Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?

Patrick Lynch - January 17, 2018

The infamous dictator, Joseph Stalin, was notoriously paranoid and saw enemies everywhere but did he really ask his minions to murder John Wayne because of the movie star’s political views? It seems far-fetched, but according to a book entitled John Wayne – The Man Behind the Myth by Michael Munn, Stalin believed that Wayne’s vocal anti-communist views were a threat to the Soviet Union.

Let’s be clear, Munn’s primary source for this tale came from none other than legendary actor Orson Welles who spoke to Munn at a dinner in 1983. According to Welles, the KGB had been ordered to kill John Wayne. While Munn acknowledged that Welles was a brilliant storyteller, the film historian noted that Welles was not exactly a fan of Wayne. Moreover, he offered the story without prompting. First and foremost, how did Stalin learn about John Wayne and his anti-communist rhetoric?

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
Aging Stalin –

Stalin Was a Movie Obsessive

According to Politburo archives opened in the early 21st century, Stalin loved movies and apparently told Sergei Eisenstein (director of Battleship Potemkin among others) how to make movies. Every single one of Stalin’s houses had a private cinema, and in his later years, the cinema served as his main source of political inspiration and his favored form of entertainment. In fact, Stalin saw himself as a writer, producer, and director extraordinaire.

The dictator apparently enjoyed watching Western movies and associated himself with the gun-toting lone cowboy who rode into town to mete out brutal justice. As a result, he was a fan of the work of John Ford and John Wayne. According to his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin would ideologically criticize the cowboy films he watched, and then order more. Although he loved these movies, one source suggested Stalin said that John Wayne was a threat to the Communist cause and must be executed.

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
Young John Wayne –

John Wayne Hated Communism

Even today, Communism is abhorred in the United States and John Wayne held the typical American position of supporting anti-communist positions. Born Marion Mitchell Morrison, the ‘Duke’ was actually pro-socialist in his college days, and he voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 Presidential Election. He also admired Harry Truman, the Democrat who was president from 1945 – 1953.

However, Wayne swiftly moved away from the left and created the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944 and was elected president of the organization in 1949. The goal of the group was to defend the American film industry, and the nation as a whole, from the threat of communist and fascist infiltration. By the end of the 1940s, Wayne was known for his ardent anti-communist stance. In 1952, he made the movie Big Jim McLain where he played the role of a HUAC investigator in a clear nod towards his anti-communist stance.

Stalin was aware of John Wayne’s popularity and reach. According to the story, he watched one of the star’s movies and at the end, told his men that Wayne must be assassinated. It is unclear whether the order if it was ever given, was made by a drunken Stalin in the early hours of the morning. Regardless of where and when it was given, Stalin’s men knew that failing to follow any of their leader’s orders was a quick route to a shallow grave. And so, the plot to kill John Wayne had begun; but the on-screen gunslinger survived. Let’s take a look at some of these alleged plots.

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
John Wayne – Medical Bag

The KGB Comes to Hollywood

According to Munn, Welles’ sources for the story were ‘excellent.’ Alexei Kapler, a Russian filmmaker who was imprisoned for having an affair with Stalin’s teenage daughter, Svetlana, told Sergei Bondachuk, a fellow movie maker, about Stalin’s order to murder John Wayne. He was skeptical until yet another Russian filmmaker, Sergei Gerasimov, confirmed the tale. Gerasimov had attended a peace conference in New York in 1949 and allegedly informed Stalin of Wayne’s immense popularity. Perhaps Stalin was concerned that Wayne’s global stardom and anti-communist views were a toxic mix. It seems far-fetched, but given Stalin’s paranoia, it is not impossible.

Munn continues the tale by saying that Wayne once told him a stuntman named Yakima Canutt had saved his life in the early 1950s, probably in 1951. When Munn asked Canutt what the screen legend meant, he was amazed by the stuntman’s response. According to Canutt, the FBI found that that there were KGB agents in Hollywood with the task of killing Wayne. The FBI supposedly told the movie star about the plot, but instead of allowing the agency to protect him, Wayne said to let the agents come, and he would deal with them.

He devised a plot, with the aid of his scriptwriter, Jimmy Grant, to abduct the would-be assassins, drive them to a secluded beach and stage a fake execution to frighten them. This certainly sounds more like the absurd plot of a movie than real life. Surely Wayne was not so naïve as to think he and his band of merry movie men could outsmart and scare trained KGB hitmen? Not so, according to Munn.

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
John Wayne and Joseph Stalin -Inside Texas

This tale comes from the chapter entitled ‘Assassins’ in Munn’s book and reads like fiction although readers are invited to make up their own minds. Grant and Wayne apparently knew the KGB agents were coming for them and told the FBI agents to hide in another room in Wayne’s office at Warner’s. Two Russian agents showed up at nightfall and spoke with perfect American accents. They showed FBI credentials to the guard on duty and were waved through.

Once the KGB agents entered the office, the FBI men came into the room and held the would-be assassins at gunpoint. They were driven to a remote beach where Wayne and Grant each held a gun, filled with blanks, to each KGB agent’s head. Wayne counted to three and fired. It took the agents a few seconds to realize they were not dead. Wayne turned to the FBI men and said: “Send them back to Russia.”

The terrified agents said: “No! Please! Don’t send us back to Stalin. We will both die.” At this point, it seems as if the two men were more frightened of returning home as failures than dying on that remote beach. They offered to start working for the FBI to avoid a ghastly fate in the Soviet Union. If you think this story is preposterous, Munn isn’t finished yet.

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
Painting of Stalin –

The Soviets in Mexico

After surviving the first attempt, Wayne then refused to allow the FBI to protect him and didn’t tell his family about the plot to kill him. Instead, he moved into a house with a large wall surrounding it. Thereafter, he relied on his cabal of loyal stuntmen who went to communist meetings in the United States to find out more about future attempts on Wayne’s life. These men attended the meetings and started huge fights. This was when Wayne believed Canutt had ‘saved his life.’

Munn continued his tale by suggesting that the USSR made another assassination attempt in 1953 when the movie star was in Mexico shooting Hondo. Apparently, local police got in touch with Wayne and informed him that strangers were asking a lot of questions about him. Then the police asked him if he wanted them to dispose of these characters permanently. Wayne told them to lock the threats up for a while then force them to leave the country.

Stalin was already dead at this stage, so Wayne assumed that Khrushchev was behind the latest attempt. However, in a private meeting with Khrushchev in 1958, the Soviet leader said the assassin order was: “a decision of Stalin during his last five mad years. When Stalin died, I rescinded that order.” Therefore, the agents trying to kill Wayne were doing so of their own volition.

Killing the Duke: Did Stalin Really Order The Assassination of John Wayne?
John Wayne on screen -LA Times

The Battle of Burbank

Even though the cruel dictator was dead, American communists were seemingly intent on killing Wayne and made another attempt in 1955. On this occasion, a group of communists in Burbank launched an attack on the Duke’s home. Once again, the alleged incident sounds like it comes straight from a Hollywood script. The latest assassins were motivated by the fact that Blood Alley was yet another John Wayne anti-communist movie.

Once again, Wayne knew of the plot and just like his screen character; he refused to back down. He was supposedly the ‘real deal’ and was just as tough in real life as he was in the movies. He threatened to “blow them all to kingdom come” if they dared show their faces. When the armed communists showed up at Burbank, Wayne and his loyal group of stuntmen fought back, capturing and beating up the group. They pleaded for their lives and Canutt gave them tickets to Russia.

Real or Fiction?

The balance of probability suggests that Munn’s tales are fictitious. They simply sound too ‘heroic’ although they could potentially make a decent movie. We don’t know whether Stalin wanted Wayne dead; perhaps it was more anti-communist propaganda: The evil commies coming to the United States to murder one of its biggest icons? Munn’s tales are very much in the ‘he said, she said” category, and while the stories are compelling, it is likely they are highly exaggerated at best and utterly false at worst.