Posted by davidkalat on November 13, 2010
Just look at this man. Has there ever been a movie star more iconic? But what does that icon stand for? Depends on your age, to some extent.
For Americans of a certain generation, John Wayne was the ultimate male role model—a perfect father figure. But then American society started to question just how “perfect” such father figures were. The characteristics John Wayne represented stayed the same, but their cultural meaning started to shift under his feet like a sociological earthquake. You say confident, I say arrogant. You say taciturn, I say aloof. In the late 1960s and 1970s, it became fashionable for men to be sensitive to a fault. Men like Wayne started to look like unreconstructed cavemen.
This is a blog about movies, so let me keep this focused on movies—specifically, Westerns. John Wayne was the exemplar of classical Westerns—once the most popular genre in all moviedom. And then, in the mid 1960s, along came foreign upstarts like Sergio Leone to co-opt and redefine the American Western. This new spaghetti-flavored Western was morally ambiguous in ways classical Westerns had never tried. Instead of celebrating and reinforcing American moral values, these new-style Westerns cynically mocked those values.
OK, time to make this personal:
The fact is, long before I first encountered Sergio Leone, I had spent a fair bit of my formative years immersed in old-timey Westerns. In Raleigh, NC, where I grew up, there was a film society that I remember as being called the Western Film Preservation Society. I tried Googling it to confirm the name and found their current incarnation: http://westernfilmfair.tripod.com/id1.html.
This was back in the 1980s, and even then it was an anachronism. Once a month, this bunch of crusty middle-aged dudes would gather in a meeting hall with their 16mm projectors and screen some crusty old Westerns—lots of singing cowboys, cliffhanger serials, bad guys in black hats. You get the idea. If not, here’s a sample:
Nowadays I attend Slapsticon annually and it’s much the same idea—a society so devoted to an arcane specialty that its members have no time for the obvious entry-level films. You won’t find THE GOLD RUSH or THE GENERAL screened at Slapsticon—they go for the most obscure treasures of silent comedy. And so too did the Western Film Preservation Society skip over the likes of THE SEARCHERS or HIGH NOON to dig deep into the big box of B-movies instead.
I was a newbie in their midst—more drawn to the 16mm projectors than the content of the movies screened with them. It wasn’t my nostalgia being stroked—I was a witness to their nostalgia, a nostalgia by proxy. Perhaps they could rightfully assume that they themselves already knew the highlights of classical Western film, and thereby justify their focus on obscurata, but for me the side-effect was to turn me off classical Westerns altogether. Month after month I would sit and watch these primitive productions with such ephemeral entertainment value, so simplistic in their storytelling, so naïve in their morality, and I just assumed they were typical of their genre.
You’ve got your good guy—and everything he does is good. And you’ve got your bad guy—everything he does is bad. You may wonder just how the hero will triumph in the end, but at no point could you genuinely question that he would triumph. The Three Stooges giddily trompled all over this kind of Western with OUT WEST and PUNCHY COWPUNCHERS. Frankly, once the Three Stooges have made a better movie than yours, you need to call it quits.
No offense, mind you. I love the Three Stooges. I love the Three Stooges more than you do. I’m just sayin’, is all.
And so we come to the likes of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. It’s 1964, which means the American audience coming to this picture has survived WWII and witnessed the Holocaust, it has dropped atomic bombs on Japan and started to stockpile more weapons to threaten Russian with total annihilation, and just two years earlier watched its President assassinated. So much for good guys versus bad guys. Clint Eastwood’s unnamed character is clearly our protagonist, and a sympathetic trickster he is too. He’s wandered into a town where there two opposing sides locked in endless war. Both sides want his expertise and gunsmanship. So he sells his services to both sides, playing each one against the other to his own advantage.
You don’t need me to elaborate. Surely you’ve seen it yourself. If not, it’s on DVD and you can correct your oversight at your leisure.
In 1965 Leone released its more intricate follow-up, A FEW DOLLARS MORE. 1966 brought THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, which whipped the antiheroic escapades up into an epic flurry (Have you ever had an epic flurry? It’s soft-serve ice cream mixed with your favorite mythological toppings. A well-made epic flurry can be turned upside down and the myths won’t fall out). Leone had conquered the Western by now. Legions of Italian filmmakers took to copying his lead, Clint Eastwood returned to Hollywood to continue the tradition on his own. Westerns were now about antagonisms between opposing sides, but in which clearly drawn lines of good and evil were no longer possible.
In 1966, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY faced a competitor from the past—Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO. Hawks was a master of the old form, John Wayne the most renowned practitioner of the classical Western mode. They were reluctant to cede the field to Leone’s amoral revisions. EL DORADO would be a deliberate counter-argument, a defiant insistence on the old ways.
There are two aspects to EL DORADO worth paying close attention to in this regard. First, it is a remake of Hawk’s RIO BRAVO. There is almost no reason to remake RIO BRAVO at all—it is a nearly perfect movie. Had I seen it back in the early 1980s when my mind was still soft and squishy, maybe my persistent prejudices against classical Westerns could have been nipped in the bud before they ever took root. RIO BRAVO rocks.
So why remake it at all—and just 7 years after the original? Well, because Hawks and Wayne have a point to make with it, that’s why. And to do that, they’ve added something to RIO BRAVO that makes EL DORADO more than just a remake.
The addition occupies the first half of the movie—it’s only in the second half that EL DORADO gets around to recycling script pages from RIO BRAVO. In the newly added prologue, John Wayne arrives in a town that is locked in endless war between two opposing ranchers. Wayne is a hired gun brought in by one side to intimidate the other—and kill the pesky sheriff if need be. But when he arrives, he realizes that the sheriff is his old friend Robert Mitchum, and the ranchers he’s supposed to intimidate are actually the good guys. So Wayne rides back to confront his employer, Ed Asner, and patiently explain to him why he’s changing sides and refusing Asner’s money.
Yup, it’s the set-up from FISTFUL OF DOLLARS but reconfigured to re-insert the moral certitude missing from Leone’s version.
Hawks has plunked John Wayne into the middle of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS just so John Wayne can do the exact opposite of Clint Eastwood, and then gleefully build a monument to RIO BRAVO on the wreckage of the spaghetti Western. Nevermind that this was a failed attempt to reclaim the territory, and Leone’s version was the version that would survive. Just enjoy the moment:
Instead of two equally loathsome opponents and a hired gun who manipulates them both, we have good guys versus bad guys and a hired gun with a conscience who not only chooses up sides but makes sure everybody knows his choice, and the reasons behind it. Howard Hawks’ EL DORADO is a defiant celebration of heroism in a popular culture increasingly nervous about such things.
I grew up with moral ambiguity and anti-heroism in my movies, and I never questioned it. Clint Eastwood as the Man Without a Name, Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein, Kurt Russell in THE THING… and Batman. I chose Batman over Superman because the impossible goodness of Superman seemed, well, impossible. It was easier for me to get behind a superhero who is an emotionally traumatized bastard, a self-righteous vigilante whose violence he sees as both above and outside the law. Much of the dramatic power of TV shows like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and THE WIRE is in their depiction of antagonisms between opposing forces that cannot be easily identified as good or evil. There are sympathetic aspects to both sides, and horrors to go around. Just like real life. I like morally ambiguity in my movies and TV–I admire it, I am drawn to it. But I also was unaccustomed to questioning it–and it wasn’t until I had my embarrassingly late encounter with John Wayne that I caught a glimpse of what I’d been missing.
It was only recently that I saw RIO BRAVO and EL DORADO. Not back to back, but close. What struck me most about these films was John Wayne’s confident heroism. He’s not an unambiguously perfect character in either film, as I had once assumed. He has flaws. But those flaws do not extend to his unwavering sense of right and wrong. The dramatic question isn’t whether he will do the right thing, but what doing the right thing will cost him.
We don’t have heroic role models like that in our culture anymore. Cynical antiheroes killed them all off. It’s a shame. I don’t doubt that the world we live in is more likely to produce a Batman than a Superman, but it’s a shame we’ve stopped trying to pretend otherwise. There’s something truly inspirational about John Wayne in these two movies—something aspirational. We’d be a better country if we still believed in this kind of heroism.
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