(On TV, November 2019) I’m cooler than other reviewers on John Ford Westerns and John Wayne as a lead, so I wasn’t expecting much of Rio Grande … and those low expectations worked in the film’s favour. As it starts, we meet a typical Wayne protagonist (actually, the same one as in Fort Apache): a commanding officer in a faraway posting, competent and living as unremarkable a life as possible in those circumstances. But then two new characters walk in: First, his long-estranged son joins the post as a recruit sent from the East, leading to a reunion that is less emotional and more along the lines of no favouritism being tolerated. Then, to complicate everything in between the enemy attacks and peacekeeping role, his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara, about a third less spectacular without the red hair in a black-and-white film) also walks in, demanding that her son be bought from military service. (And, um, also discuss how her plantation was burnt down by her husband’s men.) Those familial complications do bring a lot to Rio Grande, and offer a slightly more unusual aspect to this western that the typical frontier genocide material. Because, of course, the hordes of Native Americans are out to kill everyone in this film—your average mid-century western was still horribly racist and Rio Grande doesn’t really deviate from that orthodoxy. It certainly works better if you can ignore that aspect, but I’ll completely understand if you can’t, especially as the film’s later heroics all focus on killing as many undistinguished nonwhites as possible. This fairly important caveat does explain why Rio Grande is far more interesting today when it deals with tensions between a family and the military life. To be clear, it’s a slickly made Western by the standards of the time, but it’s not groundbreaking, nor does it offer anything spectacular from either Wayne, O’Hara or director John Ford. At times, especially when coupled with Ford’s two other “Cavalry” films—Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—it often feels like another episode in a longer-running series. But it’s more interesting than I thought, and any movie that manages to overcome my overall dislike of John Wayne has to be complimented for it.
(On Cable TV, June 2019) I was fully prepared to, well, maybe not dislike She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but at least not quite care for it. The topline description of the movie had nearly everything I don’t care about in a western: John Wayne, frontier fetishism, natives portrayed as bloodthirsty savages… But She Wore a Yellow Ribbon eventually gets better. For one thing, it’s in glorious Technicolor, with director John Ford showcasing Monument Valley at its best. For another, John Wayne isn’t playing the obnoxious creepy uncle characters he so often does, but a grizzled veteran about to retire and trying his best not to cause a war with the natives. (The similarities with Fort Apache are there—same director, star and setting, after all.) The film adds in a little bit of more evenly gendered content with a female character tagging along the expedition, and after a few bloody confrontations throughout the film, the climax actually avoids wide-scale bloodshed through clever tricks. I still don’t quite like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but I can respect it, and was frequently amazed at the truly exceptional cinematography featured throughout the film.
(On Cable TV, March 2019) To modern viewers, classic Hollywood is as wild a territory as the wild west was to Eastern-Americans. Everything is harsher, our intuitions fail us and only the most traditional of Anglo-Saxon white males find themselves in friendly territory. But there are occasionally a few havens of civilization, even as tentative and rudimentary as they were. So it is that film historians are generally complimentary toward classic traditional western Fort Apache as marking a turning point in Hollywood’s depiction of Native Americans, portraying them as capable, intelligence opponents motivated by real grievances and possessing distinct tribal identities. It’s not a portrayal that sustains much scrutiny today—clichéd, naïve, offensive … but still a step in the right direction compared to previous portrayals as of gratuitously murderous hordes. It also prefigures later nuanced portraits from director John Ford himself, such as The Searchers. As for Fort Apache itself, often considered the first of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy,” it features John Wayne and Henry Fonda butting heads as commanding officers of a small fort, with Wayne playing the reasonable one and Fonda playing the rigid autocratic one. Both of them do well, but Fonda is perhaps more remarkable for an unusual role as an unsympathetic character. There’s some great Monument Valley footage here, especially when the battle sequence starts. Fort Apache reasonably entertaining to watch, although definitely too long in its first hour as the film seems to be flaying about for a story to tell.
(In French, On Cable TV, February 2019) There are a number of very entertaining stories about the making of Hatari! and the most believable of them is that the script was practically written during shooting, given that so much of the movie depended on the unpredictable actions of wild animals. It certainly shows in the herky-jerky nature of the film, in which wild animal catchers in deep Africa alternate game-hunting sessions with quieter drama back at the camp. In a way, the haphazard plot doesn’t really matter: we’re left in an unusual environment, with a director focused on entertainment and big-name stars seemingly having fun. Considering that Hatari! is directed by then-veteran Howard Hawks and stars none other than John Wayne, it’s no surprise if it harkens to the 1940s with its square-jawed male roles and subservient female roles. Making heroes out of big-game catchers working to supply zoos with wild animals ensures that both their methods and goals are reprehensible by modern standards. Then there’s John Wayne in his usual borderline-repellent persona—it’s astonishing to see the movie present him as a romantic lead to an actress nearly thirty years his junior. As a result, I can’t say that I like Hatari! as much as most of the other movies in Hawks’ filmography—but even I have to admit that the hunting footage is nothing short of spectacular, and that the film does an intriguing job in creating a plot to go around the actions of the animals. Elsa Martinelli is captivating in the lead female role, but the best reason to watch the film is to see a well-oiled Hollywood production run against the vagaries (and dangers) of filming alongside wild animals and then figure out how to deal with that captured footage. Amusingly enough, this is the movie for which Henry Mancini’s famous “Baby Elephant Walk” was written.
(On Cable TV, February 2019) As the story goes, Rio Bravo was director Howard Hawks and star John Wayne’s response to High Noon’s deconstruction of western heroism. Unable to tolerate even the slightest amount of criticism (you should read Wayne’s hyperbolic commentary), they teamed up like fearful clucking hens to reconstruct the Western archetype. (They clearly had no idea of what was in store in later years.) Despite my lack of sympathy for their intentions, even I have to admit that Rio Bravo is rather well done in the end. It’s a straight-up formula with a sadistic macho streak of bloodthirstiness as confused with American values (and I’m being charitable in drawing a distinction between the two), but Howard handles it with his usual energy, and Wayne delivers exactly what his creepy robotic persona was designed to do. Rather than look in vain for help from an apathetic population as in High Noon, here we have a sheriff with an overabundance of help as they wait for the enemy attack on their small western town. (Wayne being Wayne, it goes without saying that his character is proven right at every turn of the story.) The overindulgence of the film’s intentions most clearly shows in the film’s inflated run-time at two hours and twenty minutes—there’s no good reason for the film to run this long, but it does. (It doesn’t help that, with two of his actors being also singers, the film pauses for songs. Yes, really.) Fortunately for everyone, most of the film’s interminable lengths come early in the film, leaving the concluding act far better and involving than the rest of the film once the laborious scene-setting ends and we go to the main event promised all along. “Go out of a high note” is the usual tip for filmmakers, and Hawks was too much of a veteran by that point in his career to do otherwise. Despite an overstuffed script, Rio Bravo eventually pulls off a success … but don’t stop watching after the first hour or you’ll never get there.
(On TV, November 2018) Behold! The only pro-Vietnam war movie ever made! Well, maybe not (although search for “only pro-Vietnam war movie” and see what comes up), but The Green Berets has the rather dubious distinction of being the only major Vietnam film made during the 1960s to take an unabashed stance that the US should go there, and kill as many communists as possible in order to secure a future for the (South) Vietnamese children. No, really, the last scene of the film says exactly that and it takes place on a sunset beach with John Wayne holding a Vietnamese kid’s hand. Anyone who somehow harboured any doubts about Wayne’s political orientations will be set straight after watching this film, which he “directed” and starred in. Wayne, then 58, plays a Colonel who takes it upon himself to show to a cynical left-leaning reporter the true meaning of the US effort in Vietnam. It’s a very special episode of “Let’s justify American imperialism,” and the caricature of the opposing viewpoint is so acute that the propagandistic nature of the film quickly comes into focus. The Green Berets is at its worst when it talks down to its audience in its daddy-knows-best tone, and at its best when it lets go of the brainwashing in order to focus on the war sequences—there’s an attack on a Special Forces camp two-thirds of the way through that’s well-executed. Alas, and this speaks a lot about the film’s lack of dramatic impact beyond its simplistic pro-war message, this climactic sequence happens at least half an hour before the film’s ending, which concludes with a rather lame third-act mission. It’s not the only element of The Green Berets that justifiably earns critical scorn, as the film is crammed with war-movie clichés made even worse by its espoused cause. The only thing I really liked without reservations about the film is George Takei (and his unmistakable voice) showing up for a few minutes in middle of the film. Otherwise: nothing good. It’s amazing, historically speaking, that The Green Berets was released (to some commercial success!) in 1968, as the war was souring on a weekly basis and no one could be fooled by what it purported to show. It does qualify as essential viewing for those interested in the history of American war movies, mostly as a counter-example of just about everything else being made at the time. If nothing else, you can make an argument that it influenced, even though contrarian revulsion, the next crop of Vietnam movies.
(On Blu Ray, September 2018) I often complain about excessively long movies, but even at nearly three hours, I found The Longest Day riveting throughout. A meticulously detailed overview of the Allied landing in Normandy during World War II, this film takes a maximalist approach to the event: It features dozens of speaking roles in three languages, as it tries to explain what happened from the American, British, French and German perspective. Character development gets short thrift, but that doesn’t matter as much as you’d think if you consider the event as world-sweeping history featuring four nations. An all-star ensemble cast helps propel the story forward with some sympathy, as the personas of John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery (in a very funny pre-Bond role), Sal Mineo and may others guide us through the war. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and hits anthology levels with a sweeping minutes-long uninterrupted shot of urban warfare. (There’s also a great camera movement early in the film that shows the beach landing and many of the 23,000 soldiers used during filming.) While Saving Private Ryan has eclipsed The Longest Day as the definitive portrayal of D-Day, this 1962 production remains important as a historical document in itself: Many cast and crew had been in Normandy twenty years later, to the point where some actors were portraying people close to them when it happened. (Richard Todd was offered his own role and ended up taking that of his then-superior officer, and ends up speaking “to himself” during the movie.) Visually, the movie remains spectacular even fifty-five years later, and it gets better the more early-1960s stars you can spot. (This also works for historical figures—Omar Bradley is instantly recognizable in a one-shot role.) It’s an exceptional tribute to the events of June 6, 1944, a thrilling adventure story and its relatively bloodless nature doesn’t undercut its portrayal of war as being hell where anyone can die at any time. It’s quite a rewarding film, and it’s even better when you can understand more than one of the three spoken languages.
(On TV, July 2018) It’s absolutely normal to see Stagecoach and feel as if we’ve seen all of this before: While there were a lot of westerns in Hollywood history before Stagecoach, this John Ford film may have been one of the first notable examples of using the Western as a vehicle for drama and social commentary, helmed by a big-name director and starring well-known actors. As a result, Stagecoach ended up being the first of many: First true John Wayne starring role. First Western that earned sustained critical attention. First Western still worth viewing today, if only to establish the classical western formula before the deconstructionists took over. It has the problem of its qualities: being a straight-up well-executed western, it’s unbelievably racist toward Native Americans depicted as savage hordes. Its portrayal of gender roles is, well, what it was. The cavalry comes to the rescue unironically. On the other hand, the device of uniting different characters for a journey in a tightly enclosed space is a classic (allowing for dramatic friction and commentary outside the scope of a typical western) that has withstood the test of time rather well. Wayne isn’t too annoying as the designated hero of the film and it’s easy to see how his persona would become immensely popular as wider audiences were exposed to him through this film. Stagecoach is a classic western and as such today exemplifies them at their conventional rather than transcend the genre like so many other later westerns would do. It’s worth a look, if only as a yardstick against which more subversive westerns would be compared to.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Yee-haw, little doggies! No, wait, what’s the appropriate expression for a cattle drive? Get it ready because Red River is a western focusing on a very long trip from Texas to Kansas, driving cattle to the market. Beyond the various obstacles along the way, we have a rivalry between an older man (John Wayne) and a younger man. The dramatic tension is obvious and developed in a straightforward fashion, but Red River remains a memorable western largely due to its scope and clean directorial style from Howard Hawks. Wayne is better than usual as an unsympathetic lead confronting his adopted son throughout the picture. As a western, it doesn’t try to reinvent the form, although the focus on a cattle drive is a bit unusual. (Sadly, the usual Native American prejudices are along for the ride). Those who don’t like westerns won’t necessarily be convinced by Red River, but the film does have its share of thrills for genre fans.
(On TV, March 2018) There’s quite a lot that I don’t particularly enjoy about The Quiet Man, starting with John Wayne and the overly romanticized portrait of the Irish. I should probably add right now that I don’t have anything against Ireland of the Irish diaspora—after all, I’m part Irish myself (much diluted) due to a quirk of French-Canadian history—but I’ve seen enough Irish romanticism in my life to be largely immune to it by now. As for John Wayne, the irony is that I don’t like him but I like many of his movies especially when they feature him as a quasi-villain. Alas, that’s not the case here, as Wayne is out of his traditional element as a disgraced 1920s boxer returning to Ireland to reclaim his family farm. As with most “stranger coming to town” stories, he falls in love (understandably with a character played by Maureen O’Hara), makes a few friends and temporary enemies that he’ll have to deal with before a happy ending comes back. The Quiet Man is in colour largely to showcase Ireland’s Green tone and O’Hara’s fiery-red hair. It ends with a memorable knock-down drag-out fight played for laughs in the middle of the village. Wayne looks a bit lost in trying to act tough in the middle of a comedy, while the film’s blatant idolization of the rural Irish lifestyle will be lost on those who, like myself, can’t see what the fuss is about. As a result, the film is a bit obnoxious at times, and definitely too long otherwise. Director John Ford knows what he’s doing, so I suspect that this is as clear a case of “this film is not for me” as it’s possible to get. The Quiet Man is a fine film, but it just didn’t resonate. At all.
(On DVD, February 2018) Neither of these opinions are particularly controversial, but here goes: I’m not all that fond of John Wayne, and I like the 2010 remake version of True Grit more than the original version. The first does not necessarily explain the second: While I find Wayne to be an unsympathetic actor, he’s at his best (and has often been cast) as an unsympathetic character. Here he gets to crow as Rooster Cogburn, a gruff and violent frontier lawman hired by a teenage girl to avenge her father. As per its title, True Grit is not a fun western, and the way it delves into the danger of the Wild West with its teenage heroine is markedly different from the adventures that often awaited typical young male western heroes. The location shooting is good, and the narrative has plenty of, well, grit to it. This being said, True Grit often veers far too close to average-western territory for me, losing my interest along the way. I’m not all that dismissive of the original when I say that I prefer the remake—moviegoing sensibilities evolving along the way, I found the remake more naturalistic and Hailee Steinfeld’s performance more interesting than that of Kim Darby in the original. Your own appreciation may differ.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My understanding of James Stewart and John Wayne’s screen persona is still incomplete (especially when it comes to Stewart’s latter-day westerns), but as of now, “James Stewart and John Wayne in a Western” tells me nearly all I needed to know about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s plot. The clash between Stewart’s urbane gentility and Wayne’s tough-guy gruffness isn’t just casting: it’s the crux of the film’s nuanced look at the end of the Western period. The film’s classic set-up (an eastern-trained lawyer comes to town, becomes an enemy of the local villain) becomes an examination of Western tropes when the easy fatal solution is rejected by the protagonist as being against his values. When John Ford’s character steps in as a necessary conduit for violence, this deceptively simple film becomes a thought-piece questioning an entire genre. I surprisingly liked it upon watching (save for an extended sequences in which American democracy is slowly explained) and liked it even more upon further thought. Stewart is terrific in a role that harkens back to his more youthful idealist persona, while Ford is impeccable as a somewhat repellent but ultimately heroic figure. (I find it significant that my three favourite Wayne movies so far, along with The Searchers and The Shootist, have him willing to play roles that are critical of his usual persona.) Under John Ford’s experienced direction, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance acts as an epilogue to the Western and a hopeful examination of American values that emerged from the period.
(On TV, November 2017) One of the problems of approaching a movie education by going backwards in time is that you see the end before the beginning. You end up watching the revisionism before the classics that are being revisited, and actors at the end of their career paying homage to themselves at their prime. It usually makes sense in the end, but the first impressions can be strange. So it is that while I’m impressed by The Shootist’s approach to the last few days of a legendary gunman (John Wayne, in his final role), I can’t help but feel that I would have gotten far more out of the movie had I seen it after watching the dozens of essential westerns and John Wayne movies. Not only is The Shootist about a gunslinger counting down the days until cancer kills him, it’s explicitly about the end of the Far West as a distinct period—it takes place in a city where automobiles are starting to displace horses, water and electricity are changing the nature of living, and where civilization doesn’t have much use for killers, even righteous ones. The film explicitly ties itself to Wayne’s legacy by using clips from his previous movies as introduction to his character, and there’s an admirable finality to this being Wayne’s last role. I found myself curiously sympathetic to his gruff character, and easily swept along the plot even through (or given) I’m firmly in favour of modernity over the western. Other small highlights can be found in the film—Ron Howard plays a callow youth who learn better, Lauren Bacall looks amazing and there’s even Scatman Crothers in a minor role. Under Don Siegel’s direction, the atmosphere of a city entering the modern age is well done, and there’s a genuine melancholy both to the film and to Wayne himself as they contemplate the end of eras both social and personal. I’m not quite so fond of the specific way the film chooses to conclude, or the various action highlights that seem perfunctory as a way to alleviate what is essentially a contemplative film. But even as I head deeper in the Western genre, I think I’ve found its epilogue in The Shootist.
(In French, On Cable TV, November 2017) As I dig farther away in the vault of classic movies I have never seen, there’s an entire section dedicated to westerns … a genre that has never interested me all that much. With The Searchers, another issue is that the film revolves around John Wayne, not an actor that I’ve liked a lot so far and who literally comes across as a creepy uncle in the opening moments of the film. Add to that a first act that makes Native Americans look awful and I was definitely struggling to make it through the film’s opening half-hour. What helped power through this bad start is some spectacular scenery, and seeing the comfort of a straight-ahead western gradually give way to a far more morally ambiguous plot. What, in a lesser movie, would have been a few days’ worth of adventures becomes a kick in the gut as the story stretches upon years, becoming a quixotic quest featuring a damaged hero. (I do like the theory that the girl is his daughter.) It leads to a dramatic riverbed confrontation that becomes the highlight of the film, and to an off-putting climactic sequence that doesn’t entirely condone what’s happening. The ending would have been coded as happy at the beginning of the quest, but comes across as bittersweet-at-best by the end of the film. Better yet, Wayne does play a rather bad guy here. I’m not sure that director John Ford had, in 1956, the tools or social latitude to make the film he wanted to make about revisiting common attitudes toward western tropes. The Searchers does make the best out of what it could say, however, and the result eventually won me over.