In John Wayne's best-loved non-Western, John Ford's 1952 The Quiet Man, he plays a boxer afraid of his own strength because he once killed a man in the ring. He does one of the slowest burns in film history, expressing the splutter with a hitch in his rolling walk and the way he dispatches a butt like a spear to the ground as if to say he finally means business. And his reluctance to be violent makes him likable, even noble.
Look beneath the weathered surface and raucous high jinks of Wayne's trademark Westerns, and even the tortured complexities of Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) and Ford's The Searchers (1956), and you'll see that valiant manliness at the core. It's what made Wayne an enduring luminary even when his politics and tactics seemed to rival Slim Pickens' riding the A-bomb to Armageddon in Dr. Strangelove.
Wayne fans, and those who doubt they ever could be his fans, can reassess his talent in the prime slate of classics unspooling at the AFI Silver as well as in a flood of DVDs being released before his May 26 centennial.
These films reveal that "The Duke" had the true star's instinct of delivering what his followers wanted before they even knew they wanted it.
For example, in the smash romantic comedy Without Reservations (1946), new to DVD on Tuesday, Wayne co-stars with It Happened One Night's Claudette Colbert. But Wayne is the one who carries the comedy, especially when espousing values that aren't 19th century - they're 17th century.
He sums up his stance in a remarkable speech that memorializes the pioneers:
"Do you think these pioneers filled out form number X6277 and sent in a report saying the Indians were a little unreasonable? Did they have insurance for their old age, for their crops, for their homes? They did not! They looked at the land, and the forest, and the rivers. They looked at their wives, their kids and their houses, and then they looked up at the sky and they said thanks, God, we'll take it from here."
Whether you find that statement inspiring, appalling or both, there was no question Wayne believed in it. It took him 10 years to develop his role in Hollywood movies as the personification of rugged individualism. He sustained it for 3 1/2 decades.
More than any of his peers, he retained a rabid fan base and an image forceful enough to bring Old Western style into modern settings and make viewers of all political stripes enjoy the incongruity. His unpretentious flamboyance evoked nostalgia for wide open spaces even in urban boys and girls.
Wayne had been acting for 10 years as an extraordinarily eager kid, just making friends with the camera, when Ford cast him in 1939's Stagecoach as the Ringo Kid and brought out all his rough-edged amiability. The Kid is handy with a gun and cagey around the law. He has a steady intelligence. Yet he's so unworldly that he's surprised when the other stagecoachers shun a whore. When he stares with love at the touching Claire Trevor, he looks ready to melt. Wayne is never more of a man's man in Stagecoach than when he's most like a boy.
It took Hawks to toughen Wayne's image into the grizzled patriarch who could make taciturnity seem belligerent. His most famous role for Hawks was as the Captain Bligh of the cattle drive in Red River (1948). When Ford saw what Hawks could do with Wayne, he gave him even meatier parts, especially in Rio Grande (1950). Co-star Maureen O'Hara, embodied just the kind of woman the Wayne hero would set his cap for: fiery, beautiful, independent, not standing for any guff. Few evocations of tormented love equal the scene when the regimental chorus serenades Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke (Wayne) and his estranged wife, Kathleen (O'Hara). As the couple listens to "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," longing and sadness, sweetness and hurt play through their faces.
My favorite Hawks-Wayne collaboration is that giddy oater, Rio Bravo (1959). Wayne was so confident, so self-sufficient without seeming self-satisfied, that Hawks played the rest of the cast against him for laughs. Wayne could fall down a flight of stairs and knock himself out and risk his neck on the reliability of a wheezing drunk (Dean Martin) and an old geezer (Walter Brennan) without ever losing his dignity. It had become a trick of nature that nothing could unhinge John Wayne.
Movie buffs may remember these specific performances. Most Americans will think of Wayne in random images rolling from the expanse of his prairie-like career. Some may miss the big-cat walk he's said to have modeled on Ford's. Others may miss his dry voice and even delivery, which sometimes went on rambling even after his brain raced ahead.
He could be pompous in propaganda films like Big Jim McLain (1952) and The Green Berets (1968). But one year after The Green Berets, he showed in True Grit that he didn't have to take himself too seriously. His Rooster Cogburn was an intentional cartoon reactionary, an unwashed, law-and-order autocrat of the drinking table, ordering a rat to stop chomping a friend's dinner and shooting it when it refused.
Wayne never lost the eagerness that was his first discernible trait. In his last film, The Shootist, he used it to weld together everything he knew. The film was set up, distastefully, as a premature obituary, with Wayne playing a gunslinger who knew he was dying of cancer. But Wayne knew exactly what he was doing - he was playing an outsized character, a myth, himself. And he lived up to it. Wayne didn't truckle to our sentiments.
It was inevitable that Wayne should end his career with a Western. Wayne helped invest the form with his own brawling good nature - and in films like Red River and The Searchers, wrestled with its dark side. He created a cowboy legacy that every other Western star or filmmaker would have to grapple with. Even today, you can hear them lining up and saying, "Thanks, Duke - we'll take it from here."
Celebrating John Wayne
The AFI Silver celebrates the John Wayne centennial through July 4 at 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. www.afi.com/silver or 301-495-6720.
Paramount Home Entertainment and Warner Home Video will be releasing 48 Wayne films Tuesday on DVD.
Republic released eight favorites in two sets May 8.
[ Michael Sragow]