Thirty years ago June 11th, John Wayne died. Seems like he never left us. Two years ago, as I planned for an epic cross-country roadtrip with my niece, it was coincidentally, the 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth. At that time, I made it a point to get reacquainted with The Duke’s movies, mostly since we were planning to drive through Monument Valley, the scene of so many iconic John Ford/John Wayne Westerns.
Several days and several Ford/Wayne Westerns later, I came out of the experience with a 180 degree change of view from when I went in.
I hadn’t seen many Ford Westerns or I hadn’t seen them in decades. But my view was pretty much the common perception. John Ford was a genius who reinvigorated the Western and brought new adult themes to it. John Wayne, his frequent star, was a great presence, but no actor. What merit his performances have are all the result of good directing. At least on repeat viewing, I found that perception completely false.
I’m not denying the recognizable abilities of a superb filmmaker. More informed viewers than me such as Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, Peter Bogdanovich, Sergio Leone, and Jean-Luc Godard have all cited Ford as an inspiration. He certainly broke new ground with his cinematography, especially in making Western landscapes further the story line and themes.
But at least the movies I viewed didn’t seem to hold up as well as they should have and didn’t seem as sophisticated as other films before and contemporary to them. Take The Searchers which is hailed for its gritty, dark portrait of a man obsessed with finding his kidnapped niece — not to save her, but perhaps to kill her since, in his mind, she’s now “the leavings of an Indian buck.” Great story and brilliantly told when the focus is on that thread. But Ford interweaves an almost vaudevillian secondary romantic plot into the proceedings which seems to undermine his main theme. In the niece storyline, we are confronted with the racial prejudices of Wayne and the settlers. Yet the romantic plot features a 1/8th Cherokee who is pursued by a white woman — a woman who has stated the kidnapped Debbie would be “better off with a bullet in her brain” than living with Indians. If that’s what she thinks, why is she so anxious to marry the part Indian? And why oh why does that storyline have to be treated like broad comedy complete with a fight scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? It’s completely jarring when it intrudes on the darker story.
The portrayal of Indians in general is pretty cringe-worthy in most of the Ford movies I’ve now seen. Film scholars are always saying, “Ford was not prejudiced. He was trying to portray prejudice.” Well, I will give him this. He was an equal opportunity stereotyper. Although Ford was as Irish as Murphy’s cow, every one of his films seems to feature the kind of broad comedy whiskey drinkin’, Blarney talkin’, brawlin’ Irish buffoon that went out with the demise of Lucky Charms commercials. And he also seems to get a “Ya sure, ya betcha” Swede in most of his movies, as well. I can’t be sure, but I thought he actually had a Mexican character saying, “!Ai, Chihuahua!” (This would be a question for Ask A Mexican, but has any Mexican, anywhere and at any time, ever said, “!Ai, Chihuahua!”?)
The Duke, on the other hand, turns in understated, but complete performances in every film I’ve seen him in so far. If you are going to credit Ford for producing those performances with good direction, why didn’t his directing genius seem to extend to all the hammy, over the top performances of the other actors — including most of his leading ladies and certainly all the twinkly Irishmen and dithery Swedes?
To be fair, I watched the Duke in movies where he was directed by others. The same solid performances. Even Ford gave Wayne backhanded credit. According to Hollywood legend, when he saw Wayne’s dark performance in Red River, he said, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!”
Granted Red River was directed by Howard Hawks, who was no slouch himself. But again, I think the Duke gets the credit. Nobody turns in consistently good performances in movie after movie, under a variety of different directors, unless he’s at least a natural.
Speaking of a natural, check out Dean Martin in one of my favorite John Wayne Westerns so far, Rio Bravo. As one of the few men to stand with Wayne against an outlaw band, Martin plays a drunken ex-deputy, which some of you will call “not much of a stretch”. But Martin doesn’t play a drunk as Hollywood tended to in the Fifties, as a staggering, slurring slob. He underplays as a sweating, shaking wreck in the late stages of the DTs.
Angie Dickinson is around as the love interest for the Duke, but all the chemistry is between Wayne and Martin. While the other actors act. Wayne and Martin just are. It’s a great Western, even if Howard Hawks couldn’t resist adding a little comic relief with Walter Brennan as Wayne’s sidekick, Stumpy. Unfortunately, a little Walter Brennan goes a long way, but I’d suggest that Hawks uses him less than Ford would have.
My next favorite Wayne movie: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Duke plays a classic Western tough guy, at a time when his kind was on the verge of becoming an anachronism. His foil is Jimmy Stewart as the young lawyer (and seriously too old for the part) who represents where the West is heading. Together, they have to face possibly the scariest array of bad guys ever filmed: Lee Marvin as the sadistic Liberty Valance and Lee Van Cleef as his sidekick. (That’s twice the bad guy power of most Westerns and that’s leaving out the members of Valance’s gang played by unknown character actors.) Surprisingly, next to the Duke, Jimmy Stewart — who generally gets credit for being an accomplished naturalistic actor — seems mannered and studied with his stuttering, dithery schtick. Ford, in addition to some great iconic shots, does also shoehorn in his trademark “Ya Sure, Ya Betcha” Swede. But he does a better job than in The Searchers with the theme of prejudice. One of the most sympathetic and loyal characters, Pompey, John Wayne’s Black handyman, is shown in one schoolhouse scene reciting the “All men are created equal” part of the Declaration of Independence. Then in later scenes, he’s shown not invited in to vote and later refused service at the bar. The Wayne character makes clear his views on the matter with one line, delivered without much embellishment: “Sully, give him a drink.”
Eventually I ended up seeing all of John Ford’s work. But I still maintain that John Wayne contributed as much to Ford’s legend as Ford did to Wayne’s.
So here’s to you, Duke. I’m glad I found you again. Now let’s get those cattle across the river.
Addendum: One of my favorite John Wayne stories has nothing to do with Westerns. An executive at the Bath Iron Works, the shipyard that has been producing US Navy vessels for over 100 years, told me about the time John Wayne was invited to christen a battleship. He smashed the champagne bottle over the hull, which was supposed to signal the hydraulics to release the ship down the ramp and into the water. Nothing happened. In as superstition-riddled an industry as the maritime world, this is the greatest bad juju — pretty much a curse on a ship for all time. There was a horrified pause. Then the Duke reached out with one long arm and gave the bow of the ship a shove. It slid down the ramp to thunderous applause.
Need more Duke? Roger Ebert of TV Critic fame and one of the best bloggers out there, put up this post earlier today. (But then Roger is always way ahead of most of us.) Read it for some wonderful personal remembrances of Wayne and a great deconstruction of his acting technique. Which was actually no technique.