John Wayne and I have a complicated history. Named after a heroine in one of his movies, I grew up in the shadow of John Wayne movies and references. I rebelled against this tyranny of John Wayne and declared early on that I hated westerns, old movies and most of all John Wayne. I got over the old movies part pretty quickly thanks to TCM, but westerns and John Wayne were harder to shake. Only after watching and getting into Deadwood that I realized this genre has its own thrills and chills. I started to respond to the lonely outsider gunslinger who wants to do the right thing. But that John Wayne hatred was the hardest thing to shake. I watched the Searchers when I was in college for a class and hated it thus solidifying my hatred for this man was just. Then I read up on his history and I found him to be a staunch republican who wouldn’t give his friend any due for winning an oscar for a left leaning role in a western (I am talking about Gary Cooper and High Noon. That story is easily found on imdb) and it made me hate him even more. I am a bleeding heart liberal after all. And yet the more I delved into film history, the more often his name came up. He is unavoidable so I might as well watch some of his movies, at least I will have more ammunition to shoot down his legend. That is until I actually started to watch this film.
John Wayne plays the outdated good-hearted gunslinger who can’t avoid the inevitable march to progress. Progress comes in the form of Jimmy Stewart playing a young lawyer (who was like fifty-four at the time) just out of law school. He is there to set up his law practice but ends up getting enthralled by the statehood debate that rocks the small town. John Wayne becomes Jimmy Stewart’s protector from a rough man named Liberty Valance (played by the awesome Lee Marvin. He was incredible in this film.) and they form a tense friendship. As the tensions mount between Jimmy Stewart who is in favor of statehood and Liberty Valance who is hired by the pro territory representatives to rough up any statehood loving freaks, John Wayne steps in from time to time to keep the peace or dole out justice with the gun. The thing about this film is that the screen lights up whenever John Wayne enters a scene. Even an established legendary actor like Jimmy Stewart can’t take away from that pull. For example after a major shoot out, John Wayne goes to the bar to drink heavily. The whole time that he is in the bar, there is commotion and talking behind him, but I am only paying attention to the way John Wayne slams shot after shot into his mouth. I only realize after John Wayne beats up the people who are talking that I was supposed to be paying attention to what they were saying. But the way John Wayne poured those shots, then slammed him slowly getting angrier and angrier about something that happened the scene before was so entrancing that I could not give him all of my attention. This was not the only scene this happened in. I lost whole scenes of important plot progress because I was paying more attention to the way John Wayne ate his food, the way he stood with his hand always resting on his gun or even just the way he smiled when seeing his love.
What is it that draws me or anyone to him? I think it is his over the top humility. I know that sounds like a conundrum but I think I might be right. He always seems to play characters that help the main hero achieve their goals only to then fade into the background of loneliness. He comes off as a badass but he is really just a sad man who can’t find love outside of the love of the bottle.He is mysterious and hard to get to know but he has a heart of gold. Now whether or not the real man had this same heart of gold, I will never know, but he seemed to play these characters so truthfully that it leads me to think he did. I still do not completely understand the mania that surrounds John Wayne, but I can at least now appreciate his presence in a film. Maybe one day on here I will confess to the blogosphere that I love John Wayne….