Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Life with John Wayne

After reading Jason Bellamy’s perceptive evaluations of Chisum and The Cowboys, I knew I had to write about John Wayne. As the screen capture for my blog profile might suggest, John Wayne is my favorite actor, and I have spent a lifetime watching and re-watching his movies. For me, the best antidote to low spirits is watching a favorite John Wayner, a sure way to make me smile, chuckle, or feel a tug at my emotions.

When I decided I had to write about John Wayne, I considered reviewing one of his best movies, but I wanted to talk about more than one film. I considered a video essay of his life’s work. What I have settled on here is an essay with video clips that covers my experiences with John Wayne movies and delineates aspects of his talent and persona that I admire.

I don’t recall my first experience with John Wayne. It was in the 1950s and it must have been a movie on TV, but I can’t remember whether it was one of his many forgettable 1930s Western actioners that included shootouts, chases on horseback, much leaping from horse to horse, and the inevitable fistfights, or whether it was watching a more significant John Wayne movie on TV with my family. I have a feeling it might have been The Searchers (1956) because I remember how the quotation “That’ll be the day” became a favorite household idiom.

Whatever the starting point, it set me on a quest to see all the John Wayne movies I could find by hunting through TV Guide and setting up a weekend viewing regimen that took me to many Westerns: Stagecoach, Allegheny Uprising, The Dark Command, Tall in the Saddle, Flame of the Barbary Coast, Angel and the Badman, Fort Apache, Red River, Three Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Fighting Kentuckian, Rio Grande, Hondo, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, the Civil War adventure The Horse Soldiers, as well as a number of 30s B-Westerns that blur together in memory; war films: Flying Tigers, The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima, Operation Pacific, Flying Leathernecks; sea stories: The Long Voyage Home, Reap the Wild Wind, Wake of the Red Witch, The Sea Chase; anti-Commie propaganda: Big Jim McClain (a truly boring movie; Wayne plays a special agent ferreting out Commies) and Blood Alley; a number of construction company/entrepreneurial dramas: The Spoilers, Pittsburgh, War of the Wildcats, Tycoon; the stand-alone classic The Quiet Man; a wide array of films from miscellaneous genres: Three Faces West, Lady for a Night, Without Reservations, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, Legend of the Lost, The Barbarian and the Geisha; as well as oddities such as The Conqueror.

The first John Wayne movie I saw in a theater was The Alamo (1960), which I saw in 1961 shortly after its release. I had seen enough John Wayne movies by this time that I was affected viscerally by Davy Crockett’s death in the climactic battle scene, a sock to the belly that I felt for days afterwards. Though not his best movie, The Alamo is one of my favorites on an emotional level, a John Wayne movie that is a sure-fired remedy for the blues. The movie is awkward, overlong, silly at times, often gripping, visually sprawling, violent, touching, and funny. The way I see it, The Alamo is John Wayne. Watching it is like being with John Wayne. I enjoy Wayne’s sense of timing and comedy, his silent presence in many of the scenes focusing on Richard Widmark’s Bowie or Laurence Harvey’s Travis, and I am always gripped by the final assault on the Alamo, a fast-paced battle scene that fills each frame with motion though it never blurs the action into confusion.

From The Alamo to the end of Wayne’s career, I was determined to see his movies when they came out in theaters, which I did for most of his Westerns: The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Hatari, McClintock!, Circus World, The Sons of Katie Elder, The War Wagon, El Dorado, True Grit, The Undefeated, Chisum, Rio Lobo, Big Jake, The Cowboys, The Train Robbers, McQ, Brannigan, Rooster Cogburn, and The Shootist. Meanwhile, on television, I caught The Longest Day, North to Alaska, Donavan’s Reef, In Harm’s Way, Cast a Giant Shadow, Hellfighters, The Green Berets and Cahill, U.S. Marshal. (Though not “John Wayne” movies, I also saw How the West Was Won and The Greatest Story Ever Told in theaters.)

I was in high school during the late 60s, but I was still seeing John Wayne’s movies even though he was not popular with people my age. In 1965, I went to the movies with a friend of mine who wanted to see The Beatles’ new movie, Help!, but I wanted to see The Sons of Katie Elder; I got what I wanted and my friend enjoyed it.

When True Grit was released in 1969, it played at the single-screen cinema where I was working as an usher. First I saw the whole thing on my day off. Then, over the course of the months that it played at the theater, I saw it in bits and pieces an estimated fifty times, at least, and I never got bored with it.

I saw Rooster Cogburn, dubbed in French, in a theater in Rabat, Morocco. I saw Big Jake in Kodiak, Alaska, and I remember coming out of the cinema into the midnight sun. I also had the chance to see The Searchers at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as at the A.F.I. Silver Theater, in Silver Spring, Maryland, with Jason Bellamy of The Cooler.

In order to spell out what I like about John Wayne, I present here a look at favorite film moments that reveal elements of Wayne’s talent and persona that I love. (For each video, press play, then pause and let the video buffer before pressing play again.)

“Words they say and mean”

I like Wayne’s sincerity, and I like his obvious love for what he is doing. After the ordeal of producing The Alamo, a project that soaked up his assets and saddled him with the responsibilities of producer, director, and star, Wayne starred in The Comancheros, a straightforward actioner in which Wayne as Captain Jake Cutter of the Texas Rangers strikes up an unlikely buddy relationship with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a dandified Louisiana gambler and ladies’ man wanted for killing a man in a duel. Together they venture into Comanche territory to expose the dealings of a hidden outlaws’ kingdom.

The Western settings rival John Ford's use of Monument Valley, the cinematography is excellent, the action is fun, and it is clear that Wayne is having a great time doing what he loved most – acting. He looks relaxed, healthy and fit, at the height of his career. For its location shots, its action, and its wonderful sense of humor, this film is one I watch frequently. It’s also nice to see the movie include Joan O’Brien, Mrs. Dickinson in The Alamo, and Aissa Wayne, his daughter, who also appeared in The Alamo, in a touching scene in which O’Brien plays a widowed rancher’s wife who is just the right match for the Duke.

The idyllic Western scenes below show a youthful, vibrant Wayne invested cheerfully in his role, and they provide great examples of the dramatic pacing of his delivery that comes off as sincere and thoughtful. Also watch when he picks up Aissa and almost dances toward the woman he obviously loves. Indeed, there is a sweetness to Wayne’s presence and speech in the two scenes shown here that celebrate honesty, family, and the love of a woman, and this innocent sweetness and earnestness have always been aspects of Wayne that I find rather endearing.


I love how Wayne liked to throw or kick something as an expression of and punctuation to a moment of frustration, disgust, or despair.

In John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959) Wayne as Colonel John Marlowe leads a cavalry troop on a daring mission into the deep South during the Civil War to destroy a crucial railway junction. Along the way, he reluctantly picks up a Southern gentlewoman turned spy, Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers). Saddled with a female he can’t shoot and he can’t leave behind, Wayne’s Marlowe suffers all sorts of frustrations dealing with Miss Hannah’s complaints, attempts to alert the Rebs, and her delicate female needs.

Meanwhile, friction occurs between Marlowe and his insolent medical officer, Major Henry Kendall (William Holden). Seems that Marlowe hates doctors, ever since a quack surgeon cost him the life of his young wife. The Horse Soldiers, a fast-paced adventure that also takes time to make grim commentary about war, is one of my favorite films set during the Civil War.

A contentious medical officer, an aggravating female, and the whole Confederate Army cause poor Colonel Marlowe much frustration in the scene below.


Wayne wasn’t crazy about horses; he considered them kind of dumb. But he sure could ride a horse in such a way that he seemed one with the horse. He also rode very tall in the saddle. In an outtake from The Searchers we see an extreme long shot of Ethan Edwards riding silhouetted along a ridge. (This shot would have preceded the famous opening-door shot.) Even from so far away, the rider is clearly distinguishable as Wayne playing a bold, determined man.

There are so many famous John Wayne scenes and lines, but some of my favorite Wayne moments are ones that are just part of the texture Wayne brought to many of his movies. In the clip below, it’s all about Wayne’s presence on a horse.

In Fort Apache (1948) Wayne gets top billing, but his character is overshadowed by the tragic, dominant figure of Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, played by Henry Fonda. Indeed, after Thursday is killed in a Custer’s Last Stand-like blunder that is Thursday’s fault, Wayne as Captain Kirby York assumes command of the fort but also assumes Thursday’s persona by following military protocol to the letter and wearing the regulation kepi that Thursday wore while he disdained York’s broad-brimmed cowboy hat.

In the following scene, we see York, on horseback, challenging Colonel Thursday about his rash decision to charge the Apache and throwing down his gauntlet in defiance. Then York rides up to Second Lieutenant O’Rourke and assigns him to a duty that will keep him out of harm’s way. Watch how smoothly Wayne reins about, pulls himself and the horse toward Agar to give the command, and then reins the horse away as though horse and rider are one and the same entity. I love this moment!

True Heart

Without comparing True Grit (1969) with the Coens’ version, I consider Hathaway’s ending to be one of the most touching scenes ever to appear in a Western, and that is largely due to Wayne’s presence and his talented delivery. This ending is not completely upbeat. Yes, we end with Cogburn jovially jumping his horse over a fence, joking about himself as a “fat old man,” as Mattie Ross looks on and smiles lovingly, but the scene is also ominous. Look at the darkening clouds. Look at the snow. Standing in her family’s graveyard, Mattie asks Rooster to “rest” beside her, which is kind of creepy and suggests that she has no intention of getting married.

I love this scene for its touching sadness evoked by the setting and Wayne’s presence, standing there in classic Michelangelo’s David stance, looking lovingly at “sis,” and his delivery of the line, “Now, sis, that place should be for your … your family … husband … kids,” with the dramatic spacing of words and the repetition of “your,” is a memorably poignant moment.

“God’s lonely man”

A large part of Wayne’s command as an actor comes from his physical presence. He looms large. In his famous David stance, as in the clip from True Grit, Wayne’s silent presence speaks worlds. John Ford, an experienced silent film director, knew how to use Wayne’s wordless physical presence in dramatic ways. In Stagecoach in the Apache Wells sequence, Wayne as the Ringo Kid fills doorways, and he has to duck his head to pass through them.

In the two scenes from The Searchers below, Wayne fills a cave opening and a doorway. In the cave scene, he is a physical presence transformed from violence to reconciliation. Wayne doesn’t just help Debbie up; he literally sweeps her off her feet and raises her overhead in the same way he picks her up when she is a girl. In one fluid, strong motion, Debbie is in the air and in Wayne’s arms, protected and embraced as part of family. But Ethan Edwards cannot be part of that family as we see in the famous, final shot. Wayne fills the iris of the doorway. He’s a powerful man, but here he is an outcast, perhaps due in part to that rugged physicality.

“Good-bye, Mrs. Rogers”

When I first saw The Shootist (1976) in the summer of 1977, I was touched by Wayne's performance but not overly impressed with the film as a whole. After many subsequent viewings, I have come to consider this a wonderfully sensitive character study and a detailed, elegiac portrayal of the end of an era. I acknowledge Wayne’s performance as one of his finest, perhaps his best.

Truth is blended with fiction as Wayne portrays John B. Books, a notorious gunman dying of cancer. Books plans to die with guns blazing, ridding the town of three good-for-nothings in the bargain. Meanwhile, Wayne seems to have planned for this touching performance to be his last one.

The setting is Carson City, Nevada, in 1901. Queen Victoria has died, and the town is entering modern times with its streetcars, automobiles, electric lighting, and indoor plumbing. In this time and place, there is little tolerance for anachronisms like a “shootist.” Books would like to hide from his renown and die in peace, but the past keeps returning in the form of would-be assassins; a reporter who would like to make money writing dime novels about his shootings; a former floozy and flame who would like his last name; and the resident Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan in quirky, humorous performance) who wants Books to get out of town.

Staying at a boarding house, but not as a “permanent” boarder, Books develops a warm understanding, after considerable friction, with the landlady, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), and he has the chance to straighten out her wayward son, Gillom (Ron Howard), who seems headed down the wrong path in life.

The best scenes in The Shootist involve Wayne and Bacall. Books tries to play the soft-spoken gentleman, and Bond learns that Books is not a cold-blooded killer; he is a dying, lonely man in need of companionship. In these well written, witty, understated, and poignant scenes, Wayne reveals a talent for control and subtle delivery.

In his final scene with Bacall, he wants to make his departure for his suicidal shootout as uncomplicated as possible. Intercepted by Bond, he must summon the courage to say a very final good-bye. Of all the countless lines Wayne uttered in his career, I think this one is his most heartfelt.

I had a dream once that John Wayne had made another film after The Shootist and it was finally found, restored, and released. From the details in the dream, I tried to piece together what this movie might have been about.

It’s a Western. Wayne plays a character who is a cross between Rooster Cogburn and Ethan Edwards. He must reluctantly come out of seclusion and rid the territory of some bad guys. The film ends with a suspenseful shootout, but Wayne’s character doesn’t die. The film is touching and dramatic.

The dream is wishful thinking for another John Wayne gem to add to the pool of fine movies that rose above run-of-the-mill “John Wayne movie” status. Wishful thinking, and yet even in those run-of-the-mill actioners, John Wayne’s charm shines through and I always enjoy his comforting, touching film presence. As it exists, John Wayne's body of work offers a variety of memorable moments.

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