John Wayne represents more force, more power, than anybody else on the screen. And I think both [John] Ford and I succeeded in making pretty good scenes with him.
I gave my dead dick for John Wayne.
--Ron Kovic, Born on the Fourth of July
When I look at John Wayne, I don't often see a hero. Or rather, I don't often see just a hero. Like the rest of his thick, six-foot-four-inch body, Wayne's face is impressive and intimidating: the rock-hard jaw, the bulbous nose, the slits for eyes that always seem like they're seeking vengeance. But, as with any durable icon, this man wore a lot of different faces. Two of them can be found on the front and back covers of Garry Wills's recent biography, John Wayne's America: on the front, a handsome kid blessed with halo lighting, linebacker shoulders, and boundless potential; on the back, a mean, eye-patched old bastard at the end of his rope, sporting a thousand-yard cowboy stare and the craggiest features this side of Mount Rushmore.
Naturally, no two directors viewed this Western monument alike; and the two who realized his greatest potential, John Ford and Howard Hawks, never did so predictably. As late as 1959, Hawks responded to Wayne's increasingly harsh pale-rider persona--stemming largely from the director's own dark Red River (1948)--by casting him in Rio Bravo as a friend so loyal and lighthearted that he even kisses another old cowboy on the forehead. Still, Wayne most often played some variant of the unapproachable tough-guy--the man who, by rarely offering his approval, makes us long for it all the more. The kind of stern, silent figure who we try not to be but fear deep down we already are. Basically, not an Everyman so much as an Everyfather.
Oak Street Cinema's month-long, 12-film Wayne retro is provocatively timed for lots of reasons, only a few of them related to Wills's tiresome hagiography. In the 1990s, to consider the Duke at all is to risk being provocative; and to consider him seriously is to know that any attempt to redefine his character would be redundant. After all, Wayne's strongest films were made as revisionist critiques--of macho violence and movie "heroism," of how the West was won and where it got us. In Ford's autumnal masterpiece The Searchers from 1956 (which, along with his Stagecoach, opens the series this weekend), the Wayne character's nephew (Jeffrey Hunter) could be speaking for the viewer when he tells him, "I hope you die!" The icon's response: "That'll be the day." Wayne's maddeningly stubborn Ethan Edwards has spent years searching for his teen-age niece (Natalie Wood), who was abducted by a Comanche chief; his obsession is not to rescue the girl, but to kill her because, by sleeping with the enemy (against her will or otherwise), she's been irreparably spoiled.
Call Ethan one widescreen reminder of fear and guilt for a country that deserved at least one. But of course, the uncomfortable irony is that this extreme racist was the self-described favorite role of an actor who during his lifetime was awarded by both the Marines and the Veterans of Foreign Wars; who helped to found the so-called Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals during the McCarthy era; and whose campaign on behalf of the Vietnam War included his co-direction of the ludicrously jingoistic The Green Berets (1968). Wayne would also unwittingly inspire George Bush and countless other pols to impersonate--however badly--his swaggering method of tough-guy speech. (Maybe any patriarch who wants to act tough acts like John Wayne. Or is it the other way around?) At the same time, Wayne was always a strong enough screen presence to embody whatever the viewer had in mind, which perhaps explains why he looked so bitter and browbeaten in his later years. It's hard work to carry one's own iconography on his back--or, as Joan Didion put it, to have "determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams."
In the beginning, Wayne was pure hero--and as such he was rewarded with what probably remains the most striking introduction any actor has ever had in a movie. In Stagecoach (1939), Ford waits almost 20 minutes before giving us Wayne's Ringo Kid, but the payoff is phenomenal. While the coach full of mismatched Americans barrels through the Monument Valley, the camera sidles up to the Kid with a forward thrust, just as he's twirling his rifle like a toothpick and striking a spread-legged pose, his big hat seeming to dwarf even the rocky landscape behind him. What makes this shot legendary is how its wobbly rush toward the hero momentarily blurs his image, making him a soft-focus object of desire as sexy and mysterious as any femme fatale--combined with the flirtatious way in which Wayne, just as the picture snaps into view, does a little trick with his eyes that's somewhere between a flutter and a pop. A star is born.
Stagecoach is a bona fide classic, but also comparatively quaint in its vision of Wayne as a fresh-faced stud who gallantly befriends a prostitute (Claire Trevor) and then transcends his pain (the murder of his father and brother) through a swift act of courage. When the Ringo Kid says, "There are some things a man just can't run away from," it's not yet a character flaw. But with Hawks's post-war Red River (Aug. 19) through Ford's The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Aug. 25), that dedication becomes obstinacy, the gallantry a form of greed, the courage akin to ruthlessness.
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 of Stagecoach and The Searchers; it continues on Mondays and Tuesdays through Aug. 26.
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