hollywood as a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American “Ideals,” the shah was selling Iranians a culture that only existed in motion pictures.

Ahmad Faroughy in the New York Times, March 16, 1975: “The aim of the regime is to Westernise [Iranian] culture, to cut it away from its national roots and to domesticate all efforts of cultural creation, whether in art, philosophy or science.”

The shah must have understood the persuasive power of John Wayne hopping on a horse and yelling “hee-yah!” Changiz Lahidji, who served in Iran’s Special Forces and later America’s Green Berets, said that he was inspired by John Wayne movies. Just like the Kennedys, the shah was in bed with Hollywood’s anti-Communist dream factory.

His bride, Farah, was the shah’s Jackie Kennedy. She wore dresses designed by Yves Saint Laurent. She looked like the French actress, Michèle Mercier. She went to an all-girl school where she learned French. She studied to be an architect. She was not unlike many of the modern women at the University of Tehran, who dressed in knee-high boots and bold London fashions. Queen Farah invited Iranian pop stars to perform at the palace. She was an actor, too, an advocate for women’s rights who had other women address her as “Her Imperial Majesty.” She shined a light on women who put freedom of speech in a subordinate position to the freedom to wear mini-skirts.

She graced the cover of Cosmo in March, 1962, with her crown jewels and stoic beauty: “Farah Diba: From Student to Queen.” Warhol turned her into a silkscreen portrait in 1976. She was the bejeweled star in Iran’s production of Camelot. 

It was the end of May, 1972, and the shah held a state dinner inside his palace to honor President Nixon, who had agreed to give him a “blank check” to buy American weapons. The deal was a standard Cold War contract: America would supply weapons and training to anyone who opposed Communism (e.g., Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet–Afghan War). The shah used American culture to dissuade Iran’s youth from the revolutionary fervor of Communism. He knew what the Bolshevik’s had done to Tsar Nicholas II. Hollywood was the shah’s “opium of the people.” In exchange for his nation’s oil and Cold War allegiance, Eisenhower gave the shah a prototype of a nuclear program. Nixon gave him weapons. Kennedy gave him Camelot.

The shah wanted Iranians to worship John Wayne instead of Karl Marx.

His weapon was a TV in every Iranian home. America had its own TV network in Iran, which had begun to introduce Iranian youth to celluloid fantasies that portrayed America as a dreamy sitcom. Iran’s youth did not know this was Hollywood’s artificial version of America. But it was the only version of America they were allowed to see. There was no freedom of speech under the shah or Hollywood during the blacklist. There were no independent newspapers or TV networks in Iran. But Iranians had Days of Our Lives and cinemas showing Jaws (1975). Magazines in Tehran began to advertise Camel cigarette ads, Pepsi-Cola, and booze. The dubbings of TV shows and films were carefully edited.

“For it must be made clear that the Western cultural penetration in Iran is a carefully censored one,” wrote Faroughy. “Only those cultural endeavors which help to uphold imperialist and capitalist ideology are permitted to enter.”

Iranian pop stars became poorly printed xerox copies of American ones. Iranian identity was being erased by a form of cultural colonization. The youth of Tehran had pledged their allegiance to a collective hallucination based on John Wayne movies and sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which has a title sequence created by Iranian filmmaker Reza Badiyi).

In the process of Americanization, the people of Iran simply forgot about their own civil liberties.

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Iranian teenagers sat next to their tube TV sets and wept for Camelot. In 1961, Kennedy had become an architect of a more TV-friendly Iran. “Rest assured of our continuing great interest in the security and modernization of Iran,” Kennedy wrote in a letter to the shah in August, 1962. The modernization effort was escalated by beaming American culture into the living rooms of major cities like Tehran and Isfahan. Rawhide, professional wrestling, Bonanza, and Law and order Westerns were sold to Iranians the way the British colonists sold opium to the Chinese. Schoolchildren would hum the Bonanza theme on their way to school as if it were a patriotic hymn. Iranians were religiously watching Westerns dubbed in Farsi, as if they were Persian folklore.

Iranian youth would chug Pepsi-Cola and talk about how they wanted to drive Mustangs like Mary Tyler Moore. They smoked Winston and Camel cigarettes that were, as John Wayne put it, “mild and good tasting pack after pack.” The first car my mom bought was a black Ford Mustang that smelled like melted leather and cigarettes. The Ford Mustang was a cowboy’s car. They were steel horses designed for California’s concrete frontier. John Wayne didn’t like horses. He didn’t like Ford Mustangs. He drove a luxurious boat-sized Pontiac station wagon suited for royalty. He didn’t eschew luxury, as the John Wayne estate would have you believe. John Wayne lived like the shah of California in an 10-room mansion in Newport Beach, a few miles away from his 136-foot yacht, the Wild Goose. But to Iranians, John Wayne and the Ford Mustang symbolized the same thing: the new frontier. They saddled-up their packs of Camel cigarettes and headed west.

I was born in Tehran, Iran, to the sound of John Wayne as translated by an Iranian actor. We headed west before my second birthday. To Iranians, he was “John Vayne” or “Joan Vine,” whose voice was dubbed by a well-respected actor named Iraj Doostdar, who had a deep, nicotine-laced baritone, like Raymond Loyer, who is how the French would hear John Wayne. It must have been positively seductive to hear John Wayne in a poetic language like Farsi, which translated his laboring staccato “a man oughta do what he thinks is best” into romantic dialogue that would have sounded queer to American ears. Abou Farman detailed the Farsi dubbing of John Wayne in an issue of Maisonneuve, 2010:

“John Wayne was not so much translated as he was alchemized by the wizards of the Persian dub into a new alloy—a man who walked like a cowboy but talked like a dude from southern Tehran.”

My John Wayne is a cowboy who sounds, “like a dude from southern Tehran.” My John Wayne is an artistic creation that lives in my subconscious. Sure, I feel betrayed by the real John Wayne; the one in a sports jacket, chain-smoking Camels, and terrorizing the so-called “commies” in Hollywood. I feel as betrayed by that John Wayne as some Iranians were by the shah, who abandoned his country during a revolution and headed for the “land of the pharaohs.” It is poetic, really, that last Iranian king would die of cancer in Egypt. A year earlier, John Wayne died of cancer in a building that would be named after the president who modeled himself after a Hollywood cowboy: Ronald Reagan (who enlisted in the U.S. Army but never saw combat). It has been disputed whether John Wayne begged John Ford to help him enlist. Whether he was a “draft dodger” or not is a question mark that hangs over his patriotism.

“A few claim that Wayne did not forgive himself—that the compensatory superpatriotism of laters years, when he urged his country on wars in Korea and Vietnam, was a form of expiation,” writes Wills.

My John Wayne is a pin from the ’60s that reads, “Send John Wayne to Viet Nam.”

I feel betrayed by the man who sat on his yacht in Newport harbor, with one working lung, and insisted that he believed in white supremacy, “until the blacks are educated.” I want to run away from the John Wayne who said that indigenous peoples were “selfish.” That is the John Wayne who would have told me to go back to my country.

But that is not my John Wayne.

My John Wayne is a refugee in his own country. He is singer Paula Cole’s “happy ending,” not Grace Kelly’s. He is the drifter who longs for a home cooked meal. He’s the gallant youth who abandons the “blessings of civilization” for a prostitute with a heart of gold. He is the gypsy who yearns for a past that never existed. He is Papusza writing that, “no one understands me, only the forest and the river.”

He’s why my parents put everything into a leather suitcase and headed west towards the mirage of “American Exceptionalism.”

He is the atom bomb that goes kablooey through the picket fences of my youth. He is at once the “destroyer of worlds” and my American protector. He’s the beer-bellied dad flipping a sizzling burger patty during a nuclear bomb test. My John Wayne is the amber glow of a technicolor sunset that is both artificial and comforting. He is the end credits on the “country America used to be.”