As Father’s Day draws nigh, the studios traditionally shake out their libraries for films presumed to have paternal appeal — pipe-and-slippers movies, suitable for showing on big-screen TVs in wood-paneled dens.
In practice this means turning to the three W’s — war movies, Westerns, and Wayne. That’s Wayne as in John Wayne, an actor whose towering (6 feet, 4 inches) presence came to dominate those two genres, and who in a sense constituted a genre all by himself. More than a performer, Wayne was (and remains, 32 years after his death) an entire assembly line of stories and themes, of intuitions and associations that continue to resonate in American culture.
This year Fox is releasing Blu-ray editions of two films that belong to Wayne’s late-middle period: The Horse Soldiers, directed by John Ford and released in 1959, and The Comancheros, a 1961 release that would be the last directed by the prolific Michael Curtiz. And Paramount is releasing two late Wayne films that originally came out through National General Pictures: Rio Lobo, the 1970 Western that would prove to be the last film directed by Howard Hawks, and Big Jake, a 1971 release that would be the last screen credit for the director George Sherman, a hard-working and undervalued genre filmmaker who had worked with Wayne at Republic in the 1930s.
These aren’t among the best films Wayne ever appeared in, but each one offers another chapter in the story of the singular character that Wayne, with the help of several important collaborators, invented for himself. A strikingly handsome tabula rasa in his first leading role, in Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail (1930), Wayne steadily added elements to his screen persona through his 1930s apprenticeship in Poverty Row Westerns.
By 1939, when Ford called upon him for the self-consciously mythic Stagecoach, Wayne had developed the distinctive, stop-and-start speech patterns that give his line readings the swinging cadences of blank verse, and the peculiarly delicate, dancerlike way in which he carries his big (and ever bigger) body along, coming to rest with his hip cocked in the contrapposto pose of classical statuary.
Exempt from the draft because of his age and having a large family, Wayne moved into A pictures during World War II, when many established stars were away for the duration. But he didn’t become a major box-office attraction until the war was well over and his youth had faded. Beginning with Hawks’ Red River in 1948, continuing through the three chapters of Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” (Fort Apache in 1948, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949, and Rio Grande in 1950) and his first Oscar nomination, as the implacable Sergeant Stryker in Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Wayne assumed a new stature and significance.
Frequently graying up to play older characters, Wayne in middle age came to represent a complex strain of paternal authority, sometimes warmly protective (as in the cavalry trilogy), sometimes frankly unhinged (as in Red River and Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, The Searchers). Here was a man who could get you through the worst the world had to offer. Here was a man who could kill you without a second thought.
The Horse Soldiers is an important, personal film that merits a more detailed appreciation than it will receive here (as indeed it has, in the voluminous literature on Ford). But in the context of Wayne’s career the movie offers an unusually harsh version of the commanding-officer character Wayne began playing during World War II.
Rather than the protective, sympathetic figure reluctantly forced into a position of authority, he here plays a surly, distant Union officer (set during a violent campaign through Mississippi, the film might more accurately be classed as a “Southern”), whose harsh pragmatism is played in contrast to the warm humanism represented by William Holden’s chief medical officer. When he finally allows some sign of emotion to escape, Wayne’s Colonel Marlowe erupts in bitterness and self-disgust over the death and destruction it has been his duty to inflict.
Made in the wake of Wayne’s financially disastrous personal production, The Alamo (1960), The Comancheros plays it safe, casting Wayne as a Texas ranger who goes undercover to investigate arms merchants operating out of a sort of proto-fascist commune. It’s said that Wayne took over the direction from an ailing Curtiz, and the movie shows few signs of Curtiz’s meticulous craftsmanship. But it does further the tactic established in Hawks’ Rio Bravo of pairing the now visibly middle-age Wayne with a younger co-star (in this case, Stuart Whitman), toward whom he can behave as mentor and moral exemplar.
Fatherly in the 1960s, Wayne became a feisty grandpa in the ’70s, thanks in no small part to his self-parodic (and, consequently, Oscar-winning) performance in True Grit (1969). Hawks’ Rio Lobo backs off from the cuddliness, though age remains very much an issue. The young female lead (Jennifer O’Neill, the last in a long line of Hawks discoveries) snuggles up to Wayne’s character because she finds him “comfortable.” The film begins vigorously with a magnificently staged train robbery but seems itself to succumb slowly to the effects of age, turning into a slow, pleasant ramble through past ideas.
Significantly Rio Lobo ends, not with a heroic gesture from the Wayne character, but with a violent act of vengeance from a suddenly empowered woman.
The times, indeed, were changing, a factor that Big Jake specifically addresses with an opening montage that places the action in 1909, at the end of the American West’s mythic period. This is Sam Peckinpah territory, with the modern (in the form of cars and motorcycles) bumping up against the traditional, and while the film never goes to Peckinpah’s extremes, the influence of The Wild Bunch can be felt in the startlingly graphic violence.
Again, it is said that Wayne took over the directorial reins when the aging George Sherman faltered, but traces of Sherman’s distinctive use of landscape remain in the finely executed opening sequence, in which an outlaw gang (led by Richard Boone) slowly approaches a ranch from the distant end of a deep valley. The tiny figures gradually expand into view as the lady of the ranch (Maureen O’Hara) wonders who they might be.
Big Jake was one of two films written by the husband and wife team of Harry J. Fink and Rita M. Fink released in 1971, the other being a certain cop picture called Dirty Harry. Wayne would continue to work for another five years, but this was now the era of Clint Eastwood, who was taking the themes of the Western into areas Wayne could not penetrate.
Here’s hoping that Paramount gets around to a Blu-ray release for The Shootist, Wayne’s final film (1976) He still had other projects in the works when he died in 1979 — 72 years old but, as we now know, ageless.