Friday, March 20, 2009

John Wayne’s Six Masterpieces

by John Nolte

In yesterday’s post about the third most popular movie star in America today, I referenced 6 John Wayne masterpieces and 12 classics. A few emails resulted asking which films that referred to, so here are the masterpieces ranked in order of masterpiecery.

These films don’t need anyone to defend them and thousands upon thousands of words have already been written about them. What you have here is a few paragraphs about each that focuses on what keeps me coming back time and again.

For the record, “The Searchers,” in my opinion, is the greatest movie ever made and though I don’t think John Wayne is our greatest actor (though, he’s in the top five), I do think his performance as Ethan Edwards is the finest ever captured on film.

The Searchers (1956) - Director John Ford

Alcohol is the choice of most men, but Ethan Edwards (Wayne) chose vengeance and hate to drown his love for a woman he couldn’t have.

If you want to understand what drove Edwards, both before and after the massacre of his family, watch the first act again closely and you’ll see that he was desperately in love with his brother’s wife and she with him. This love between them is so pure that to act on it, to even speak of it, would betray it and so this fragile thing remains preserved through silence and dignity.

After she’s raped and butchered and his two young nieces kidnapped by the Apache Chief Scar, Ethan rages against God (”Get to the Amen!”) and sets out to find the girls. He might be able to save their lives but nothing can remove the indignities they’ve already suffered, and through their very presence they will forever remind him of what was done to his beloved … and that is too unbearable to imagine. For this reason, Ethan will kill the girls and hope that through committing such an unspeakable act his years-long quest to lose his pain through the surrender of his humanity will finally come to an end.

The Indians do half of Ethan’s job for him, leaving only Debbie, the youngest. Years pass and a relentless hunt that will come down to a single moment finally does when Debbie finds herself in Ethan’s grip. The ferocity to tear her in two has always been there, but does he have the will?

“Let’s go home, Debbie.”

The type of man required to rescue Debbie, these men who sacrificed much to build a civilization, aren’t welcome in it. There’s no place for them, and Ethan doesn’t enter the house because he understands this. Instead he turns and walks away, and the door closes leaving him outside with the pain and loneliness he will now carry forever due to his own sacrifice - the choice to retain his humanity.

2. Stagecoach (1939) - Director John Ford

After nearly a decade of making quickie Westerns, director John Ford pulled Wayne out of poverty row, and in one breathtaking close-up, so dramatic the focus just barely hangs on, made him a star.

Actually, that’s a lie. The close-up didn’t make Wayne a star, nor did the action, the fights, the gunplay, or even legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt standing in for young Duke as he leaps into the middle of runaway horses to save the day and stop an out of control stagecoach.

What made Wayne a star were his quiet moments with Claire Trevor. No one on the stagecoach will talk to Dallas. They refuse to even eat with her, but the Ringo Kid (Wayne) doesn’t know about her past (or, does he?), and therefore doesn’t know not to treat her like a lady.

The kindness and tenderness Wayne summons to play these scenes, the decency he mines from Ringo’s innocence, the simplicity and quietness of it all … these moments are as touching as anything Chaplin or Keaton ever gave us.

3. Red River (1948) - Director Howard Hawks

“Let’s take ‘em to Missouri.”

Wayne plays Tom Dunson, another hardened man driven to obsession. What’s remarkable about Wayne’s performance is how his presence looms even larger in the second half during the long periods he’s off screen. Wayne turns his character into a bona fide bogey man, utterly believable in a murderous, near-psychotic rage he’s determined to satisfy. Every time the men look over their shoulders, we do too fearing what’s hidden by the night.

As good as Wayne is, the smartest decision Hawks made was casting the immortal Montgomery Clift as Matt, Dunson’s surrogate son. This was not a film Wayne could carry into legend on his own, and a Jeffrey Hunter just wouldn’t have been up to it. The role required an actor with Wayne’s talent and screen presence, but of a different kind, and Clift’s magnetic and unique mix of beauty and masculinity was perfect.

“Red River” has a flaw, a deus ex machina in the form of the lovely Joanna Dru, but the rest is 130 minutes of epic perfection all set to the real star of the film, Dimitri Tiomkin’s unforgettable score.

4. The Quiet Man (1952) - Director John Ford

Ford had hoped to make this in 1947 after completing his religious mood piece, “The Fugitive,” with Henry Fonda. Unfortunately for him, “The Fugitive” flopped and Ford was forced to pay some bills before being allowed another passion project. Fortunately for us, what came of those five years of bill paying was Ford’s epic cavalry trilogy and a John Wayne, who at 45, was much better suited for the role of Sean Thornton, a haunted ex-prize fighter looking for the a quiet life in Ireland.

Enter the ravishing Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate.

Like Monty Clift, the casting of Maureen O’Hara was as essential as Duke himself. Other than Patricia Neal, Gail Russell, Geraldine Page, Lauren Bacall and Angie Dickinson, Wayne tended to overpower his leading ladies, which was generally okay because they were subplot material. But in “The Quiet Man” war and Indians aren’t what motivates the action, it’s Sean’s overpowering passion for, and inability to dominate, a stubborn, smart, independent, proud and breathtakingly beautiful Irish girl.

Wayne co-starred with a number of wonderful actresses, including those listed above, but O’Hara was to Wayne what Olivia de Havilland was to Errol Flynn: every inch his equal. This wasn’t their first film together, but it was their first in color and O’Hara was unsurpassed in color.

Ford’s love of Ireland frames every shot and fills every character. His passion for his native land is only matched by Sean’s passion for Mary Kate and hers for him. There’s more sex in “The Quiet Man” than anything you’ll see on Cinemax After Dark, but the physical desire manifests only in the eyes of the players and the subtext of the dialogue, making it one of the sexiest movies ever made.

5. Rio Bravo (1959) — Director Howard Hawks

Everyone in town wants to help Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) guard his prisoner from a ruthless gang determined to kill those who get in the way of a jailbreak, and by “everyone” I mean innkeepers, old men, cow punchers and a lovely girl with a past and a thing for feathers. Howard Hawks and Wayne loathed “High Noon’s” (1952) depiction of a “cowardly” Sheriff begging those he’s charged with protecting for help. The response was “Rio Bravo,” a film where the Sheriff turns all but the most capable away:

If they are really good, I’ll take them. If not, I’ll just take care of them.

You won’t find John Chance begging a church full of farmers to do his job for him.

But “Rio Bravo” is not a John Wayne film, it’s a Howard Hawks film with just a logline for a plot wrapped in characters we can’t get enough of, even after 141 minutes. This is a Howard Hawks film because it’s about men of action and duty and bravery - and more importantly, the relationship between all three. It’s a Howard Hawks film because after the credits roll we don’t long for the gunfights and explosions, we just want to be locked in that jail again with Stumpy, Colorado, Chance and Borachon for one more song.

6. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) — Director John Ford

This is the second of Ford’s masterful cavalry trilogy, the best of the three, and the only one filmed in color.

Like 1948’s “Red River,” Wayne convincingly plays an older man here, Captain Nathan Brittles, a thirty-year man in the United States Cavalry on the verge of retirement.

Brittles is a widower counting down the few days (he marks them off a calendar) he has left before facing a world without a place for him. He will soon be sentenced to a life without purpose and without the family that is the Cavalry. Because Ford and his players are so effective at making us fall in love with the life, not one syllable of exposition is needed to explain what Brittles feels. We’re going miss to Sgt. Quincannon’s (Victor McLaglen) Captain Darlin’s every bit as much as he is.

Duty, tradition, and mortality are all themes beautifully explored through larger-than-life characters and Ford’s unique ability to capture the unparalleled majesty of Monument Valley, Utah - a setting as integral to the drama as the story itself. A scene supposedly shot on the fly in the heart of the Valley during a thunder and lightning storm ranks right along with an Ingrid Bergman close up as one of the most beautiful images ever captured on film.

UPDATE: The twelve not quite masterpieces, but still classics (in no particular order): 3 Godfathers, The Shootist, Long Voyage Home, Shepherd of the Hills, They Were Expendable, Angel and the Badman, Wake of the Red Witch, The Sands of Iwo Jima, Hondo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, True Grit, El Dorado…

Because Wayne didn’t star in “How the West Was Won” or “The Longest Day,” they weren’t considered

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