Skip to comments.The “Duke” and Democracy: On John Wayne
Posted on 05/07/2008 12:31:25 PM PDT by forkinsocket
ONE OF THE great joys of the movies is their ability to convince us that we know the people on screen. Even the varied performances of the most versatile stars are often not strong enough to prevail against the overarching image weve formed of them. When Joan Didion met John Wayne on the set of the 1965 The Sons of Katie Elder, she wrote of having the sense that his face was more familiar to her than her husbands.
And yet Wayne, whose centenary occurred this past spring, remains in some ways the most undefined of iconic movie stars. When we say we know Humphrey Bogart or Greta Garbo, or George Clooney or Julia Roberts, were talking about the intimacy we feel from having watched them at work. But much of whats known of John Wayne depends on ignoring whats on screen.
To the left, Wayne has always been close to a comic-book version of American power in all its swaggering crudeness. That his screen persona was neither swaggering nor crude hardly mattered. It was easier to think of Wayne as something like the vigilante of the plainsmacho, indomitable, always in the right, ordering women and Indians around because thats the way God planned it.
Its inevitable that with nearly two hundred pictures to his credit (Waynes 1939 breakthrough, John Fords Stagecoach was his eightieth movie), some of Waynes roles do fit the traditional macho hero mold. But the image that persists of him seems more reinforced by things like his public support of conservative causes, as well as by his directing and starring in the pro-Vietnam War picture The Green Berets. And its been reinforced by the fact that Wayne worked primarily in Westerns, the most frequently, and often baselessly, stereotyped of movie genres.
John Wayne represents more force, more power than anyone else on the screen, his frequent director Howard Hawks once said. A performer who wields that kind of force, and has a physical presence to match, does not provide nuanced pleasure. But only the crudest reading would reduce the overwhelming force of Waynes persona to gung-ho cheerleading for American right and American might. To be true to the contradictions and moral ambiguities of Waynes best performancesStagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, True Grit, El Doradoyoud have to say he stands not so much for American power as for the American experimentand thus for the possibility that it could all go wrong.
And in Howard Hawkss 1959 Rio Bravo, the directors masterpiece (now out in a beautifully remastered DVD from Warner Bros.), Wayne gave us the richest, most likable, and probably the most daring version of his screen persona. The story, by the veteran screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, couldnt be simpler. Joe Burdett, the youngest brother of ruthless power broker Nathan Burdett, kills an unarmed man in cold blood. Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) arrests Joe, intending to hold him in the local jail for the six days it will take the marshall to arrive and transport Joe to trial. Burdett, rich enough to believe the law doesnt apply to him, orders his men to bottle up the town. His plan is to bust Joe out and kill anyone who stands in their way. Chances only help comes from his two deputies, the once-capable Dude (Dean Martin), whos been in a heartbroken alcoholic stupor for two years, and the elderly, crippled Stumpy (Walter Brennan), swindled out of his land by Burdett years ago.
The inspiration for Rio Bravo came from perhaps the most praised of Westerns, Fred Zinnemanns 1952 High Noon. High-Minded Noon it might have been called. Existing for no other reason than to impart a lesson in good citizenship, High Noon was a transparent metaphor for the failure of Americans to stand up to Joe McCarthy. Hawks hated it. Narratively, Hawks felt it made no sense for Gary Coopers sheriff to spend the movie soliciting the townspeoples help to fend off the killers coming for him only to prove, in the end, that he didnt need help. Hawks was offended by the idea that a sheriff would endanger the lives of the people he was meant to protect by trying to recruit them to save his skin.
So Hawks made a movie in which Waynes sheriff turns down the help offered him, and needs it at every turn. In other words, it was another of Hawkss celebrations of the sustaining communities that are at the heart of his best films. Over and over, Hawks tells the stories of disparate individuals who, by necessity or fluke, drift together into groups that meld their professional and personal lives. The ad hoc communities of Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, The Thing . . . From Another World, Hatari!, and El Dorado are held together by an unspoken ethos that values competence, confidence, resourcefulness, respect and self-respect, stern generosity, shared good humor, empathy, and the ability to recognize and appreciate those qualities in others. Human frailty (Dean Martins alcoholism in Rio Bravo; Walter Brennans in To Have and Have Not) is acknowledged but never judged to be the sum of a persons character. Women are assumed to be every bit as capable as men. Hawks recognized the differences between responsibility and duty, sympathy and pity, honesty and cruelty, individualism and selfishness.
None of this is conveyed in the speeches or grand gestures common to prestige pictures.. Instead these values are conveyed in the smallest moments. The dramatic weight in Rio Bravo is reserved for the moments when the characters faith in each other, or in themselves, is tested. The suspense of the sequence where Dude and Chance follow a killer into Burdetts saloon doesnt come from whether or not theyll get him, but from whether Dude is going to be able to recover his confidence enough to keep in charge of the situation. Each incident flows so unobtrusively into the next that youre scarcely aware of structure, but so delighted by the supreme relaxation of the performers (particularly Martin, whos superb) that youre never bored.
GIVEN THE traditional solitary nature of the Western hero, Wayne would seem to be the wrong choice for a Western that celebrates community. And in our first glimpse of Wayne, a low-angle shot, he literally towers over us. The point of view is Dudes. Broke and in bad need of a drink, he slinks into a saloon where Joe Burdett cruelly tosses a gold piece into a spittoon. Dude stoops down to fish it out only for a boot to kick the spittoon away from him. Looking up, Dude sees Chance, whose stern face conveys both disgust that anyone could sink so low and the conviction that no one need do so.
A conventional director might have followed through with Dude steadying himself, rising to his feet, and walking out of the bar, still dry but with his remaining dignity intact. Hawks, the iconoclast, gives us something more unexpected, and truer to the desperation born of weakness: Dude waiting for Chance to turn his back before clubbing him unconscious.
That action undercuts any potential for the scene to turn into Dudes sentimental redemption. But just a few moments later, proving Chances implicit admonition that he can pull himself up from the depths, Dude saves Chances life when the Burdett men have the sheriff surrounded.
Chance is the heroic figure whose self-sufficiency inspires the others to rise above their shortcomings. But because this is a celebration of democracy, the result isnt a race of isolated heroes but a community in which the strength of each individual buoys up everyone else. Even Chance, the strongest person in the movie, cant do without those people. You start, Hawks said of casting the movie, with the idea that if you dont get a damn good actor with Wayne, hes going to blow him right off the screen, not just by the fact that hes good, but by his power, his strength. Hawkss faith in the cast he assembled here mirrors Chances faith in his comrades. He may inspire them to rise to their feet, as he does with Dude, but each one is finally capable of standing alongside him.
PART OF THE beauty of Waynes performance here is the way, even when Chance is refusing help, he never undervalues others. When Chances friend, the cattleman Wheeler (the inevitable Ward Bond), derides his deputies by asking, A bum-legged old man and a drunkthats all youve got? Chance answers, Thats what Ive got. Its the single best line reading of Waynes career. Theres a world of respect in the weight he puts on that one word, what, an irreducible sense of peoples worth as individuals. Bill Clinton might have been instinctively paraphrasing Wayne with the phrase he kept repeating during his 1992 campaign, We dont have a person to waste.
By contrast, when Dude finds a fifty-dollar gold piece on one of Nathan Burdetts hired killers he says, Thats just about what Burdett would figure a mans life would be worth. Rio Bravo pits Chances refusal to discount people against the cynical appraisal of the Nathan Burdetts of the world.
When youve got some talent, your job is to use it, Hawks said. He was answering the people whod criticized him for giving Ricky Nelson a song in the film. But he could have been articulating his own delight in the people he gathers in front of his camera, his respect for them as individuals. And thats the key to the profound inclusiveness of Rio Bravo. The characters who save Chances lifenot just a bum-legged old man and a drunk, but Nelsons teenage gunslinger, and Feathers, an independent woman who lives her life as she chooses, played by Angie Dickinsonare all discounted by a society that sees what they are without bothering to find out who they are.
And Hawks pushes that even further, undercutting Chance, the authority figure who is valued for what he is, by making him prone to harried misjudgments. Thats most apparent in Waynes scenes with Angie Dickinson, an extended comic duet in which she gets under his skin just by smiling sweetly in the manner of a woman more amused than impressed by his bluster. In one remarkable sequence a card game in which Feathers is winning turns out to be rigged, and Chance accuses her of being the cheat. Hes wrong. The only evidence he has to go on is a handbill sent out by a sheriff describing a woman who sounds like Feathers and the card sharp she travels with. It turns out that Feathers is the mans widow, and he became a cheat only after falling on hard times. Shes on the up and up, but this handbill follows her from town to town, making trouble. When she asks Chance what she can do about that, he tells her to stop playing cards and to stop wearing feathers. No, she says. Im not going to do that. Because thats what Id do if I was the type of girl you think I am. And, true to his better nature, as well as to Hawkss faith in people to get past their shortsightedness, Chance is chastened.
Hawks would offer another celebration of the group three years later in his rambling African adventure Hatari! And in 1967 hed rework the main elements of Rio Bravo into El Dorado, a raucous and grimly comic Western about the decrepitude of age. If the frequent sequences where the screen is bordered in black and James Caan reciting Poes line Down the valley of the shadow werent unsettling enough, there was Wayne, a few years after winning his initial battle against cancer, once more undercutting the image of the invincible hero by playing scenes in which he seizes up and becomes paralyzedas if we were watching him suffer a stroke.
But its Rio Bravo that remains Hawkss deepest expression of his delight in people, and his warmest, most casual vision of the ordinary and profound ways they lift each other up. Rio Bravo rejects the notion that there are people who can be thrown away. When the film critic Robin Wood was writing about the movie, he said, If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be Rio Bravo. Let me offer my own overstatement: If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the idea of America, it would be Rio Bravo.
Agreed, and like you say, just hit the mute! LOL!!
One of my favorites was “The Quiet Man” with Maureen O’Hara but I liked all of his movies. They’re much better than anything in Hollywood today.
Apparently, JFK thought so too!
It is a great picture, without a doubt. Wayne considered it not just one of his best, but one of the ten best movies ever.
Maureen O’Hara was one of the most gorgeous women ever to be seen on the silver screen.
That and acting ability, too, made a potent combination.
Can't be all bad.
My favorite John Wayne movie was Rio Grande.
A man’s gotta do, what a man’s gotta do.
pilgrim, you caused a lot of trouble this morning, might have got somebody killed and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth.
But I wont I wont The hell I wont!
John Wayne is my favorite actor of all time. Thanks for all the memories, Mr. Wayne.
That’s a great shot and the review on it is right on.
His acting role in the Searchers reminded me a little of his role in Red River but in the Searchers a much better performance by Wayne and much better movie.
I’ve always seen John Wayne as the Frank Sinatra of film. Great body of work over four decades. Not many performers can do that. Great screen presence. Worked wonders without always the best scripts. He transcended scripts...I’d watch him do a commercial over most actors.
For me the quintessential Wayne film is Hondo, about 10 minutes here and there of the best Duke you’ll ever see. Also, the 3 Godfathers is very good and under-appreciated.
God Bless John Wayne!
Yep—The Searchers is the best of Duke’s work.
And, of course, SgtMaj John M. Striker USMC!
The Duke’s role as SgtMaj Striker was A1. I was a kid when it was released and don’t really know how many times I’ve seen it but it’s a lot and I still enjoy it.
John Wayne is my favorite Western, but I’m afraid he’s the second lead: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Absolutely love “Liberty Valence”. It is from beginning to end a perfect movie, and I dare you not cry when at the end the conductor says “nothings too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence”......You know, I could go on all day talking about the Duke’s movies......and yes, McClintock is one of my favorites. Great comedy and chemistry throughout, PLUS the added bonus of the beautiful Maureen O’Hara and Yyvonne Decarlo....
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