When Stalin wanted to kill John Wayne to protect the Soviet Union

We knew that John Wayne could not only take on Apaches and Comanches, but also faced the Burdett clan aided only by three colorful friends, challenged the fearsome Liberty Valance for a steak, galloped into a duel against four adversaries – shooting with both hands while he held the reins with his mouth – and avoided the thousand and one diabolical traps that the Vietcong set for him; He even scared the gremlins! What we did not know is that he also had the capacity to shake the foundations of the Soviet Union and that is why Stalin entrusted the KGB with the assassination of such a dangerous enemy.

This surprising story was reviewed in one of the books by Michael Munn, a British writer specializing in the history of cinema, almost always adopting a sensationalist tone and focused on the most lurid themes of the seventh art. Thus, since in 1982 he released his first work, The stories behind the scenes of the great film epicshas continued in this line with titles as expressive as The Hollywood Murder Casebook, Hollywood Rogues, hollywood bad, The Hollywood connection: the true story of organized crime in Hollywood either X-rated: the paranormal experiences of the movie star greats.

But where Munn has really given the chest is in the biographies of Hollywood and British stars. The first was by Charlton Heston, in 1986, and since then he has published another fourteen: James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Lawrence Olivier, Burt Lancaster, Steve McQueen… Not only from the golden age but also from more recent ones, in the case of Gene Hackman or Sharon Stone. In general, almost all of these portraits have been described as absurd and absurd due to the alleged mixture of reality with fantasy used by the author; the polemical tone is evident in subtitles of the type The untold story, The truth behind the legend, The secret life and the like.

Stalin in 1949 / photo Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R80329 on Wikimedia Commons

Well, Michael Munn wrote in 2003 John Wayne: The man behind the myth, which apparently also fits that style and in whose pages appears the unprecedented story of Stalin’s plans to kill John Wayne. Munn explains that the matter came to his attention from the Russian director Sergei Gerasimov, to whom he gave credit because he was a respected artist in the USSR to the point that a film school, the VGIK, was named after him – by the way, the oldest in the world- and was in charge of making some films of the so-called socialist realism, in addition to being decorated with a string of distinctions that could not doubt his affection for the Soviet regime: the Order of Lenin, the Order of the Revolution of October, the Order of the Red Star, three Stalin prizes and many more, most of them precisely during the Stalinist period.

According to Munn, in 1949 Gerasimov attended the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace and there he learned about the open anti-communism of John Wayne, who by then was already an undisputed movie star having starred in hits like The diligence, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fort Apache, three godparents, Sands of Iwo Jima Y the invincible legion, among others. Upon returning to his country, Gerasimov told Stalin, who was an inveterate film buff and had projection rooms in all his residences, in addition to having tried his hand as a screenwriter, and producer -even as an actor-, and who liked to invite performers to his private showings, during which he fantasized asking them how they would embody him.

Stalin had become fond of American cinema after World War II, when he was given the film library of the late Goebbels and discovered tapes of Chaplin and Tarzan in it. This is how he developed a special taste for the western and, of course, the quintessential actor of that genre was Wayne; It is clear that the Georgian leader was a true fan of his, but not to the point of disassociating him from politics. The fact is that, according to Munn, when Gerasimov told him about the ideology of the actor Stalin, he said that he was a danger because of his popularity and that he had to be removed from the middle.

Sergei Bondarchuk chatting with Orson Welles in 1969/Photo: Stevan Kagrijević on Wikimedia Commons

Keep in mind that the following year Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt began, which for six years plagued Hollywood and pitted moviegoers against each other; Of course, Wayne, a convinced Republican, was not only among his defenders but also took an active part as a member of the Anti-American Activities Committee, a true emblem for public opinion. Now, did Stalin come to issue a specific order about his assassination or did it all end in a humorous comment, one of the many that he used to make in this regard? Did Lavrenti Beria interpret it to the letter and take the initiative for him, like other times? Impossible to know, but Munn found other testimonials.

The first was that of Orson Welles, who, during a dinner held in 1983, told him that the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor body) had taken on the mission of ending the Duke, as Wayne was known in the movie world. The writer said that Welles, who did not exactly like the actor due to his opposite political positions, offered him the story without asking for it and assuring that he had heard it from credible sources: specifically, the famous Russian filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk, winner of the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1968 with a version of War and peace and author of the famous international co-production waterloo, he told him that the question of the murder had been assured by another Russian director, Alexei Kapler, who was the first love of Svetlana (Stalin’s daughter) and went through the Gulag twice (in 1943 and in 1948). Bondarchuk added that he did not take it seriously until Gerasimov confirmed it to him.

The fact is that, with or without Stalin’s express order, it seems that the NKVD did attempt an operation and, furthermore, Wayne himself insinuated something in this regard, commenting that the specialist named Yakima Canutt, who doubled for him on the big screen and with who had formed a close friendship, had saved his life on one occasion. Years later, inquiring about it, Munn contacted Canutt, asked what the actor was referring to and the answer was surprising: in 1951, the FBI informed the legendary cowboy film that Soviet agents had just been discovered infiltrating Hollywood with the aim of attacking him. But the most amazing thing was that the potential victim, in agreement with the feds and as if he were in one of his movies, organized a one-on-one plot with screenwriter Jimmy Grant to offer himself as bait and capture the murderers.

Not only that, but before handing them over, he took them to a lonely beach where he pretended that his intention was to kill them. Munn admits he doesn’t know how it ended, although he spread the word that it did and the two hitmen were scared enough to stay in the US and collaborate with the FBI. Another more credible version says that the criminals posed as federal agents to gain access to the Warner studios and that it was the FBI itself that detected them, dismantling the plot. For his part, Wayne, not wanting his family to know anything, refused the official protection offered to him and moved into a mansion with a good perimeter wall.

Yakima Canutt/Photo: Lone Star Productions on Wikimedia Commons

However, it remained to be clarified why he owed Canutt his life and the explanation he gave him was even more unprecedented. Wayne put him in charge of the group of stalwarts, mostly friends and stuntmen who worked with him, to infiltrate communist circles in California and keep him informed of his person. The specialists, indeed, discovered an attack project in 1955 and everything was solved in the purest style of the West, in what was baptized as the Battle of Burbank: the followers of the Duke They broke into the headquarters where the conspirators were meeting and gave them a good beating, then expelling them from the city of the same name.

It was said that two years earlier a US pro-Soviet cell also planned to kill the actor in Mexico, during the filming of the film. Deep, being the detectives hired by his second wife, Esperanza Baur, who discovered the plot and alerted the Mexican police. Now, that same 1953 Stalin died and with him his peculiar regime came to an end, giving way to a stage in which he and a good part of his work were renounced, proceeding to gradually dismantle it. According to Munn, the new Soviet president, Nikita Krushchev, canceled the order to kill John Wayne and he himself told the person concerned in a meeting they had in 1958: “That was Stalin’s decision during his last five years of madness”. Krushchev, obviously, was also a fan of his.

But that there was no longer such an order does not mean that the Duke did not continue to have staunch and deadly enemies. In another passage from his book, the biographer recalls one more incident that Wayne himself told him in 1974, although referring to 1966. That year he traveled to Vietnam to make the typical cheer visit to the US troops stationed in the war and, Once there, he learned not only that the Chinese communists had put a price on his head, but also that there had been an attempt to shoot him by a sniper. “at the command of Mao”. Apparently, he considered him “Great Chief Demon of the Great American Satan.”

Was there any truth in all this or was it the result of some propaganda encouraged by the actor’s own circle to enlarge his legend? In any case, as on the big screen, John Wayne emerged unscathed from everything and his death was made to wait until 1979, due to stomach cancer presumably caused by the radioactive cloud from Operation Upshot-Knothole, a nuclear test carried out in 1956 in the Utah desert, where I was filming The Mongolian Conqueror. If so, it would be a colossal irony, since he would have died at the hands of the US government. It is true that many consider all this a legend… But, as they said in The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance: “This is the West, sir; when the legend becomes fact, the legend is printed.


John Wayne. The man behind the myth (Michael Munn)/The Duke, the Longhorns and Chairman Mao. John Wayne’s political odyssey (Steven Travers)/The Court of the Red Tsar (Simon Sebag Montefiore)/John Wayne’s world. Transnational masculinity in the fifties (Russell Meeuf)

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