Monday, January 7, 2013

Getting acquainted with ... John Wayne

This is the final installment of a series I've been running for the past two years called Getting Acquainted, in which I have watched three movies per month by (mostly) directors and actors whose work was at least somewhat unfamiliar to me.

At long last, I've reached the end of the road on Getting Acquainted.

It's been a useful feature in many ways, but it has ultimately been more of a burden to me than a benefit. I've found it hard, especially in the last few months as I've been focusing on 2012 movies, to always make time for three other movies that adhere to a specific theme -- movies that, with only a few exceptions, my wife has not been interested in watching with me. Then there's the fact that writing this post always feels pretty tedious (the formatting, the extra photos, recalling what I thought of a movie I watched nearly a month ago). And then there's the most salient fact, that you the reader have shown fairly little interest in commenting on this series. Hey, I don't blame you -- if you haven't seen the movies, then why read the posts?

So I'm going to start a new, less-taxing monthly feature in 2013, one that I'll announce in the coming weeks. I'll also do a wrap-up on this series as a final send-off, which a series of this length certainly deserves.

But for now, let's concentrate on the man I chose to close the series with: John Wayne.

I've never been a very big Western fan. Try as I might, I just don't find these stories as interesting as stories in other genres. Even the undisputed classics in this genre don't do that much for me. There are exceptions, such as Unforgiven, which is among my favorite 20 films of all time. But on the whole, it's just not my genre.

This certainly explains why I could count the John Wayne films I'd seen on one hand. Make that two fingers. Prior to December, I had seen only The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I figured if I could use this series as an excuse to more than double my total of Wayne films, it's at least something I can check off my cinematic bucket list.

So, Pilgrim, these are the films I chose:

Stagecoach (1939, John Ford)
Watched: Monday, December 10th
One-sentence plot synopsis: A group of travelers from different backgrounds board a stagecoach bound for New Mexico territory, each for their own reasons, despite the looming threat of an Apache attack.
My thoughts on the film: I watched Stagecoach as much to see a John Ford movie as a John Wayne movie. But even more than that, I watched it because it's the film that was used back in my high school film class to teach us the concept of the "frame story." If you don't know what a frame story is, the quick definition is: any story in which a disparate array of personality archetypes or walks of life are thrown together to address the same narrative crisis. (Many disaster movies are also frame stories.) Even though Stagecoach was used as the primary example of this technique, we didn't go so far as to actually watch the film. I decided that more than 20 years later, it was time to correct that. I found this film pretty interesting on a basic level, but I wouldn't say it totally captivated me. I guess I expected something about it to be a bit more grandiose, it being a Ford movie. (But at least it flies by in only 96 minutes -- its modest length was something I really appreciated, especially considering the next two Wayne movies on my schedule.) Although much of the first half of the movie is fairly intimate, taking place in coach depots and inside the coach itself, I did appreciate getting to know the characters, even if their defining traits sometimes played a bit broadly (which may be why my film teacher chose this as his prototypical frame story). I also greatly enjoyed the performance of Andy Devine, with his distinctly cracking voice, as the coach driver. But where the movie really took off for me was the late second/early third act escape from the pursuing Apaches, which must have been an incredibly difficult scene to shoot. The coach and the approaching Apaches on horses both gallop along at impossibly fast speeds, requiring the camera to keep up on a vehicle pacing them at the same speed, without getting jittery. A pretty impressive feat for 1939. It bummed me out that this was not actually the film's climax, which instead involved a fairly typical showdown between Wayne's character (a fugitive named Ringo Kid) and the man who killed his father and brother. Now that I think about it, Stagecoach may have also been responsible for introducing me to the "whore with the heart of gold" archetype, which I believe my film teacher also mentioned. That character, played to archetypal perfection by Clare Trevor, is Wayne's love interest. As for what light this movie shed on Wayne, I'd say, not much. I've seen enough clips of John Wayne to be plenty familiar with his famous persona, and Stagecoach did nothing to adjust that impression.

Rio Bravo (1959, Howard Hawks)
Watched: Wednesday, December 19th
One-sentence plot synopsis: After arresting a man for murder, a sheriff and his ragtag group of deputies have to prevent the wealthy and powerful brother of the accused from staging an assault on the jail.
My thoughts on the film: If Stagecoach was the Wayne movie I was most overdue to see, then Rio Bravo was the one I was looking forward to most. That's because Bravo, which has been on my radar for a much shorter time, has been getting a ton of love in various movie forums which I follow or in which I participate. I also knew it featured a dramatic role for Dean Martin, whose acting career has interested me a bit more since I watched him in a movie alongside Jerry Lewis earlier in the year. Unfortunately, I must report that Rio Bravo left me a bit disappointed as well. The name Rio Bravo itself suggests to me these huge, wide-open spaces, but this is a movie comprised mostly of interiors -- two hours and 21 minutes worth of interiors. Oh, a couple scenes take place outside, but they are decidedly in the minority. If that's a case of letting my preconceived notions prevent me from fairly analyzing the movie I actually saw, then so be it. I do think Martin is very good, and that Wayne is, well, Wayne. I was also interested to see a movie starring Angie Dickinson, since that may be another first for me -- a known name, and a partially known face, but not someone I'd seen much of. But overall, I felt that the themes in this movie could have taken a lot less time to play out, even if they are occasionally very valuable themes, such as Martin's constant struggle against the bottle leading to a quest for personal redemption. I feel like I've seen a lot more interesting films in which a motley crew of underdogs tries to hold off a powerful enemy. However, I will say that I really enjoyed the fact that Martin's character was nicknamed Dude. There's something about the way Wayne spits out the word "Dude" that is verging on epic. Look, I don't want to give you the impression that I didn't like Rio Bravo, but watching it over the course of two evenings turned it into a slog that I was glad to be finished with. The high praise it got undoubtedly contributed to my feelings of disappointment.

McLintock! (1963, Andrew V. McLaglen)
Watched: Thursday, January 3rd
One-sentence plot synopsis: A land baron so wealthy that the town is named after him deals with a variety of local issues, including his angry estranged wife, the return of his daughter from college, and a group of Comanches who are being forcibly settled into a new home by the government.
My thoughts on the film: If Stagecoach was the Wayne movie I was most overdue to see, and Rio Bravo was the Wayne movie I was most looking forward to seeing, then McLintock! was the first Wayne movie I looked up that was available for streaming on Netflix. Beyond that, I didn't know anything about it -- maybe I was just intrigued by the exclamation point in the title. And there were certainly a number of other movies I could have chosen as my third Wayne film (The Quiet Man, The Shootist and True Grit were also considered, the last of which was even available for streaming). But I'm glad I watched McLintock!, because it was a totally oddball experience, and I can't decide if it's good or bad. This is a lot more of a comedy than an actual western, as I believe not a single person gets shot, and much of the fighting is of the absurdist variety -- several fistfights are scored to wacky music, and they result from silly miscommunications rather than actual malice. In fact, there's an entire five-minute scene devoted to people punching each other out and sliding down a muddy slope into a giant puddle, and then going back up the hill to do it again as though it were some kind of theme park attraction. The whole movie kind of goes on this way, with goofy little vignettes that fit into the essentially three-tiered plot I described above. Looking it up just now on Wikipedia, I discovered why part of me didn't like it very much -- it's loosely based on Shakespeare's The Taming of The Shrew, which I already extensively dissed in my Elizabeth Taylor Getting Acquainted (see here) for its almost unimaginable sexism. In fact, two different men in this movie spank their women with one of those iron shovels you use to remove ash from your fireplace -- and both women are more wooed by this monstrous behavior than repulsed by it. That said, there are some truly sensitive and thoughtful moments in this film, such as the scene where Wayne's title character explains to his daughter why he isn't leaving her his entire fortune (he knows she'll value what she has more if she earns it), and anything and everything related to McLintock's treatment of the Comanches (he's learned their language and acts as their champion in the land dispute with the government). Too much of this movie is downright silly to be considered much of a classic, but perhaps that's why I may remember it better than either of the other (technically better) films. It also showed me a Wayne I hadn't really seen before, one with a sense of humor, one willing to act out several scenes of being fall-down drunk, one with a real knack for comedic timing. That in itself was highly refreshing. (I also enjoyed picking out a young Jerry Van Dyke in the cast.) It took five sittings over four days to finish McLintock!'s 127 minutes, but I'm glad I did.

Conclusion: I still don't like Westerns very much.

My favorite of the three: Stagecoach

Well that's it. It's all over but the shouting. And by "shouting," I mean some kind of "looking back on two years of Getting Acquainted" piece, which I will write in the next week or two.

Probably. Either that, or I'll just move on to the next thing.

Either way, thanks for reading these past two years. And if you did actually like reading Getting Acquainted, let me know, and maybe I'll consider doing a one-off month for the series every once in awhile. After all, there are always new cinematic personalities to discover ... even if they are really old cinematic personalities.

1 comment:

Travis McClain said...

I've seen two of these three.

I think what impressed me most about this one was how progressive were its social views. Remember, this is pre-New Deal America and we've got talk about equality of the sexes and some commentary on race relations. There's even some discussion about gun violence if you're astute.

I haven't seen this one since some time in the late 90s, but I thoroughly enjoyed it then. That five minute mud fight you cited was terrific fun, and I think a big reason for it is precisely because it's no-nonsense John Wayne in the middle of it all. We like to see such actors cut loose from time to time, and it's enjoyable to see him in this kind of role.

Of the rest of Wayne's filmography, I can only say with certainty that I've seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (LOVE IT), True Grit (enjoyed it) and The Conqueror. Now, The Conqueror is a must-see because in that, John Wayne plays Genghis Effing Kahn. I am not joking or making this up.

As far as your "Getting Acquainted..." series, I've only seen a handful since I started following your blog and the truth is, you've tended to pick subjects and films where I'm equally deficient. I can definitely appreciate your point about the hassle of formatting these kinds of posts. That's one reason why I've quit reviewing movies on my blog and shifted those to my Letterboxd diary, where the formatting is done for me.