John Wayne, Thirty Years Gone

For my dad on this Father's Day.


Thirty years ago last week, I was fixing dinner in my small apartment in downtown Los Angeles, the news was on the television in the background.

They announced that John Wayne had died (I don't remember if I had heard the news earlier in the day) but this I remember. I stopped what I was doing and moved to the sofa. They came back from commercial and then ran an extended piece about Wayne's death, playing the scene from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon where he says good-bye to his troops before they go out without him. I, like many other people, cried.

I grew up in the 1960s, a decade full of dissent and turmoil. I was against the war in Vietnam and not what could be described by any stretch of the imagination, a fan of Richard Nixon's. Given my politics, liking John Wayne films back then was more than just unpopular, it was very unpopular.

But I had grown up with a dad who loved his movies (and his politics) and he taught me to love those movies. Back then (as Moira likes to say when dinosaurs roamed the land -who knew they liked television), classic movies on the big three networks were all we had.

Two of the television stations in Las Vegas each ran an afternoon movie. On Saturday and Sundays, their was the late afternoon movie. And almost any night of the week, one of the big three networks had a "________ at the Movies" almost every night in prime-time. Then there was the Late Movie and that was followed by the Late, Late Movie. There were no VCRs or DVDs back then , so if a movie you liked came on, you jumped at the chance to see it.

My dad and I would watch westerns together. Both my parents were western fans but my dad took the time to watch the movies.

We all know the story of how Wayne broke into movies. He started in the late 1920s in silent films. He was an incredibly handsome young man. The only man more handsome than him (in my opinion) was Joel McCrea. They both oozed charm and sexuality. Wayne worked as a prop man back then and caught John Ford's eye. Raoul Walsh cast him in The Big Trail.

Trail didn't score and Wayne toiled doing a number of 'Singing Sandy" b-westerns. By the late 1930s, John Ford wanted to make a western, his first since his silent days, he had a new location he wanted to try out in Monument Valley (thanks to the Gouldings being very persistent about him looking at their portfolio of location shots) and his son had found a short story, "The Stage to Lordsburg" that caught Ford's fancy.

There's been a great deal written about the zeitgeist of Ford and crew in Monument Valley for the shooting of Stagecoach. But that dolly in on Ringo's face as he stops the Lordsburg stage is still one of the best introductions of a character on film. Wayne's portrayal of Ringo is two-fold. He may be seeking vengeance but he is not a cold-hearted man. He treats Dallas, the saloon girl, the same as he treats Mrs. Mallory, with respect. It was the break-out role Wayne needed at a time when he needed that break.

Wayne became a beloved American icon but still gets short shrift when it comes to the one thing he was very good at, acting. People still say he was playing "John Wayne" but he wasn't. Nor was he just going through the motions. Howard Hawks saw something in Wayne that even Ford had missed. Hawks cast Wayne as Tom Dunson in Red River. Dunson ages over the course of the movie and Wayne put his heart into portraying the older Dunson. The story may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no denying that Wayne is good in the film. Ford saw an early cut of the film (which sat on the shelf for two years) and claimed, "Hell, I didn't the s.o.b. could act." (Which tells us a great deal about the relationship between Wayne and Ford, in light of Wayne's stellar performance in Ford's own They Were Expendable.)

But after seeing Red River, Ford cast Wayne as Nathan Brittles in the second of his cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, giving Wayne the opportunity to play a man in the twilight of his career. Wayne was his in early 40s by the time he etched the character of Brittles and played the Captain as a man in his late 50s. You feel Nathan's aches and stiffness of joints as well as his glance around when he has to use his bi-focals to read the sentiment on his shiny, new watch.

Together, Ford and Wayne would create one of the darkest characters to grace American film, Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. In this film, Wayne pulls no punches as a man on an obsessive journey to find his niece, taken by Indians. Edwards is a racist, having little good to say about anyone but more so, Indians, despite the fact that his adopted nephew and partner on the journey, Marty, is Indian.

Edwards could have been easily become a caricature but Wayne's wonderful acting keeps that from happening.  The look between Ethan and Martha  before he leaves is so subtle it was 20 years before viewers understood that in that scene was the entire backstory of Ethan and Martha and how they loved, and still loved, each other.  

When he returns from the canyon and tries to tell Brad and Marty something of what he saw, he digs at the ground with his knife and yells, "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more." 

In the end, he returns Debbie to the Jorgensen's but as the family, rejoicing in the return of Debbie and Marty, enters the house, Edwards cannot follow. He is too much of an outsider, doomed to wander, like the dead Indian whose eyes he had shot out, between two lands never to be a part of either.

His last film with Ford was the elegiac Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and he etched a character who loses everything while the man who everyone thought had done the shooting gets the glory and the girl.

But as the 1960s roiled on, the directors he liked working with were either dying, retiring or having a hard time getting studios to back them. He worked with Hawks and Henry Hathaway found a studio to back True Grit (Though Hathaway wanted George C. Scott originally). While some see Rooster Cogburn as the ultimate caricature of Wayne's persona, those of us who have studied his career see another finely etched character.

He finished out his career with Mark Rydell and Don Siegel. Rydell directed him in the The Cowboys one of only three films in long filmography where Wayne was killed on screen. Co-star Bruce Dern was talking to Wayne just before the shooting of that scene and told Wayne "Do you know how much they are going to love me in Berkeley?" to which Wayne replied, "You have no idea how much America is going to hate you." They were both right.

He ended his career with The Shootist, another elegiac western about a man who has out-lived the era he loved. Wayne was not in the best of health while making the film and shortly after filming was completed discovered that the "Big C" had returned.

He took the stage in the winter of 1979 at the annual Oscar ceremony and it was apparent that this battle would not be won. He got a rousing standing ovation and was moved to tears by the response.

He was a top box-office draw for almost his entire career after Stagecoach and somewhere along that career he became an American icon and we invested in him those ideals that we needed him to be.

But he loved being an actor and while I could never agree with his politics, I loved him for all those wonderful characters he brought to life. He made it look so easy that many people never realized how finely tuned those characters really were.

But for some of us. We knew, we always have. If there is any doubt, I would suggest renting Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an open mind.

You'll be surprised. I promise.

"Lest We Forget" (Happy Father's Day to my daddy)