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Double Feature: John Wayne vs. John Wayne

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There should be a word that describes how hard it is to appreciate movie that you didn’t get to view in its original context.  Born in the 1970’s I didn’t get to grow up guffawing at Bob Hope films or be intrigued by the explosion of European cinema in the 1960s.  I can’t even really recall the transition to the summer blockbuster machine brought forth by Jaws and Star Wars.  Often, if you’re like me, you end up with a second-hand knowledge about movies that feels like experience but isn’t really.  How many people of my age have sat through all of supposedly great movies like Gone With the Wind or Citizen Kane, or have they only seen a few clips and been told how great they are.

This poses one of the difficulties for a person working backwards through cinema, as I discovered five years ago working at the media counter at Indiana University.  I served up most of the films being shown in film studies courses, so I knew what professors through was important.  On the other hand, I couldn’t tell you why it was important.  The loss of context for cinema is what makes people avoid “old” movies.  It’s a shame, since there are plenty of old movies on DVD or Blu-ray that are amazingly entertaining, if not better than the run-of-the-mill cineplex fodder you could be wasting your money on.

Double feature is a series on Digital Monkey Shines where I’ll try to tackle the “where do I start?” and “why is it important?” questions about classic movies.  I’ll attempt to put two films together that share a theme, style, time, or a creative space.  These pairings should help us establish some context and, perhaps, put ourselves into the shoes of the original movie viewer who first saw these films when they were released.  Where possible, I’ll add in some extra recommended viewing.

So let’s get it started.  John Wayne and John Ford–you’re being called to the Double Feature.

John Wayne belongs to another generation–twice removed, if you’re my age.  Ask yourself what a John Wayne film should be.  Sure, they were westerns.  More specifically, they were modernist adventure romances filmed in technicolor in Monument Valley.  You knew who the good guys were (white) and who the bad guys were (often Indians).  The question of whether the violence was right was already sorted out.

If we had to pick a great example of the standard western made by John Wayne and John Ford, then the first film in this double feature, 1939’s Stagecoach, is the obvious choice.  In Stagecoach, we’re treated to seeing the start of something large, and we’re lucky enough to see it working well at the beginning.  It was the first collaboration of the two Johns.  Wayne wasn’t even well-enough known to get top billing, which went to Claire Trevor.  All that’s missing is the Technicolor.   The film collected a decent number of Academy Award nominations, winning a pair in minor categories.

Stagecoach still has value as escapist entertainment.  In many ways, it’s the western too unapologetic to be made today.  It deals with the simple story of the passengers of a stagecoach trying to travel through lands where Geronimo is raiding.  Seeing Wayne looking hale and fresh unlike the more grizzled appearance he adopted later in his career, you can almost imagine wondering where this actor best known at the time for B westerns had been.  It’s also surprising as an ensemble film, not dominated by Wayne’s heroics but built around a solid cast of actors.

For my purposes, Stagecoach is part of the double feature to inform us before viewing of the second film of the double feature, 1956’s The Searchers.

After nearly two decades of collaborations with Wayne most of which were of Westerns, it’s nice to think that John Ford realized that the Hollywood Western lacked introspection.  As with many of the native American genres of film, it had a structure that one didn’t mess with without having a good reason.

The Searchers may look superficially like a western, but there is much more going on beneath the surface, in which the titular searchers look for the girl stolen by a band of marauding Indians.  At the center of the story is John Wayne’s masterfully portrayed Ethan Edwards, uncle to the lost girl and a one-time confederate army member who may not have exactly have laid down his arms after the surrender of the south.  Through tense exchanges with Jeffrey Hunter’s character, Marty, and early situations, we learn how racist Ethan Edwards is.  As the search continues and a traditional rescue becomes inconceivable, one begins to wonder what Edwards’ motivations are.  Years later, the search ends, and it’s amazing that you don’t know what to expect, as it seems equally likely that he will kill his besmirched niece, or take her home to live the rest of her life in normalcy.

Of the double feature films, I watched The Searchers first, and I had trouble spotting the important issues of character.  It wasn’t until I’d tried earlier John Wayne and John Ford films that I realized how they were expanding and re-evaluating earlier works in The Searchers.  The Searchers hints at a  post-modern view of America’s expansion west, finding time to show the cruelty showed the Native Americans and the dark hearts of people put into a position to take advantage of them.  In questioning the moral imperative of the modernist westerns, like Stagecoach, the Johns breathed life into a movement defines a new sub-genre of western (see other recommendations below).

Stagecoach is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, although the out-of-print keep-case DVD is perfectly fine viewing.  The Searchers is best watched on a very reasonably-priced Blu-ray, thanks to the wonderful presentation of Technicolor’s deep saturation.

Other recommendations

Even though I find it very uneven, Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks), is a nice late-career Wayne western that is really about being under siege.  Just be prepared to put up with Ricky Nelson’s general lack of talent and Wayne’s almost phoned-in performance.  Dean Martin almost offsets Nelson and Walter Brennan’s out-sized clowning keep things working.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is Ford and Wayne collaboration more in line with Stagecoach in terms of its outlook, and was also filmed in Monument Valley.

The Anti- or Postmodernist-Western may have hit a high point with Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of Western genre mythology in Unforgiven.  Arthur Penn, coming to mind as he recently passed away, used the Western to address America’s role in Vietnam in Little Big Man.

For an off-kilter recommendation for Claire Trevor, I like to point out 1950’s Borderline, a crime comedy co-starring Fred MacMurray and available cheaply from Alpha video.  The print could be better, but it’s a nice entertainment.

Written by Bill

October 12, 2010 at 3:47 am