Photography: Warner Bros.
Photography: Warner Bros.

An appreciation of The Duke in celebration of his May 26 birthday.

A man may die, but his movies always will remain in the present tense. Which is why, in the case of John Wayne — the late, great superstar whose birthday we celebrate May 26 — you can point to the precise moment when the man becomes an icon.

That moment is in Stagecoach, John Ford’s 1939 masterwork, arguably the first significant western of the talking-pictures era and definitely the last best star-making opportunity for the journeyman B-movie actor born as Marion Morrison. (Nine years earlier, The Man Who Would Be Duke had grabbed at the brass ring as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, but the clunky faux epic turned out to be a career-stalling flop.) And the moment occurs several minutes into the drama, as the previously much-discussed Ringo Kid — a boyishly handsome gunfighter who has broken out of prison to avenge his murdered father and brothers — makes his first appearance to passengers aboard the eponymous conveyance.

Let’s not mince words: In Stagecoach, John Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history. As he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up. That the image briefly goes out of focus only serves to enhance the impact — you get the feeling that even the cinematographer is awed by the sight of such studly formidability. The die is cast, the legend is born.

But it doesn’t end there. Ringo quickly establishes himself as a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with a sheriff who feels obligated, albeit reluctantly, to arrest the outlaw. He’s a perfect gentleman when dealing with the imperfect heroine (Claire Trevor), a golden-haired, golden-hearted prostitute who brightens incandescently whenever the naive escaped con refers to her as a “lady” while boosting her self-esteem. (When snooty fellow passengers avoid her at dinner, Ringo simply assumes they’re insulting him, not her, and drawls: “Well, I guess you can't break out of prison and into society in the same week.”)  But make no mistake: Ringo leaves no room for doubt that, once the arduous stagecoach journey concludes, he’s quite capable of minding his own bloody business at the end of the line.

Such is the indelible image of the youthful John Wayne, the virile yet sensitive hero who — long before his speech patterns and body language began to suggest self-parody — could give as soulfully affecting a performance as any western star who ever rode hard and shot straight in the most American of movie genres. Expanding upon the archetype established by such silent-movie masters as  Tom Mix and William S. Hart, Wayne in Stagecoach conveys the very essence of the square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who’s quite willing to hang up his shootin’ irons, who’s even agreeable to mending his ways and moving to a small farm someplace with a good woman by his side — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the varmints who terminated his loved ones. (Why? Because, as Ringo tersely notes, “There are some things a man can’t run away from.”)

The part fit Wayne so well that, long after he evolved into a grey eminence, he continued to recycle various and sundry aspects of the performance that first established his stardom. Because, after all, that is what being a star is all about: Giving your audience what they want, what they expect — and, perhaps, what they need.

Which is not to say, however, that Wayne never transcended that typecasting. Consider his unaffectedly affecting turn as an aging U.S. Cavalry officer in John Ford’s ineffably autumnal She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. (French director Bertrand Tavernier frequently has acknowledged the influence of Ford’s film — and Wayne’s performance — on his own Life and Nothing But, Tavernier’s 1989 drama about a career army officer, played by the great Philippe Noiret, who’s determined to identify French casualties in the wake of World War I.) Or consider his robust balance of swagger and sagacity, gruff compassion and implacable professionalism, in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, one of the most influential and enjoyable westerns ever made. (Quentin Tarantino famously declared: “When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her Rio Bravo, and she better bleeping like it.”) And just in case you might still doubt the under-appreciated breath and depth of his talent, I direct you to watch Wayne in another John Ford classic, one made just 17 years after StagecoachThe Searchers.

Wayne gives one of his finest and most complex performances here as Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who returns to Texas in 1868 after a string of post-Civil War misadventures. (His favorite response to idle threats — “That’ll be the day!” — inspired the signature song of ’50s  pop star Buddy Holly.) At first, Ethan is greeted with open arms by his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who lives with his family  — wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), son Ben (Robert Lyndon), daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood) — on a remote homestead in an area where Indian raids are common. Gradually, however, long-simmering tensions between the two brothers bubble to the surface. More important, it becomes increasingly clear, to the audience if not to Aaron, that Martha secretly loves her errant brother-in-law.

Ethan's own feelings are indirectly revealed when, after he returns from a hunt for stolen cattle, he finds Aaron, Martha and Ben have been massacred — and Lucy and Debbie have been abducted —  by marauding Comanches. Fearing a fate worse than death for his nieces, Ethan gives chase, accompanied by Marty (Jeffrey Hunter), a “half-breed” orphan raised to adulthood by Aaron, and Brad (Harry Carey Jr.), Lucy's boyfriend. Early on, Lucy is found slain, and Brad dies while trying to avenge her. But Ethan and Marty survive to continue their quest for several years — for very different reasons.

In most other westerns, Ethan’s obsession would be presented uncritically as a noble endeavor. But in The Searchers, Ford infuses his story with a troubling moral ambiguity by repeatedly emphasizing that Ethan is a fanatical racist who rarely hides his contempt for the “half-breed” Marty, and who likely will kill Debbie (played as a teenager by Lana's big sister, Natalie Wood)  if he discovers she has been living as wife of a “savage” Native American chief. Rather than soft-pedal Nathan’s borderline psychosis, Wayne fearlessly and ferociously elevates the undercurrent to flood tide. Which is why Marty continues along for the ride: The younger man knows that, if they ever do find Debbie, he may have to kill Ethan to save her.

There is a kinda-sorta happy ending: Ethan rescues Debbie, in a scene easily capable of profoundly moving even those who hated Wayne’s infamously hard-right politics. (As Jean-Luc Godard admitted: “How can I hate John Wayne upholding [Republican Presidential candidate Barry] Goldwater and yet love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of The Searchers?”) Indeed, throughout the entire film, Wayne gives a performance that is profoundly eloquent as both a concise summation and a skeptical critique of his entire career in Westerns. (Clint Eastwood would offer a similarly self-reflective portrayal decades later in Unforgiven.) But he is never more moving than in the movie’s closing moments, as Ethan is viewed through a doorway, standing outside, alone and far away, not quite able to move. Inside the house, Debbie is warmly welcomed back into civilization. The door closes. For Ethan, it will never open again.


You can honor John Wayne’s legacy, and support the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, by joining the #Show Your Grit campaign.

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