(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.