Celebrating The Duke with a movie marathon.
Well, pilgrims, here’s another reason to be thankful: AMC has scheduled an all-day movie marathon celebrating John Wayne for Thursday, November 24. The Thanksgiving lineup kicks off at 10 am ET, and includes back-to-back airings of five classic westerns:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Dismissed by many critics during its initial theatrical release, John Ford’s last great western now is widely acknowledged as one of the filmmaker’s most heartfelt and fully realized works. James Stewart is a tad too old to be completely persuasive as tenderfoot Ransom Stoddard, an idealistic young lawyer who finds legalisms are of little use against a wild-eyed outlaw like Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin at his most sadistic). But John Wayne is at the top of his form as Stoddard’s unlikely ally, a cynical gunfighter named Tom Doniphon. For all his gruffness, Doniphon emerges as a noble knight errant, a selfless hero who ultimately insists that Stoddard take credit for being the hero of the title. (Doniphon, of course, is the one who actually blasts the bad guy.) Stoddard goes on to become a successful politician, bringing the dubious values of civilization to the Wild West, while Doniphon fades into obscurity, becoming an anachronism long before his death. Ford sums it all up for us through a newspaperman’s final words: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
As we noted in our 50th anniversary commemoration, this fan favorite was the first film Wayne made after his life-saving 1964 cancer operation: “Wayne remained every inch the thoroughgoing professional throughout the arduous production of The Sons of Katie Elder, determined to prove that he had indeed ‘licked the Big C’ and was back in the saddle, literally as well as figuratively. If he ever resented [director Henry] Hathaway’s demanding drill-sergeant style of directing, he chose not to hold a grudge — and, just four years later, gladly re-teamed with the director for True Grit (1969), the movie for which he won his only Academy Award for Best Actor. Some biographers have theorized that The Sons of Katie Elder was an invaluable boon to John Wayne, in that it convinced him that working hard at what he did best was the way to continue cheating death. Such armchair psychology is usually of dubious value while taking the measure of any man. But in Wayne’s case — well, maybe there is something to the notion that there’s nothing like a brush with death to reignite one’s work ethic.”
El Dorado (1967)
If the plot of El Dorado seems a tad familiar, well it should — director Howard Hawks more or less recycled it from Rio Bravo (1959), and then re-recycled it for Rio Lobo (1970). But never mind: As often is the case with John Wayne westerns, the storytellers, not the story, are what really matter here. As critic Roger Ebert noted in his original review: “Wayne plays a professional gunman who comes to town to take a job from a rich rancher who wants a poor rancher’s water (who says the plot has to be original?). But the sheriff turns out to be his old buddy, [Robert] Mitchum, and so he turns down the job. Then the rich rancher hires another gunman (Christopher George), and Wayne sides up with the drunk and disheveled Mitchum. Duke’s team isn't exactly made of heroes. Mitchum has been hitting the bottle for two months, his deputy (played with charm by [Arthur] Hunnicutt) is a windy old Indian fighter, Wayne has a bullet near his spine that causes a slight touch of paralysis now and again, and his sidekick ([James] Caan) is a kid who carries a shotgun instead of a pistol because he's such a lousy shot. Hawks fashions scene after scene of quiet, earthy humor from this situation. Without great care, the movie could have degenerated into a put-on, but Hawks plays it straight and never allows his actors to take that last fatal step in overacting.” Movie buffs, take note: Listen closely, and you’ll hear a sly reference to Shoot the Piano Player, the 1962 film by Francois Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who, during his days as a critic, championed Hawks’ films long before many U.S. critics did.
Big Jake (1971)
When we asked Ethan Wayne back in 2007 to name his favorite among his famous father’s movies, he didn’t hesitate: “For me,” he said, “it’s Big Jake, just because I was in it, my brother [Patrick Wayne] was in it, my other brother [Michael Wayne] produced it — and it gave me a chance to work with my dad.” Ethan played The Duke’s kidnapped grandson in the western drama, a gritty action flick directed by George Sherman that also featured Maureen O’Hara, Wayne’s longtime friend and frequent co-star, in a supporting role. “The crew that was on that movie, from the stuntmen and the caterers, they were all guys I grew up with,” Ethan Wayne recalled. “They were like my uncles. And the best thing about it was, I was there for just three weeks out of the filming — I was there for the entire filming. And it was the most fun a kid could have.”
The Shootist (1976)
On Jan. 22, 1901, legendary gunfighter J.B. Books (Wayne) rides into Carson City, where a local doctor (James Stewart) confirms his worst fears: “You have a cancer. Advanced.” At the time of its release, The Shootist discomforted many fans who couldn’t help viewing it as an unwelcome reminder of The Duke's real-life battles with “The Big C.” But now, decades after Wayne’s passing, this under-rated western can be better appreciated as a respectful elegy for a Hollywood professional of tremendous dignity and stature. (A nice touch: The opening credits are flashed over clips from many of Wayne’s earlier westerns.) One might argue the film isn’t quite equal to the man it honors — but there’s no denying that The Shootist allows Wayne one of his very few opportunities to play a character who frankly expresses a fear of his own mortality (“I'm a dying man, a-scared of the dark!”) even while remaining true to his personal code: “I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” Directed by Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), The Shootist is deeply moving as it symbolically ends an era of history, and literally ends a historic screen career.