Tuesday, November 6

The 8 Best Films John Wayne Ever Made

How can I mention Jane Fonda in a posting about John Wayne?  Well here's how.  When Fonda started getting some bad press, my mother asked me how I could possibly go see her movies.  I countered with I would stop seeing John Wayne movies if I bought into her philosophy.  I've said before that I simply tune in to the acting; it's generally all I care about.  I always thought both Fonda and Wayne were wonderful actors.  He, in fact, still stands today as one of the greatest movie stars of all time (and she is one of the best actors of all time).  Sorry if any of that makes the hair on the back of your pretty head stand up.  Many of his films were formulaic and little more than fun entertainment pieces but some stood out.  I began thinking about his body of work and have come up with eight films I think are worthy of calling his best work.  We won't all agree.

Before I start copying and pasting those posters, I acknowledge that while I have never been partial to war films (and Wayne made his fare share), I am drawn to westerns and he made plenty.  I love westerns.  Maybe I should put that in caps... I LOVE WESTERNS.  And so help me God, John Wayne really was a most worthy cowboy.  I care not a whit that he lived for many years in Newport Beach and moored his yacht on the other side of his front yard.  He was a gun-slinging, hard-drinking, tall-hatted cowpoke with dirt-laden nostrils, a mean-ass walk and a sassy mouth.  More to the point, he IS the western and it is a genre that is about as American as one can get.  No doubt he loved that.  And I gotta tell you... when it comes to westerns, he made some of the best ever produced. 

Without Wayne,  director Howard Hawks' 1948 Red River would still have been an exemplary western.  The American Film Institute would go on to rank it as the fifth best western ever made.  But with Wayne we got some of the best acting he ever did in one of only a handful of films in which he aged.  His Tom Dunson was a strong, stubborn character that was easy to spot and not so easy to always understand... much of which could be said about Wayne himself.

Another part of what so works about this film is the presence of Montgomery Clift in the first movie he ever made (although another was released first).  Much has been made about a real-life feud or at least general uneasiness between the super handsome, shy, gay young star and the rough-hewn and certifiably straight Wayne but that was not the case at all.  The two got along fine and respected one another.

In the story, however, there was a great feud.  A rich cattle baron and his foster son have a great disagreement over how to get a large herd of cattle along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas.  The son ultimately gets control of the herd, resulting in a bitter battle between the two men.  In the story upon which the film was based, the Wayne character is killed.  It was changed for the movie.

Many would say 1952s The Quiet Man was Wayne's best movie in which he gave one of his most engaging performances.  It was dramatic but also comical and romantic.  It's the only non-western in the bunch here.  Director John Ford would win an Oscar and it remained his favorite film as it illuminated his Irish roots.  The same could be said for many members of the cast because their very Irishness is why they were hired.

Both Wayne and Ford were extremely loyal to a large stable of friends and they would appear over and over in their films.  Maureen O'Hara, Ward Bond and Victor MacLaglen jumped at the chance to return to Ireland to film this beautifully-made motion picture.

The story concerns an American who returns to his Irish roots and falls in love with a feisty lass whose brother complicates their courtship and marriage.  It is rousing, tender, thoughtful and contains one of the greatest comical fight scenes ever filmed.

I was about nine years old when Hondo was released in 1953 so it falls into that childhood fascination which continues to this day and part of which will forever be a mystery to me.  It not only featured Wayne but a kid and a dog...!!!!  And Indians... those movies that featured Indians were my favorite westerns because the often silly conflict got my juices flowing.  This film took a psychological approach, gave a poignant understanding to Indians and it touched me.

In one of the most unusual pairings in Hollywood history is action-oriented Wayne and cerebrally-driven Broadway actress Geraldine Page in her film debut.  Since the characters were also supposed to be completely different types, the actors' differences worked.  She and her son, Lee Aaker (of TVs Rin Tin Tin fame) lived in the middle of nowhere with marauding Indians all about.  The mother says her husband (a creep, effectively played by western bad guy Leo Gordon) is off on business when, in fact, he has been killed by Wayne.

It is all resolved quite happily, of course, a staple of Wayne films and American films in general in those days.  For a kid I think it provided a birds-eye view of such things as loyalty, honesty, trust, compassion.  It provided some tender moments for John Wayne, and if truth be told, this is something that may be part of the mosaic that makes up all of my Wayne best films.

The Searchers (1956) would be considered by some to be Wayne's best work and if that ain't the way we want to go, Pilgrim, then it's often considered the best western EVER.  The American Film Institute (AFI) rates it as such and if that doesn't make you wanna tighten the cinch on your saddle, considered that that august body also considers it number 12 on the list of America's top 100 films regardless of genre.  Pretty heady stuff.  Aided immensely by the magnificently photographed grandeur of Utah's Monument Valley,  a dramatic story (way beyond the usual western shoot-'em-up) and director John Ford's stylish, tight direction, this is a film to behold.

Red River smacks of an undergraduate look at Wayne's skills as a stubborn, embittered man compared to the hardened, insensitive, angry westerner he plays in The Searchers.  His character, Ethan Edwards, find his beloved brother and family killed by the Indians and his 8-year old niece stolen by the Indians.  The remainder of the long film is invested in the plan to get her back.

Two other things make this film so outstanding and they are the full complement of those actors and technicians in the Ford-Wayne family, including Ward Bond (who worked in four of the films just listed here), Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, Olive Carey and John Qualen and features robust performances from Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles and Natalie Wood.  Secondly, there is an undercurrent about racism, genocide and miscegenation, which make this film compelling and not just your basic bows-and-arrows entertainment.

I would not have recognized Rio Bravo at the time of its 1959 release as being among the best of Wayne's work but have since come to change my mind.  It is considered to be the best film director Howard Hawks ever made (and that's saying a mouthful when one considers the above-mentioned Red River, along with classics like Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and To Have and Have Not).  But it's just about the best of the good-guys-v.s.-the-bad-guys plot that you can find, an obvious staple of the western.

It concerns a killing and then revenge and pits the town's law officers against just about everyone else.  The good guys (including Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan) are holed up in the sheriff's office for much of the film where we are treated to some character-building, humor and music, and then out into the town they go, doling out plenty of great western horseplay and skulduggery.

Two closer views give the film a different hue.  One is that Wayne made the film as a Republican response of sorts to what he considered the Democrat shenanigans of the more successful High Noon.  Both considered a man (or men) against a town and bad guys but Wayne took it much further, citing High Noon as an allegory for the blacklisting in Hollywood which was in full bloom at the time.   Secondly,many of Wayne's films became very formulaic after Rio Bravo, all trying to duplicate its great success.  There was a couple of exceptions.  Don't confuse it with two other Wayne movies, Rio Grande and Rio Lobo.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the only Wayne movie that is in my top 50 favorite films.  His pairing with the legendary western star James Stewart was the chief reason for my liking this film, in addition to the fact that it's actually about a legend.  And it was directed by John Ford whom I respected greatly.

It also costarred another favorite, Vera Miles, in addition to Lee Marvin, Edmond O'Brien, Woody Strode and a host of those common Wayne-Ford company players.  It is also a completely wonderful story, far more engaging than the usual western.

Personally, I think it's hard to not include John Wayne's Oscar winning character as part of his eight best films but I have to bypass the first film in which he played it (True Grit) and go instead to its sequel, Rooster Cogburn.  Maybe and I mean maybe the former is the better of the two films, but not to me.  Why?  Because of the pairing of Wayne with another Hollywood giant, in this case, Katharine Hepburn. 

The story is not only run-of-the-mill but it seemed like it could have been called Rooster Cogburn on The African Queen.  The two films are not that dissimilar.  Hepburn is even a missionary again.  She teams up with the crusty one-eyed sheriff and a teenage boy on a raft while playing cat and mouse games with the bad guys.

The result is just so charming.  Other than both actors being mouthy types, I don't think they had a lot in common.  They were as different as actors could possibly be in style and their politics were like oil and water.  While they reportedly gave the director a devil of a time, they respected and greatly admired one another and found great humor together.  I think it all shows on the screen, too.

The Shootist (1976) is John Wayne's final film.  The character, gunfighter J.B. Books, is dying of cancer.  Considering Wayne died three years later from a highly-publicized cancer, it makes The Shootist all the more poignant.  Folklore, attached to this film all these many years later, has it that Wayne was dying of cancer at the same time as J. B. Books was dying of cancer.  Well, it serves the folklore well, but it is not true. 

Nonetheless, The Shootist is a damned fine final tribute to a giant of a western star.  I would tear up if I watched it today.  Books wanted to die with grace and dignity and Wayne wanted to do the same. In the film, gunslingers with grudges descend upon the town to get a piece of the old man now that he's failing.  In real life we devoted fans hung on to every word as our big hero fell down.

Oddly those referred to as Wayne's family of actors were not in this film. He did personally ask for five former costars to come along for the last ride... Lauren Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Henry Morgan and John Carradine.  Hugh O'Brian and Sheree North joined up as did Ron Howard in one of his final big-screen acting roles before turning to directing.

So there you go.  My picks.  I'd love to hear which of these you may agree with and which other films you found to be his best work.

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Film #22

No comments:

Post a Comment