Interestingly, from the late-'40s on, the aggressive ideology of Wayne's aging cowboys is often filtered through the eyes of a younger and more liberal-minded character--a narrative design that's perfectly suited to period films about our country's founding fathers (or, for that matter, a new generation's discovery of this patriarchal icon in the '90s). In the WWII melodrama Sands of Iwo Jima (Aug. 18), a young Marine (John Agar) exercises his constitutional right to despise his hard-headed sergeant (Wayne), albeit temporarily; while Red River's disapproving surrogate son (Montgomery Clift) deconstructs the Wayne character's habit of killing any cowhand who disobeys and then reading from the Bible over the dead man's grave--a concise metaphor for self-righteous colonization.
What's especially valuable about the Oak Street series is that nearly all of its dozen films are reminders that genre revisionism didn't start with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Indeed, Liberty Valance comes with its own built-in critic, a newspaper reporter (Joseph Hoover) who grapples with the distinction between legend and fact; and Wayne's final movie, the blatantly self-reflexive The Shootist (Aug. 26), plays like the star's own deathbed confession, even starting with ultraviolent clips from his past work. Eastwood aside, are there any current icons who honestly reflect American machismo? Kevin Costner? Harrison Ford? Brad Pitt? Are these people even actors? True, Wayne represents a dark and dangerous era in which stars dared to play realistic "heroes" at risk to themselves and the world at large, but that's not the whole story. At his most unapologetically virile, John Wayne shows us what we were, what we might still be, and what we could be again if we're not careful. The rest is up to us.
"John Wayne: The American Adam" starts Friday through Sunday at Oak Street Cinema with a double-bill ofStagecoach andThe Searchers; it continues on Mondays and Tuesdays through Aug. 26.