An Actor’s Achievements
A New Way to Think About John Wayne
I watched John Wayne movies with my grandfather as a child. In 2021 it’s obvious his persona was pretty oppressive and filled with racist tendencies. Yet there is something so charming and admirable about Duty, Honor, and taking care of those who can’t take care of themselves. (as opposed to pseudo genocide of indigenous people but just ignore that for a minute) He was the first true action hero. However, the roles he is best known for are not like today’s heros. In a lot of ways, his best work was just as fucked up then as it is now.
When Tony Snark outwits the Muslim (maybe the John Wayne era wasn’t that different) bad guy and with random tubes, builds a fusion reactor and flying suit in a tent, he’s the modern hero. He just outwitting terrorists.
When John Rambo said to Col. Troutman in FIRST BLOOD “Do we get to win this time”, I always thought the writer wanted to illustrate how totally nuts the war made Rambo, but America saw it as “patriotic”. So RAMBO 2 was him killing a bunch of Russians. Of course, he beat the hell out of a bunch of cops in the first one. Maybe RAMBO FIRST BLOOD was originally called, RAMBO, THE RISE OF ANTIFA.
I sorta doubt it.
I’m also not talking about the Lone Ranger type hero (although, two openly gay men in an interracial relationship in that period was pretty gutsy) who ran around on a white horse, pristine clothes, wearing a black leather mask, he was more flamboyant than heroic. People in those days only showered 4 months a year because the river was too cold the other 8. Obviously nothing wrong with being LGBTQ, but if you didn’t notice one of the Village People wore a Lone Ranger outfit and another was in a Tonto get up, you aren’t paying attention.
Even in Arnold’s crowning achievement he only had 2 lines. “Your clothes, give them to me.” and “Sara Connor”. Now that is manufacturing a star.
And you may think John Wayne was the same old 1-dimensional character you have seen impressions of, you would be wrong. He played (and people loved) a very flawed, complex hero. And I have three examples over a long career of the depth he and the films had. Depth you don’t expect if you took the time to watch his films and you would never find today. Especially from a studio.
Tomas Denison (Wayne) takes in a boy orphaned after his family is ambushed when moving west. Over the next 15 years or so Wayne grows a couple cows into a massive herd with his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Cliff) by his side. Until beef prices drop and they have to move the entire herd north.
Apparently, cattle drives sucked. As people start to get edgy and realize the trip is too much but there are rumors the train has made it to a closer spot. However, as they didn’t have a way to communicate and ask, changing the direction of a few 1000 cows because of a rumor is a hard call to make.
But as the group wares down and the Cowhands are more and more exhausted Wayne becomes the old west version of Ahab (Moby Dick, don’t lie, you never read the original version, Melville is near impossible to get through) but instead of a White Whale, he has enough livestock to feed a state. As tensions reach a boiling point, the cattle stampede. One guy gets blamed and Wayne decides to hang him.
Yes, hang one of his hired cowboys for accidentally starting a stampede. (worst HR department ever) Finally, Matt (his son) stops him and exiles him back to the ranch. At gun point. But, everyone knows that isn’t the end of him.
Garth risks it and drives the cattle to the new location.
The train is there. But so is Wayne. And he’s pissed. (No spoiler)
Wayne goes from a gruff frontiersman who raised an orphan to a maniacal psycho who is about to hang a couple of his own men. When was the last time you saw Jason Statham end up as the bad guy when he was the hero for 70% of the film?
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE
The entire film is a very old Jimmy Stewart returning home to attend the funeral of old friend (Wayne). He’s a Senator and local legend who narrates the story to a reporter.
Many years earlier Stewart came home from law school and was robbed by a local evildoer, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As things transpire Stewart falls in love with a woman. But his buddy Wayne (who is badass, not the hero, nor the villain but he is kinda a rough guy)
Stewart agrees to handle Valance who he has no business messing with. It’s painfully obvious Valance is going kill him. But somehow with his eyes shut he get the best of Valance, gets the girl and is a local legend.
The thing is, he didn’t do it. Wayne saved his ass. The reason he did it. The girl Wayne loved, loved Stewart and he didn’t want her to be broken hearted. He didn't even want credit.
And Stewart wants to give him his due in the interview, now in his 80’s. But the writer says, “No sense in spoiling a good legend with the truth”. (Spoiler)
A teen aged girl tracks down a notorious old west figure Rooster Cockburn to help her find and murder the man who killed her father.
She isn't ready for the wild west and the aging ROOSTER is long past his prime. In fact, multiple times the one-eyed cowboy is so drunk he falls off his horse.
75% of the movie he’s a mess. As broken as the character was, yet he became so wildly popular they did a sequel entitled ROOSTER COCKBURN. (No Spoiler)
Wayne was all the bad things people perceive him to be and I’m not doing the “it was a different era” thing cuz….own your shit, but its easier to look at something 360 if you know the flawed person acknowledges and accepts his/her flaws. Maybe not all of the flaws, but Wayne knew who he was, that’s why he was so successful playing it.