Saturday, May 26, is the birthday of one of the biggest stars ever to hit Hollywood, John Wayne, who died in 1979. Many young people don’t know about him (after all, fame is fleeting), but his movies are still popular. They frequently show up on Turner Classic Movies, which is a great place for younger moviegoers to discover the greats of the past in what snobs call “the cinema,” but average folks just call motion pictures or movies. So, there are probably still plenty of younger folks out there discovering the joys that only a John Wayne movie can bring.
Though John (or “the Duke” as he is fondly called by his many fans) only won one Oscar – for the 1969 version of the Charles Portis novel TRUE GRIT – many knowledgeable film buffs think he could and should have won several more. Among the performances they cite are the Duke’s performances in SANDS OF IWO JIMO, RED RIVER, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, THE QUIET MAN, THE SHOOTIST, and, last but certainly not least, THE SEARCHERS, which is often called the greatest western ever made.
You can’t talk about John Wayne without mentioning one of the greatest movie directors of all time, John Ford. Ford directed four of the seven John Wayne movies mentioned above. He also helped cement the Duke’s career as a movie star with the breakout 1939 hit, STAGECOACH (what a great year for movies, 1939!). In addition to YELLOW RIBBON, LIBERTY VALANCE, THE QUIET MAN, and THE SEARCHERS, Ford also directed the following John Wayne movies:
THE LONG VOYAGE HOME
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE
THE HORSE SOLDIERS
Ford, who served as the Duke’s crusty, almost lifelong, mentor, was also friends with director Howard Hawks, who directed several other famous John Wayne movies himself, including RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO, HATARI!, EL DORADO, and RIO LOBO. In fact, after Hawks saw John Wayne’s performance as the retiring Col. Nathan Brittles in Ford’s poetic salute to the United States Cavalry, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, Hawks reportedly told Ford, “I didn’t know the SOB could act!” and promptly cast him in one of the Duke’s greatest and most surprising, and darkest and most poignant, roles as the headstrong cattle baron Tom Dunson in RED RIVER. That movie also introduced a young, handsome Montgomery Clift as Dunson’s adopted son, Matt. Watching the Duke, representing the Old Guard of Hollywood, square off with this young turk of Method Acting, whose early performances rivaled Marlon Brando and James Dean’s performances in the 1950s, is a real joy.
Wayne is usually remembered mostly for his westerns, but he also appeared in many beloved war movies of the past, including such classics as THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, SANDS OF IWO JIMO, FLYING TIGERS, THE LONGEST DAY, IN HARM’S WAY, and THE GREEN BERETS. Wayne was criticized for wearing his conservative politics on his sleeve in the two movies he himself directed, THE ALAMO and THE GREEN BERETS, but, if you watch those movies carefully, you can tell that they are not only excellent dramas with excellent directing, but their political statements still carry great resonance and great moral lessons for those of us who never accepted, or no longer accept, the Anti-American leftist lies of the mass media and the biased schoolbooks so prevalent in public education and in America’s institutions of “higher” learning.
Besides westerns and war movies, the Duke had a gift for comedy. You can see that gift on display in many of his westerns and even some of his war movies, but for a better look, you can do pretty well by watching such movies as THE QUIET MAN, EL DORADO, NORTH TO ALASKA, MCCLINTOCK, TRUE GRIT, RIO BRAVO, and, last but not least, the unsung, hilarious, and heartwarming little comic gem by John Ford, DONOVAN’S REEF. Ford, by the way, directed perhaps the funniest Edward G. Robinson movie ever made, the 1934 movie THE WHOLE TOWN’S TALKING co-starring the great Jean Arthur.
Although it’s hard to pick just five great John Wayne movies as the Duke’s very best performances, if I had to do it, I’d pick the following five films in the following order:
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
THE QUIET MAN
Of course, this leaves out superb, classic John Wayne performances in such movies as RIO BRAVO, THE SHOOTIST, FORT APACHE, HONDO, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, TRUE GRIT, STAGECOACH, THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, and the hilarious, exciting Hawks western, EL DORADO, not to mention Wayne’s three great anti-communist movies, THE GREEN BERETS, BLOOD ALEY, and BIG JIM MCCLAIN.
The question remains: Why do people love these movies and the star who dominated them? For that matter, why do I?
Well, you only have to watch some of the smaller, quieter scenes from these bigger-than-life movies and their bigger-than-life movie star to get some answers.
For instance, there’s the time where Wayne’s frustrated character in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON kicks over the wheel of a wagon burned by Indians and admits his mission during that part of the story was “a failure.” His kick is not done in anger but in quiet frustration with just a slight hint of the anger boiling underneath. He then tenderly pats the shoulder of Joanne Dru’s character when she tries to disagree with him and tells her it’s always the leader’s fault when a mission goes wrong (are you listening, Barack Obama?).
Or, watch the scene where Wayne’s character silently holds Maureen O’Hara’s character in the rain in THE QUIET MAN as their two lovers contemplate their uncertain future. Then, watch the earlier scene where Wayne’s character grabs Maureen O’Hara’s arm and kisses her in the wind when she tries to leave after he discovers that she’s cleaned up the new cottage he just bought (a scene that was lovingly replayed by Steven Spielberg in his classic movie E.T.).
Or, consider the time when Wayne’s character in RED RIVER suddenly realizes, to his everlasting regret, that he shouldn’t have left the woman he loves stay behind with the wagon train, only to have her murdered by rampaging Indians. That scene will come back to haunt his character and the rest of the movie. It not only condemns Wayne’s character in RED RIVER but it also, in the end, turns out to be his salvation in the final climactic fight between his character and his adopted son at the end of the movie. Thus, Wayne’s character, Tom, gives an iron bracelet the dead woman gave him before they parted to his adopted son, Matt, when he was young and, years later, Matt gives it to the woman he meets (played once again by Joanne Dru) at a wagon train along the cattle drive. Matt and his men had saved the woman and the wagon train from another band of murderous Indians. When Tom comes upon the woman and realizes that Matt gave her the bracelet before he left her and the wagon train to finish the cattle drive, it will eventually changes the outcome of everything for every character.
Then, there’s the time in Ford’s classic THEY WERE EXPENDABLE when Wayne’s character gives a brief makeshift eulogy to two sailors who died. Or, the earlier scene in that movie when his character has his last phone call with the woman he loves, played by a young Donna Reed, because they’ve been separated by Japan’s invasion of the Philippines. Or, the scene where Capt. Nathan Brittles has to take out his reading glasses to read the inscription his troops have put on the back of the watch they’ve given him to commemorate his upcoming retirement. Or, the scene in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE where Wayne’s disheveled, hungover character at the end explains to Jimmy Stewart’s character, who has won the Duke’s longtime girlfriend, who really shot Liberty Valance and how.
Finally, there are all the great moments featuring Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS. Wayne reportedly said that Ethan was his favorite role. Ethan’s whole demeanor in that movie reflects the swagger that Wayne displayed in most of his movies. In fact, it almost seems as if Wayne took all the swagger that he used over the years in Hollywood and poured it into Ethan Edwards. Next to RED RIVER, however, Edwards is Wayne’s darkest character. Like RED RIVER, the darkness in Ethan reflects the tremendous personal pain and loss the character is feeling. The pain and loss boils to the surface in fits of rage and racism against the Indians and against other people. But, as with all of Wayne’s greatest performances, there’s still a tenderness, goodness, and integrity in Ethan just waiting to burst free. The two sides of Ethan Edwards – the dark and the light – battle throughout THE SEARCHERS until the end when, under John Ford’s masterful direction and the wonderful cinematography by the great Winton C. Hoch, the light finally wins in a sublime moment of what Christian author J.R.R. Tolkien called eucatastrophe – the moment when (as in the Resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ) a great and terrible darkness, doom, or evil, is suddenly defeated by the Goodness that God has placed in His Creation, on Earth as well as in Heaven. Of course, the Light finally wins and Good prevails so perfectly in THE SEARCHERS not only because of the exquisite talents of Ford and Hoch, but also because of the finely honed sense of heroic decency that God placed in John Wayne, the man and the actor. That decency is on display at the end of THE SEARCHERS and to the very last shot when Wayne puts his hand on his arm as a tribute to the recently deceased Harry Carey, the famous silent western movie star whose widow, Olive, and son, Harry Carey, Jr., play crucial roles in the movie. Olive’s husband, Harry, Sr., developed that gesture as a trademark in many silent and talkie westerns. It has been reported that Olive was watching that shot when Ford filmed it and burst into tears when she saw John Wayne pay tribute to her beloved husband.
And, that’s why people love John Wayne, why I love John Wayne, and why you might love him too.
Happy birthday, Duke!
Note: This article is dedicated to Pat, a John Wayne fan who’s probably enjoying a talk in Heaven with the Duke right now.
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