Friday, June 12, 2009

John Wayne: 30 Years Later

30 years ago yesterday, John Wayne died. Wayne, who appeared in at least 171 films in his career (no one knows exactly how many he did, but IMDB lists 171, Wikipedia lists 184) was one of the few true movie icons. We don’t really have movie icons anymore. In fact there, there is probably only a handful in history. Chaplin, Keaton and Bogart would certainly qualify as well. I’d add Robert Mitchum, although I know some would disagree. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn would also probably make the list. Perhaps even Cary Grant. But do you notice what all these people have in common? They’re dead.

Why don’t we have movie icons like these anymore? I think there are a lot of reasons. For one thing, we are so saturated with celebrity news that actors nowadays never get to become larger than life. We hear about all of their marital problems, when their kid gets sick, and debate every move they make. The more we see the actors as people, even if they are people we have never, and will never, meet, the harder it is to look at them they way people used to.

Another aspect could be in the way we watch movies. Back when those icons were the stars, the only way to see them was on the big screen, towering over you. Now, most people see most movies at home, and even with large screens, it is not the same thing.

But there is more to it than even that. After all, I have seen very few of the actors I just named on the big screen, and certainly my first impression of nearly all of them was on my tiny 13 inch television set in my bedroom as a teenager. And yet, they are still bigger icons than the actors who I watch year in, year out on the big screen.

Part of it, I think, is that those actors had a persona that they played, more than a character. Johnny Depp is a great actor – better probably than most of the actors I did name – and yet, does he have a screen persona? If he does, what is it? Strange, mentally deranged characters who talk in weird voices? It’s just not the same.

When John Wayne walked on screen, you knew what you were getting. He walked the same, talked the same, hell even stood the same in nearly every movie he did. He had something that cannot be taught. That is screen presence. Watch him in even his early roles – like that of a corporate stooge in Baby Face (1933) and you cannot take your eyes off of him. He does very little, yet he captures your attention. The great ones knew how to do that. Robert Mitchum could blow most actors off the screen just by standing there. John Wayne could do the same thing.

Although Wayne made a lot of war films in his day, along with some dramas, a few comedies, a few action movies, and even late in his career, a few as a cop – hell he even memorably played Genghis Kahn once (I say memorably because it was so utterly awful), Wayne will always be remembered as the quintessential screen cowboy, and it’s on those Westerns that I want to concentrate on for this piece. You can trace the progression of the screen western simply by watching John Wayne movies. In particular, pay attention to Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and The Shootist (1976). With the exception of the last film, all of the others were either directed by John Ford, Wayne’s most frequent collaborator, or Howard Hawks, a close second. These directors started out by using Wayne as the good guy – but over time slowly twisted his image. Hitchcock liked to use actors like Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda because he didn’t need to waste any time setting up that they were good guys – he knew the audience just instinctively cheered for them, and he used that knowledge to get the audience to go to much darker places then they otherwise would have (Cary Grant being a bastard in Notorious, while Claude Rains as a Nazi is sympathetic, following Jimmy Stewart’s voyeuristic obsession in Rear Window, or his necrophilia impulses in Vertigo). I think it’s a shame that Hitchcock never worked with Wayne, because he could have gotten away with murder. But Ford and Hawks did something similar with him anyway.

Ford’s Stagecoach was the movie that made Wayne a true movie star. Playing the Ringo Kid, Wayne wore the white hat, and was the hero of the movie, fighting off the savage Indians led by Geronimo to save the people on the Stagecoach. In many ways, Stagecoach is the classic idea most people think of when they think of a Western – a lone man standing up against the evil in the world. Yes, the film is what some might call racist in its depictions of the Indians, but Hollywood has always oversimplified things into classic good and evil type characters traits. I have to admit that I actually don’t like Stagecoach all that much. Sure, it’s a fine film, well directed, well acted, well written, but it always seems a little bit hollow to me. It doesn’t actually mean anything. I like my Westerns darker then the carefree Stagecoach. But it was the film that Wayne needed to make at the time to get to be a movie star.

In the nine years between Stagecoach and Red River, Wayne would make another 30 films – and in almost all of them he played the good, upstanding hero of the movie, fighting off the bad guys and saving the day. The films, some of them very good, others not so much, provided some much needed escapism for America during the War Years. Wayne was one of the wars most active supporters on the home front, and his films helped.

But by 1948, something more was needed. In addition to Hawks’ Red River, Wayne also made Fort Apache with Ford that year, another slightly darker film. But it’s Red River where Wayne first tried to play with his image a little bit. In a loose, Western remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a crazed cattle driver in the Captain Bligh vein, to Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth, in the Fletcher Christian role. Tired of Dunson’s tyranny, Garth takes the cattle off in a different direction, and Dunson pursues maniacally, swearing revenge. Clift was able to do what few actors could – and that is not being blown off the screen by Wayne’s mere presence. He did this not by really trying to challenge Wayne’s dominance, but by instead burrowing deeper into his character. Clift was one of the first method actors, and his performance keeps Wayne from dominating the whole movie. But this is one of Wayne’s best roles – one of the movies I would show to anyone who questions whether or not he was a great actor. Wayne sheds his good guy image, and plays a true bad guy here, but does so not by going wildly over the top. It is a remarkably controlled performance by Wayne. After seeing the film, Ford – who at that point had made 10 films with Wayne – remarked “I never knew the big lug could act”. Red River is marred only by it’s ludicrous ending, when Joanne Dru, who was whined her way through most of the movie, yells at Dunston and Garth as they are about to kill each other, causing both men to break down laughing and become friends again. Obviously, a studio sanctioned happy ending was required, and they got it, but nevertheless Red River remains a masterpiece.

In 1949, Wayne made She Wore a Yellow Ribbon with John Ford. Following Fort Apache (148), and followed by Rio Grande (1950), the film makes us the middle portion of the so called “Calvary Trilogy”. Gone are the days when Wayne could play someone like the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, Wayne know takes on the role of benevolent father figure Captain Nathan Cutting Brittles. On the verge of retirement from the Calvary, Brittles is assigned two tasks in the wake of the defeat of General Custer – to deal with a breakout from the Arapaho Reservation, and deliver his C.O.’ wife and niece to the stagecoach. In this film, Wayne is dealt one frustrating defeat after another, before finally able to come out on top. Like Stagecoach, Wayne is back to playing the hero, but this hero is different. He needs and loves his men – and when he is given a retirement present of a gold watch with the inscription “Lest We Forget”, he barely holds back the tears. Once again, Wayne proved he was a great actor.

Wayne never took on a darker role than in Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Playing Ethan Edwards, a man who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and may have become an outlaw since, he returns home to his only family – a brother and sister in, and their three kids. When an Indian raid leaves three dead, and his two nieces kidnapped, he sets out to try and find them. It becomes clear fairly early on that Edwards isn’t so much concerned with bringing his nieces home alive, as he is with getting revenge. He finds the body of his older niece fairly soon, but the younger one is still with the Indians. Following the trail for years, Edwards becomes hell-bent on bloody execution – not just of the Indians themselves, but of his niece. To him, be the squaw of a savage is worse than death.

The Searchers was one of the first Westerns to deal with the idea of racism. Edwards is obviously a racist character – his hatred of the Indians goes beyond what they have done. When they find the bodies of some Comanche warriors, Wayne shoots out their eyes, explaining that the Comanche believe that if they do not have eyes at their death, they will be doomed to walk the underworld forever blind. Revenge is not his only motivating factor – hatred is as well.

But Edwards is not the only racist character in the movie. He is joined on his journey by Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), who stays with Ethan for the years it takes to find the Comanche, in order to stop him from hurting his niece. But Martin’s fiancĂ© tells him that the mother of the girl would approve of what Ethan is doing. “Ethan will put a bullet in her brain. I tell you Martha would want him to”. Even the films gentler characters are racists.

But the Indians are not seen in a much better light either. Eventually, the niece is paired up with Scar (Henry Brandon), whose motivation is just as much hatred as anyone else’s. He has had brothers killed by the white man, and wants his revenge as well. Not only does he take “many scalps”, he views his “marriage” to a white woman as another form of revenge.

Is Ethan finally redeemed when he finds his niece, and instead of killing her, just sweeps her up on his horse and tells her “Debbie, let’s go home”? Not really. Ethan is now “saving” a woman who no longer wants to be saved. The Indians, for better or for worse, have now become her family, and she loves them. There is nothing waiting for her at “home” anymore, not even Ethan, who simply drops her off and walks off into the sunset, alone once again. This is Wayne’s best performance – in fact it’s one of the best performances in screen history. Ethan Edwards is not a hero, but something much more complex.

In 1959, Wayne and Hawks teamed up to make Rio Bravo, which was a response to High Noon (1952), the Fred Zinneman movie where a Sheriff (Gary Cooper), is besieged by an incoming horde of men out to kill him, and finds that all his friends have abandoned him. High Noon was a response to Hollywood blacklisting, and McCarthyism, which offended Republicans Wayne and Hawks. Rio Bravo tells a similar story, but from a more Conservative viewpoint. Wayne plays Chance, the Sheriff of Rio Bravo, who through a series of events, has to arrest a man for the murder of an innocent bystander. The murderer is the brother of a wealthy, powerful man, who wants his brother freed, so he gathers his men to ride into town and save him. Chance has few allies, but unlike Cooper in High Noon, there are more people willing to help. Chance has to rely on his drunken deputy (Dean Martin), an old man (Walter Brennan), and then slowly others come to help. The meaning of the film is obvious – that when the going gets tough, you can rely on decent people coming to help. America is strong together. Westerns are often viewed as the most “conservative” genre, politically speaking, and it’s easy to see why. Wayne never shied away from injecting his politics into his movies, and this would become more and more pronounced later in his career. Hawks and Wayne would essentially remake this film twice in the years ahead – El Dorado (1967), with Robert Mitchum, and Rio Lobo (1970). Neither are as good as Rio Bravo, but both films are still quite good.

By 1962, the studio system was slowly dying, and along with it, the classic movie genres were also on their way out. A new breed of Western, inspired in part by films like The Searchers, and the Westerns of the great Anthony Mann, were starting to take root – led by Sam Peckinpah, who would create one of the best the genre ever produced in The Wild Bunch (1969). But Ford and Wayne were not done with the Western genre quite yet, and they collaborated on one of their best movies, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

In a very real way, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about the death of the Western genre itself. Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer who moves to a small, Western town in the hopes of setting up a law office, and helping to make the town more civilized. He believes in law and order, and does not believe in carrying a gun. The problem is the town is essentially run by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a crazed killer who has been hired by wealthy land barons, who want things to stay the way they are. Tom Doliphin (Wayne) is one of the few men who stand up to Valance – although their philosophies match on many fronts – might makes right.

Bullied and picked on constantly, Stewart eventually decides he has no choice but to have a gunfight with Valance himself – something he knows he will lose. But miraculously, he does not lose, and kills Valance. He becomes a famous hero, and it launches his political career, and not only that, convinces Doliphin’s girl to marry him instead.

But of course, it was not Stewart who shot Valance, it was Wayne. Hiding in a dark side street, Wayne fires at the same time as Stewart and Marvin, and kills Valance himself. He regrets his decision, because it made him lose his girl. But because of what he did, Stewart becomes famous, and powerful, and drags the whole area into Statehood, civilizing the area.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was about a passing way of life. Men like John Wayne were no longer needed, when people like Jimmy Stewart were around. You didn’t need a gun anymore, but rather you needed to be smart. Although Ford and Wayne would collaborate twice more, this really was their final statement on the Western genre.

In the years after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne continued to work steadily, but he was no longer quite the star he once was. Things had changed. When he directed and starred in The Green Berets in 1967, a pro-Vietnam war film, he was mocked and ridiculed by nearly everyone. Although he finally won an Oscar in 1969 for True Grit, fittingly a Western, everyone knew that it was at least in part a sympathy award. Wayne had cancer, and no one thought he’d live very long.

In 1971, Wayne got himself in more trouble with controversial statements he made to Playboy magazine, in which he derided Native Americans and African Americans as whiners, and complained about how America was becoming more and more socialist. At this point, Wayne seemed like a dinosaur, a relic of a time that had past – and should stay past. Most of his films during that period were hardly memorable.

But Wayne was not quite done yet. His final film, The Shootist (1976) directed by Don Siegel remains an integral part of his filmography. Wayne plays JB Books, an aging gunfighter, dying of cancer that comes to a small town to get a second medical opinion. When Doc (Jimmy Stewart) confirms that he has cancer, and will die soon, Books settles in and rents a room from Bond (Lauren Bacall), and becomes a mentor to her soon Gilliom (Ron Howard). Books was infamous in his time, and his presence draws out people from his past who want to settle a score with him. Confronting his own mortality, Books eventually does have to get into a gunfight – where he kills three men, before being shot himself. Gilliom picks up Books’ gun and shoots the man who shoot him. As Books lies dying on the floor, he looks up at Gilliom, who throws the gun aside, which allows Books to die in peace. This boy he has come to love, will not follow in his footsteps, and die a lonely death as a gunfighter.

Much like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist is one of the films that kind of put the nail in the coffin of the Western genre. Audiences had moved on from these types of films to grittier, more realistic movies and actors. The year that The Shootist was released for example, Taxi Driver, Network and All the President’s Men were also made. But The Shootist provided a fitting exit to Wayne in his final role. He goes out the way he came in – with dignity.

John Wayne was both of his time and a symbol for his time. For good or bad, Wayne represented America at the time when he was a movie star. He saw himself as dignified, and often played the hero. He was a strong proponent of America – the country he loved. He was also racist, and that comes out in some of his films and certainly in some of his comments over the years. Yet for someone like Wayne, you have to take the good with the bad. I mentioned that Wayne had starred in at least 171 films over his career, and although I’ve only seen a relatively small percentage of them, he is an actor who has forever ingrained himself into my psyche. There was only ever one John Wayne. That is what made him an icon.

No comments:

Post a Comment