Saturday, May 26, 2007


Centennial Tributes: John Wayne

Wayne was never an actor, and because he wasn’t an actor, he had to do everything real. There wasn’t anything in Duke that would allow him to pretend he was something. He couldn’t be French, he couldn’t have an accent, he couldn’t be Olivier. Whatever the actor was called to do in the script, he did it. It wasn’t a question of acting, it was a question of reality.”
Henry Hathaway

By Wagstaff
With more than 150 films to his credit, John Wayne has given us many moments that are genuine. To commemorate the 100th birthday of Marion Morrison, known to all his friends as Duke, I hereby give you a half-dozen of my favorites. The task was difficult — there were so many to choose from. What are some of your favorite John Wayne moments? Drop a comment and tell me what they are.

1. Intro of the Ringo Kid

His reputation precedes him. Everybody on the Overland Stage to Lordsburg that day had heard of the Ringo Kid, but few thought they’d ever meet him. Then, in one of the greatest screen entrances in history, we hear a rifle shot that pulls the team of horses up short. We first see him in the middle of the road, against a Monument Valley backdrop. His tall frame stands solitary and assured. One hand holds a saddle and blanket, the other hand twirls his Winchester. The camera swoops in on the figure beneath the hat, loses focus momentarily, and then sharpens into a closeup of the handsome, friendly face of the Ringo Kid. It’s the one indelible image that made John Wayne a star. After this single shot, Duke runs away with the picture — and that’s saying something, considering that the stagecoach is packed with talent such as Andy Devine, George Bancroft, Claire Trevor, Louise Platt, John Carradine, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill and Thomas Mitchell.
“Figured you’d be in Lordsburg by now,” the marshall says.
“No. Lame horse,” the Kid says.
“Well, it looks like you’ve got another passenger.”
“You’re under arrest, Kid. I’ll take the Winchester.”
“You may need me and this Winchester, Curley.

And indeed they do. That trusty Winchester comes in mighty handy when fending off Apache Indian attacks in the desert, or when taking on the Plummer Boys single handed once the Kid gets to Lordsburg. Ten years and more than 60 B-Westerns and serials had given Duke a lot of practice at this sort of thing. John Ford was once asked why he didn’t put John Wayne in a major role before Stagecoach, even though the two had been good friends for more than ten years. The director replied, “Duke wasn’t ready, he had to develop his skills as an actor … I wanted some pain written on his face to offset the innocence.” When Orson Welles was asked to name his influences, he said “John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” Sometimes I think what he really meant was “Stagecoach, Stagecoach and Stagecoach.”

2. “I’m gonna kill ya, Matt”

Thomas Dunson is a hard man. A cattle baron who drives his men past the point of endurance; he tolerates no dissent. In his mind, why should he? He created his empire from scratch, starting with a bull, a couple of calves, and a lot of open Texas grassland. His only companions back then were a crotchety old cook (Walter Brennan) and a young pup of a lad named Matthew Garth. The “Red River D” was his brand. He worked hard for it. He vowed a day would come when he would add an “M” to that “D” and bequeath all that he’d built to Matt. That was all years ago, though. Now Dunson and his group of cowhands are driving a herd of ten thousand cattle up Missouri way, and forging the Chisholm Trail. As the hardships mount on the dusty trail, and the men grow weary, Dunson grows more and more fanatical. He becomes a ruthless tyrant. When he tries to horsewhip a couple of cowboys for desertion, Matt, now all grown up into Montgomery Clift, can no longer take it. He usurps Dunson’s authority at gunpoint and takes the herd. Dunson is to be left behind. Feeling betrayed, dejected and all alone, he’s a man with the look of true hatred in his eyes. With his wounded leg, he stands slumped up against his horse. He fumes silently, his hand clinging to the saddle horn. Matt approaches for a fare-thee-well and Dunson delivers the following lines:
“Cherry was right. You’re soft, you should have let ‘em kill me, ‘cause I’m gonna kill you. I’ll catch up with ya. I don’t know when, but I’ll catch up. Every time you turn around, expect to see me, ‘cause one time you’ll turn around and I’ll be there. I’m gonna kill ya, Matt.

The determination in John Wayne’s eyes says it all — it’s a done deal, a fait accompli. I sure wouldn’t want Mr. Dunson coming after me. In many ways, Red River tells the same story as Mutiny on the Bounty, with Thomas Dunson as Captain Bligh and Matthew Garth as Fletcher Christian. It was the first time Duke worked with Howard Hawks, and in the part of the aging Dunson, Hawks gave him his deepest role yet. John Wayne was only 39 at the time. John Ford, after seeing Red River, cracked to Hawks “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.”

3. “Yeah, I know about babies”

Sgt. Stryker meets Mary when his squad has ten days leave in Honolulu. She approaches him. He’s too gruff and weary to give her any play at first, but things warm up a little when he finds out her name is Mary, and that they’re both unhappy. She invites him back to her place. “The drinks are cheaper.” The bottle at her place is almost empty, so he gives her a sawbuck to get another. While she’s gone, Stryker discovers Mary’s baby in the next room. He realizes that she needed that sawbuck for more than just booze. When Mary returns he immediately spots the cartons of Pablum she’s bought and begins to open one. Mary is relieved to see him pour the cereal into a bowl for the infant’s dinner.
“So, you know about babies” she says. Stryker’s eyes smile a little, and then he sighs “Yeah, I know about babies.”

Sands of Iwo Jima is the quintessential Marine Corps movie. It sets the paradigm for all subsequent men-training-for-combat films. Sgt. John M. Stryker is your great granddaddy — Mr. Tough Love himself — he’s John fucking Wayne for God’s sake. He is a tough-as-nails papa bear to his men. He licks his dogface grunts into shape for some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific — fights over places like Tarawa and Iwo Jima, two of the most hellish holes during the island hopping campaign. These two particular battles are filmed in an effective and often startling manner. Note how well actual combat footage (some of it quite horrifying) is integrated into the scenes shot on a soundstage. It was seamless for its day. As to Stryker’s men, well, you’ve seen it a thousand times. Rebellious animosity gives way to grudging respect, and finally, to loving memory after Stryker is tragically killed in an act of heroism: offering someone a cigarette. Remember, this is a paradigm movie. That the aforementioned scene with Mary and her baby comes quietly out of nowhere gives us a glimpse into the other side of what our boys were fighting for.

4. Captain Brittles’ Spectacles

There is a wonderfully touching moment in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the second film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, when Duke’s men line up their horses and present him with a gift. It is a silver watch and chain, and to read the engraving Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles must put on his spectacles. He fumbles a little, somewhat embarrassed as he removes the specs from his jacket, and then reads the inscription. The words almost choke him up. “To Capt. Brittles — from C Troop … Lest we forget.” The hushed silence while his men listen will break your heart. They’ve just caught a glimmer of their captain’s frailty. John Wayne handles the moment perfectly, and without histrionics. It is said that George Washington once did something similar during the Revolutionary War. In front of his men he put on his spectacles to read something, saying “Forgive me, for my eyes have grown weary in your service.” This naked look at the man touched their hearts, and rallied them to his cause.

5. Kissing Stumpy

Duke was never so easygoing and loose as he was with Howard Hawks. They made five films together. Duke trusted Hawks. He would do things for him that he wouldn’t do for other directors. Exhibit A is from Rio Bravo. John Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance. Angie Dickinson is Feathers, a sexy Hawksian woman. The two have been flirting for most of the movie, after which it is strongly implied that they’ve gone to bed together. The morning after, John T. leaves the hotel and walks down the street with a spring in his step. His demeanor is so cheerful — it must’ve been quite a night! You can almost hear the song he’s whistling in his head. Oh yeah, the Duke just got some. He goes to the jailhouse to check on Stumpy (Walter Brennan.) A brief exchange ensues. Stumpy complains that he’s underappreciated. “Maybe you’re right, Stumpy” he says. “You’re a treasure. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Just as Duke is about to leave, he sneaks up and playfully kisses the old codger on the top of the head and quickly skips out, his ass getting a swat from Stumpy’s broom. “Go back to being yourself. Leastwise I’m used to that” cries an irritated Stumpy. This is John Wayne at his most whimsical...then he gets to dealing with the bad guys.

Just talking about Rio Bravo makes me want to go on and on. Like about how its dialogue is a blueprint for Quentin Tarantino’s, and provides the underlying structure. Go ahead, ask me about it. Or about how it came at a precious time in the history of the Western. Rio Bravo was made well after the genre’s unabashed pioneer spirit and Manifest Destiny had evolved into adult-themed drama. Yet it came well before a period that strived for revisionism. Rio Bravo exists in a happy stasis somewhere at the middle. It all adds up to maximum entertainment. How good is Rio Bravo and John Wayne in it? Well, to quote John T. talking about Colorado Ryan “I’d say he’s so good, that he doesn’t feel he has to prove it.”

6. Ethan Edwards’ Departure

What can you say about this final moment that hasn’t already been said? We know he’s departing because he’s hardly arrived. Ethan Edwards’ years-long obsessive search is finally over. He has brought little Debbie home. The darkened interior of the homestead is like a picture frame that surrounds the brilliant sunlight streaming through the doorway. Never mind that those beautiful Monument Valley mesas out there are nowhere near Texas. This is mythmaking. Ethan halts outside uncomfortably as everyone else is ushered inside. He stands at the threshold … and here I am indebted to Ronald L. Davis’ book, Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne:
“Then comes a moment of cinematic nostalgia. Wayne raises his left hand, reaches across his chest, and grabs his right arm at the elbow. It is a gesture that Harry Carey, Ollie’s husband, had often used in the movies Duke had seen as a boy in Glendale. Wayne stares at Olive for a couple of seconds, then turns and walks away, as the cabin door closes. ‘Ollie and I had talked about Harry in that stance on occasions,’ Duke remembered. ‘I saw her looking at me, and I just did it. Goddamn tears came to her eyes. I was playing that scene for Ollie Carey.’”

It was a scene that only John Wayne could do. Everything is wordlessly conveyed through the familiar shape of his body. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a purely cinematic moment like this one is worth many times more. It remains Duke’s legacy shot.

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Cool blog, i just randomly surfed in, but it sure was worth my time, will be back

Deep Regards from the other side of the Moon

Biby Cletus
One of my favorite moments actually occurred on a TV sitcom. I loved the episode of Maude when she was ready to take him to task for his right-wing politics only to melt once she actually met him and he said, "I never discuss politics with a lady."
Excellent post. Excuse me while I get myself a tissue. There's, of course, so many great scenes that reflect his toughness - vowing to hunt down the indians in Searchers like a critter that just keeps coming; beating his recruits with the butt of a rifle for their own damn good in Sands, or "Lace it up tight."'s nice to focus on the tender side now and then.
Great job, Wagstaff - an elegant summary of some of The Duke's greatest hits.

One moment that has always stood out for me....throughout The Searchers, Ethan Edwards has been in relentless pursuit of his brother's "contaminated" child in order to kill her. When he finally catches up with Debbie, we (and she) assume he's going to kill her. He chases her across the dunes, lifts her up in his arms...."C'mon, Debbie. Let's go home." Brilliant.
You could almost make this list from the Searchers alone. I like his monologue about a critter that just keeps on coming.
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