As we mark John Wayne’s birth centennial this month, we’re reminded that he was that rare movie star whose charisma not only endures, but grows. He remains the American icon: His persona – its bigness, roughness, but also its decency – defines our heritage. His name was not only invoked by Bruce Willis in the original “Die Hard” (1988), but in countless foreign films, and even the new Julie Delpy feature I just introduced at the Tribeca Film Festival.
What’s less recognized and equally striking is that by all accounts, this was also a fundamentally gentle, sensitive man. His late co-star and friend, Claire Trevor, once showed me a touching poem he’d written for her son on his death. Also, after a failed shot at stardom in 1930’s “The Big Trail,” the Duke had to toil in “B” western potboilers for nearly 10 years before director John Ford gave him another chance at the big time.
And then – even when he’d made it, over the years he was repeatedly told by Ford, his frequent collaborator and often cruel mentor, that he couldn’t act. He took the abuse stoically. Though his range was limited, he could indeed act (trained in no small measure by Ford), and when he and the picture were good, audiences couldn’t get enough of him. For those in the know, the same holds true today.
Here are my choices for his finest work produced during the first half of his career:
“Stagecoach” (1939) – Considered by many the western that elevated a formula “quickie” genre to potential “A” picture status, as well as the star-making vehicle for the 32-year-old Duke, “Stagecoach” is director Ford’s first undisputed American masterpiece (his first film, 1935’s “The Informer,” was set in Ireland). A memorable ensemble cast including Trevor, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine and other Ford regulars such as Andy Devine, makes this film spin, as a varied crew of stagecoach passengers must travel through hostile, perilous Indian territory to reach their ultimate destination – and safety. Will the presence of the notorious, straight-shooting Ringo Kid (Wayne) ensure their survival?
“The Long Voyage Home” (1940) – Ford was quick to showcase his new star the next year, in his filming of a sea tale based on several one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill, skillfully adapted by screenwriter Dudley Nichols. Wayne here gets to show his acting chops, as he plays simple Swedish seaman Ole Olsen (complete with accent!). Ole finds himself on a merchant ship at the start of World War II, surrounded by a nervous crew, and for good reason. The ship is carrying badly needed ammunition to the British, making it a highly desirable target for German U-Boats. There may also be spies aboard. Boasting stunning cinematography from Gregg Toland, who’d go on to collaborate with Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane,” Ford’s film projects tension and a subtle melancholy. Anchoring this unheralded sea picture is the brilliant Thomas Mitchell as old salt “Drisk” Driscoll, ably supported by colorful turns from Ford favorites Barry Fitzgerald and John Qualen, among others.
“They Were Expendable” (1945) – Ford again delivers a powerful human tale of hope barely sustained during the darkest days of World War II. This is the story of the PT boats during those tough, early days in the Pacific. Skipper John Brickley (Robert Montgomery) and his right-hand man, Rusty Ryan (Wayne), have difficulty convincing the navy brass of the PTs’ value to the war effort. They must work to prove it, and do. Eventually, these nimble craft play a vital role in turning the tide, allowing Gen. Douglas MacArthur to keep his promise to return there. Montgomery (father of Elizabeth from “Bewitched,” and a decorated PT boat skipper) is superb as the embattled but stoic Brickley, with Duke an ideal counterpoint as the rough-around-the-edges Ryan. Donna Reed makes a bewitching love interest as the nurse who falls for Rusty. This is one of Ford’s more under-exposed gems, and one of our finest war films.
“Fort Apache” (1948) – Resentful of his new duties at remote Fort Apache, Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) insists on imposing martial discipline on the rough-edged outpost, ignoring the sound advice of Captain Kirby York (Wayne), especially when it comes to handling Indians. Blind to the fact that white rabble-rousers are to blame for the Fort’s woes, Thursday launches a campaign against the Apaches with devastating results. The first installment in Ford’s illustrious cavalry trilogy, “Apache” soars thanks largely to Fonda, effectively playing a rigid Easterner. The brawny Duke offsets him perfectly as a savvy frontiersman who knows it’s foolish to provoke the proud Apaches. Apart from critiquing sensationalized military heroics and the myth of the “savage,” Ford works in sequences of everyday frontier rituals, and a romance involving Thursday’s daughter, played by a grown-up Shirley Temple. With its exquisite black-and-white shots of Monument Valley, assured acting, and Custer-esque storyline, “Apache” is an enduring Western winner.
“Red River” (1948) – Bitter, unyielding cattle breeder Tom Dunson (Wayne) has been forced to take his large herd through treacherous territory to save his business. His adopted son, Matthew (Montgomery Clift, in his film debut), joins him, but when the two cross swords over Dunson’s obsessiveness, the older man loses his powerful temper and expels his ward, vowing to kill him if and when he next sees him. Director Howard Hawks gave Wayne another indelible, ruggedly stubborn character to play in this classic western, a high point in their collaborations. Populated by colorful supporting characters, including the salty Walter Brennan as the camp cook, “River” combines psychological drama, action and suspense in a stirring, expansive Western landscape. The final settling of scores between Wayne and Clift is unforgettable.
“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) – In this second of Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Wayne ages considerably to play Capt. Nathan Brittles, a career frontier officer facing imminent retirement, a prospect that fills him with dread, as his only family is the army. However, one last mission confronts him: an Indian uprising is brewing, and with a small team, Brittles must escort his superior’s wife (Mildred Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) out of harm’s way. “Ribbon” still shines, thanks to an emotionally layered performance from Wayne, combined with Victor McLaglen’s divine comic relief as a tippling top Sergeant, and color cinematography that virtually turns Monument Valley into an animated Remington painting (netting cinematographer Winston Hoch an Oscar). A young Ben Johnson also stands out as Sergeant Tyree, a brave soldier very much in the Brittles mold.
I close with an honorable mention: Allan Dwan’s “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949). In my view, “Sands” is a very good, but not great, film, due to the pitfall of so many war movies: the overly familiar “types” and cliches thrown in when the guns aren’t blazing. Still, the courageous Marine Sgt. John Stryker is unquestionably one of Wayne’s signature roles, and “Sands” truly is his movie.
Stay tuned for my next installment, focusing on the best output from the Duke’s later years.
– John Farr, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.
John Farr is a founding board member of the Avon Theatre in Stamford. For more DVD recommendations, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.