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When I say we were impressed, I really mean it None of us, I’m sure, had ever seen a movie in which the main character died, but it seemed like a wonderful idea. For days afterward we reenacted the final scene, with fights breaking out over who was going to play Stryker. When we played cowboys, nobody ever wanted to die. You couldn’t make any of us fall down, no matter how many times someone claimed to have shot us. Wayne’s performance was so powerful that it changed us completely.
Twenty-something years later, I was living in Brownwood, a small Central Texas town where I was teaching at the time. My wife and I went to the local theater one Friday night to see another John Wayne movie: The Cowboys. By that time I knew who John Wayne was, and so did everybody else in town. At least half the audience wore cowboy hats that they didn’t bother to remove during the course of the film. The plot of The Cowboys, when you think about it, is amazingly similar to the plot of The Sands of Iwo Jima. Only the setting is different. This time, it’s a Old West cattle drive instead of WWII. Once again, John Wayne, playing Wil Andersen, is molding a motley group of youngsters with harsh methods that they’ll later realize are for their own good.
The big scene in the movie occurs when the head Bad Guy, Bruce Dern, has Wayne under the gun. All he as to do is pull the trigger, and Wayne dies. The half of the audience in cowboy hats began to cat-call and comment. “That sucker don’t know what he’s dealin’ with. Old John’ll blow him away!” “Damn right. Ain’t nobody ever gets the better of Big John.” And so on. It was getting a big rowdy. And then Bruce Dern pulled the trigger. The silence that fell over that theater was instant and amazing. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve actually experienced what could be called a “stunned silence.” Nobody said a word for the rest of the movie. People filed out afterward with scowls in their faces. It didn’t matter to them that the group of kids Wayne had been molding carried out the cattle drive, just as those others had raised the flag. The fact that Wayne’s character had been shot and killed struck them silent.
If there were any kids there, I’m sure they didn’t go home and play the Wayne role with their pals, but once again John Wayne proved that he had the power and the screen presence to impress and shock an audience. He wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award this time, as he was for The Sands of Iwo Jima, but he showed what a real movie star can do. It’s no wonder he’s been a favorite of mine for nearly 60 years.