Saturday, February 26, 2011

My Favorite Movies: Coming to Grips with John Wayne and John Ford

It seems just yesterday my old college roommate Steve McLellan and I heard the news that John Wayne was dead. It was the week before my wedding, and we'd heard he was quite ill.  When he died, it somehow didn't have quite the same impact that Keith Moon's suicide had on us earlier in the year That was well over thirty years ago, and as all young folks growing up in the late 70's, we just didn't understand what all the fuss was about.  Star Wars was popular and The Rocky Horror Picture Show was all the rage.  John Wayne, pah!

Wayne played the lead in over 130 movies in a 50 year career (1926-1976.)  Let's be clear, the films of John Wayne will never pass for high art, nor do they conform well to our own time of cultural empowerment and political correctness, but the man made some movies I really enjoy, and like them or not I'd like to share a few with you anyway.

If you're not a John Wayne fan or don't know his movies well, there's good John Wayne, there's bad John Wayne and there's godawful John Wayne.  I tend to avoid a lot of the movies he did in the 60's that he produced and directed himself, and definitely stay away from his B-list cowboy movies prior to Stagecoach.  Some are better than others, but most are pretty boring shoot'em ups with the Duke bringing the heat down on some nasty bad guy.  No, my favorites tend to be movies he teamed up to make with John Ford.
John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles in the 1949 movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
John Ford directed over 140 movies between 1917-1966, from silent movies to the large westerns he is perhaps best known for.  In many respects Ford was considered the father of American movies, with his emphasis on narrative, location shooting, and the long shot of the individual character against a striking background.  He won six Best Director, and is credited for his influence by directors as diverse as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Martin Scorcese.  Ford is widely credited for providing John Wayne his breakthrough in the 1939 western Stagecoach in which Wayne starred as the Ringo Kid.
John Ford won four Best Director Oscars and two more for his work as a documentary filmmaker during World War II
They went on to work together in dozens of movies, and two of them are my favorites, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man.  Though Wayne was highly regarded for his portrayal of Ethan Edwards in another Ford movie, The Searchers, and won an academy award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 version of True Grit, my favorite Wayne characters are Captain Nathan Brittles from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the American boxer with a secret, Sean Thornton from The Quiet Man, and the aging gunslinger, J.B. Books, in The Shootist, looking for a quiet place to die.  In the coming days I'll review each of these movies.  In addition, I'll take a look at one of Ford's movies without Wayne, Sergeant Rutledge.

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