Sunday, June 29, 2008

Western Star of the Week #3: John Wayne

Star: John Wayne
Type: Hero
Height: Really Tall
Era: Classical Hollywood
Politics: Conservative

Go-to Director: John Ford
AFI Male Star Ranking: #13

Historical Importance: Highest

In cult classic Repo Man, one of the repo men suggests that John Wayne was gay. As a result, the rest of the repo men heap him with insults, concluding with the declaration "John Wayne was the greatest American who ever lived." I don't know any better way to sum up John Wayne's mystique: although the man was not an actual Western hero, although he didn't actually fight in a single war, although he had the acting range of a grapefruit, there are still plenty of people who regard him as the greatest American who ever lived. Although the AFI lists him as only the 13th greatest male star of all-time, I think he'll be the most loved movie star of all time until the last baby boomer dies, and maybe even after that.

Marion Michael Morrison's early career was made up of a series of bit and lead parts in B-Western, broken only by Raoul Walsh's 1930 Broken Trail, a massive experiment in wide-screen filmmaking that only recently saw the light of day on DVD in its widescreen format. The film wasn't a hit, but it was notable for one reason: Walsh renamed his young star John Wayne. Nine years later, master filmmaker John Ford decided to make his first Western in a decade, and cast his former bit player Wayne in the leading role. The result, 1939's Stagecoach, is still regarded as one of the greatest Westerns ever made, and launched Wayne's mature career.

Even if you've never seen a single John Wayne movie, you probably already know the John Wayne persona. Tough but fair, hard but with a heart of gold, harsh to men on the trail and contemptuous with tenderfoot "pilgrims" but with a soft spot for children, animals, and the occasional pretty woman. If you think that all sounds a little corny, well:
1. You're right
2. Even so, it sure works, and set the stage for all future action heroes
3. Most, if not all, of Wayne's best performances offer up a more problematic version of this portrait.

John Wayne, a man's man who nevertheless always ended up with the lady, is probably the most enduring movie star of all-time. For the "Greatest Generation," he was everything they wanted to be - heroic in an old-fashioned way. For the Baby Boomers, he represented a god-like and stern father figure, and his roles in the 50s and 60s, which represented both his best acting and his greatest willingness to take chances and portray morally suspect characters, solidified this particular persona. Today, I think John Wayne is most remembered as a great actor who could give a solid, if undistinguished, performance in his trademark persona while asleep but, when asked by the script and director to do more, always delivered a character of tremendous depth and profoundly effective emotions.

The Films:
John Wayne made more than 140 movies and his favorite genre was the Western, so choosing the usual 3 is pretty much impossible. I have somehow confined myself to 4 - as always, in order of greatness.

1.The Searchers (1956)
Dir. John Ford
Political philosopher Robert Pippin points out that, although non-Western lovers tend to praise Westerns for their clear-cut distinctions between good and evil, the greatest Westerns always feature deep moral ambiguity. No western character is more problematic than Ethan Edwards, a man whose search for his kidnapped niece seems less driven by familial love and more driven by a racist desire to ensure that the Indians who kidnapped her don't contaminate her with their culture and bloodline - even as he is deeply embedded in Comanche customs. Ford's greatest film, Wayne's greatest role, and a movie that is still frequently chosen as the greatest ever made.

2.Red River (1948)
Dir. Howard Hawks
When John Ford saw Red River, he reportedly claimed that he hadn't previously known that Wayne could act - even though the two had spent the last decade collaborating. Wayne is Thomas Dunson, a rancher who befriends a young boy and, post-Civil War, embarks on a historic cattle drive. The boy grows up to be Montgomery Clift, and their eventual confrontation is both a deep political problem - the paternalistic Wayne wants to rule over his men with the power of life and death, and Clift oppose him - and representative of a shift in film acting, as Clift's method acting brings out previously unknown depths in the Hollywood style of Wayne.
Update: Something I forgot to mention: Red River has the gayest scene ever recorded in cinematic history. Clift and John Ireland, trying to feel each other out, hand each other their six-shooters and proceed to rub, admire, and vocally praise each other's "gun." It's so homoerotically charged, it could have been written by Whitman.

3.Stagecoach (1939)
Dir. John Ford
Orson Welles claimed to have learned how to make films by watching Stagecoach over and over again. Who could blame him? Stagecoach is more or less perfect. It follows a charming outlaw (Wayne), a sheriff, a Southern gentleman, a cavalry wife, a woman of ill-repute, a drunk doctor, and a traveling salesman trying to survive a stagecoach ride through Indian country. Each of the characters has strengths and weaknesses; each of them grows or changes on their journey. It sounds cliched now, but for a 1939 Western, it was positively revolutionary.

4.Rio Bravo (1959)
Dir. Howard Hawks
Conservatives Hawks and Wayne disliked High Noon's liberal message, so they set out to make a film that repudiating every aspect of that classic. Twice as long as High Noon and leisurely paced over several days, Rio Bravo follows Sheriff Chance's brave effort to hold a murderer against the thugs hired by the prisoner's brother. Whereas High Noon's marshal begs the townspeople for help, Sheriff Chance will accept the aid only of the best trained professionals and would never ask them for help. Ultimately, Hawks' career was about hardened professionals doing the tough and dirty jobs that the sniveling populace couldn't handle, and it doesn't get any harder than Sheriff Chance.


Cinexcellence said...

In some ways I prefer El Dorado to Rio Bravo. It's been too long since I've seen either, so I'm sure they've gotten jumbled together in my head :)

It would be fun to edit the two together somehow.

Graham said...

I haven't actually seen Rio Bravo - that's the one with Robert Mitchum, right? If it is, I definitely want to see it, but I LOVE Rio Bravo.