Remembering the big screen’s straighest shooter
by Joe Leydon
A man can die, but his movies will always remain in the present tense. That is why, in the case of John Wayne-whose centennial we celebrate on May 26, nearly 28 years after his demise-you can point to the precise moment when the man became an icon.
The movie is Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 masterwork, arguably the first significant Western of the talking pictures era and definitely the best star-making opportunity in the early career of the B-movie stalwart born as Marion Morrison. (Nine years earlier, The Man Who Would Be Duke had grabbed at the brass ring as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, but the clunky faux epic turned out to be a career-stalling flop.) The moment occurs several minutes into the drama, as The Ringo Kid-a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers-makes his first appearance to passengers aboard the eponymous conveyance.
Let’s not mince words: In Stagecoach, John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history. As he spins a rifle like a sixgun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. That the image briefly goes out of focus only serves to enhance the impact-you get the feeling that even the cinematographer is awed by the sight of such studly formidability. The die is cast; the legend is born.
But it doesn’t end there. Ringo quickly establishes himself as a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with a sheriff who feels obligated, albeit reluctantly, to arrest the outlaw. He’s a perfect gentleman when dealing with the imperfect heroine (Claire Trevor), a golden-haired, golden-hearted prostitute who brightens incandescently whenever the naive escaped con refers to her as a “lady.” (When snooty fellow passengers avoid her at dinner, Ringo simply assumes they’re insulting him, not her, and drawls: “Well, I guess you can’t break out of prison and into society in the same week.”) But make no mistake: Ringo leaves no room for doubt that, once the arduous stagecoach journey concludes, he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.
Such is the indelible image of the youthful John Wayne, the virile yet sensitive hero who-long before his speech patterns and body language ossified into self-parody-could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any Western star who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres. Expanding upon the archetype established by such silent movie masters as Tom Mix and William S. Hart, Wayne in Stagecoach conveys the very essence of the square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s quite willing to hang up his shootin’ irons, and even agreeable to mending his ways and moving to a small farm someplace with a good woman by his side… but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones. (Why? Because, as Ringo tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”)
The part fit Wayne so well that, long after he evolved into a gray eminence, he continued to recycle various and sundry aspects of the performance that first established his stardom. After all, that is what being a star is all about: Giving your audience what they want, what they expect and, perhaps, what they need.
Which is not to say that Wayne never transcended that typecasting. Consider his unaffectedly affecting turn as an aging U.S. Cavalry officer in Ford’s ineffably autumnal She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. (French auteur Bertrand Tavernier has acknowledged the influence of Ford’s film-and Wayne’s performance-on his own Life and Nothing But.) Or his robust balance of swagger and sagacity, gruff compassion and implacable professionalism, in
Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, one of the most influential and enjoyable Westerns ever made. (Quentin Tarantino famously declared: “When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her Rio Bravo. And she better fucking like it.”) Just in case you still doubt the underappreciated breadth and depth of his talent, I direct you to watch Wayne in another John Ford classic, one made just 17 years after Stagecoach: The Searchers.
Wayne gives one of his finest and most complex performances here as Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to Texas in 1868 after a string of post-Civil War misadventures. (His favorite response to idle threats-“That’ll be the day!”-inspired the signature song of ’50s pop star Buddy Holly.) At first, Ethan is greeted with open arms by his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who lives with his family-wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), son Ben (Robert Lyden), daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood)-on a remote homestead in an area where Indian raids are common. Gradually, however, long-simmering tensions between the two brothers bubble to the surface. More important, it becomes increasingly clear to the audience, if not to Aaron, that Martha secretly loves her errant brother-in-law.
Ethan’s own feelings are indirectly revealed when, after he returns from a hunt for stolen cattle, he finds Aaron, Martha and Ben have been massacred-and Lucy and Debbie abducted-by marauding Comanches. Fearing a fate worse than death for his nieces, Ethan gives chase, accompanied by Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), a “half-breed” orphan raised to adulthood by Aaron, and Brad (Harry Carey Jr.), Lucy’s boyfriend. Early on, Lucy is found slain, and Brad dies while trying to avenge her. But Ethan and Marty survive to continue their quest for several years-for very different reasons.
In most other Westerns, Ethan’s obsession would be presented uncritically as a noble endeavor. But in The Searchers, Ford infuses his story with a troubling moral ambiguity by repeatedly emphasizing that Ethan is a fanatical racist who rarely hides his contempt for Marty, and who will likely kill Debbie (played as a teenager by Lana’s big sister, Natalie Wood) if he discovers she has been living as wife of a “savage” Native American chief. Rather than soft-pedal Nathan’s borderline psychosis, Wayne fearlessly and ferociously elevates the undercurrent to flood tide. Which is why Marty continues along for the ride: The younger man knows that, if they ever do find Debbie, he may have to kill Ethan to save her.
There is a kinda-sorta happy ending: Ethan rescues Debbie, in a scene easily capable of profoundly moving even those who hated Wayne’s infamously hard-right politics. (As Jean-Luc Godard admitted: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding [Republican Presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”) Indeed, throughout the entire film, Wayne gives a performance that is profoundly eloquent as both a concise summation and a skeptical critique of his entire career in Westerns. (Clint Eastwood would offer a similarly self-reflective portrayal decades later in Unforgiven.) But he is never more affecting than in the closing moments, as Ethan is viewed through a doorway, standing outside, alone and far away, not quite able to move. Inside the house, Debbie is warmly welcomed back into civilization. The door closes. For Ethan, it will never open again. mm
Joe Leydon is a film critic for Variety and communications director for Cowboys & Indians magazine. He is the author of Joe Leydon’s Guide to Essential Movies You Must See.