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Monday, 17 January 2011

Top Ten Western Actors No 1 - John Wayne

I have a theory about John Wayne and it is this - that a lot of the criticism he gets is nothing to do with his acting but more because of his extreme right wing politics. He certainly pissed off a lot of the liberals in the film business but the charge that Wayne always played the same character is just bullshit. Wayne was a favourite with John Ford and Ford was not sentimental and wouldn't have used him so many times if there was any question of his acting abilities.

True Wayne did often play variations of the same character but that's what the public wanted - they wanted to see John Wayne and that is just what they got, but no actor has appeared in as many truly exceptional western as John Wayne and regardless of what the press and critics are saying at the moment, and as good as the Coen's version of True Grit is, John Wayne is still the definitive Rooster Cogburn.

In fact John Wayne is the definitive western actor.

He may have had a girl's name (he was born Michael Marion Morrison) but he was as tough as they came.

I won't list all of Wayne's western as there are far too many and even I, a Wayne nut, have to admit that several of his westerns were only average, but I will instead concentrate on what I consider the essential John Wayne pictures. First off then let's take a brief look at what I think is the finest western picture ever made, John Ford's, The Searchers.

The Searchers is, in my opinion, just perfect and represents a masterclass in western movie making. Not a single frame is wasted and Wayne's performance is perfectly nuanced. Those who say he couldn't act should be made to watch this movie at gunpoint and if this doesn't change their minds then just as well pull that trigger. The scene where Wayne as Ethan Edwards breaks down and screams at his companions after finding his nieces body is as effective as any other in the entire western genre. True enough not everything Wayne did was exceptional. His stint in the director's chair for The Alamo resulted in a seriously flawed movie but the good far outweighed the bad.

In fact if Wayne had not made a western other than The Searchers he would still top my list for his work in this movie alone. But there were so many other classics - The Big Trail, Stagecoach, Red River, Rio Bravo and many others. Wayne was, as Ford called him, a star bigger than Monument Valley and even cast alongside actors like Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda and James Stewart he still managed to dominate. Wayne was more than a star he was an institution. And he wasn't averse to playing with his image - he did this to great effect in 1972's The Cowboys and again in True Grit as the one eyed fat man with a badge. Wayne was heroic (both off and on screen) and although he suffered from the critics being blinded by his more formulaic roles he rose above it all and still even today, decades after his dignified death from cancer, enjoys a reputation as a true legend of the cinema screen.

"To me John Wayne is westerns." Richard Widmark.

At the moment the excellent True Grit remake is riding high in the cinema and most are saying that it is better than the John Wayne original, but I firmly refute this. As good as Jeff Bridges is in the role, Wayne was better and as time passes it is Wayne's True Grit that will be seen as the definitive version. This doesn't surprise me at all as there as always been a lot of spite against John Wayne and even when he won the Oscar for True Grit people were saying he was just awarded it out of sentiment and not for his performance. What a load of bollocks - Rooster Cogburn was written as a slightly comedic, over the hill lawman and that was just how Wayne played him. And think of Wayne's last role, as a gunfighter dying of cancer when John Wayne the actor was actually fighting the Big C himself. And yet it is a brilliant film and Wayne's character dies the way he wants to, in control, never once falling into self pity. Now for Wayne to film that with so much going on in his real life must have taken great courage - that must have taken True Grit.

Thank you John Wayne.


Walker Martin said...

I have no problem at all with The Duke and I can see why you chose the 10 actors that you have on your list. What I cannot understand, and I see my pulp friend Tom Roberts agrees with me, is how on earth Randolph Scott can be left out of any top 10 list of great western actors.

Randy sometime in the 1940's became aware that he loved the western movies more than any other genre, and from then on he devoted his career to making them. Most of his films are westerns and this cannot be said with some of the names that you have mentioned. Leaving him out of the top 10 westerns is like leaving LONESOME DOVE out of any discussion of the best western novels. Mentioning this great western novel just reminded me of another great actor who loved westerns: Robert Duvall.

I just watched last night a Randolph Scott double feature: COMMANCHE STATION and WESTERN UNION, two movies separated by almost 20 years, yet Randy was excellent in both of them.

It's your website Gary, and I'm just a commentor, but to me leaving Randolph Scott off is a serious miscarriage of justice. And Justice was one of the big themes of the western!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Western Union is excellent and as I say I had to slim the list down to just ten and so Scott wasn't included. But that's no reflection of my love of his movies and to include him meant that I would have had to left off Lee Van Cleef and Walter Brannan. I did think about including Duvall because of his role in Lonesome Dove but ten is just not enough to include everyone.

Tom Roberts said...

Well written, Gary.

The most-significant memories of my childhood are watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Westerns on TV with my father in the recliner and brother and I with a huge bowl of popcorn, sharing an afghan on the old green couch. It epitomizes our relationship and still does to this day, long before such a term as "bonding moment" existed. This is an integral part of my life. Who didn't want to ride tall in the saddle after watching the Duke? He remains larger than life.

And still decades later, when the family gets together over holidays, one topic of the men is (and often outweighs other points of conversation) "What Western(s) are we gonna watch tonight?" which traditionally includes at least one John Wayne film.

I have not heard (or read) the argument in some time discrediting the acting ability of John Wayne. (I wholeheartedly agree with you that THE boss, John Ford, would never have kept using Wayne over and over if Wayne was sub-par.)

But for anyone that wants to take that stance, they should watch not only THE SEARCHERS, but ISLAND IN THE SKY, in which Wayne plays the captain of a downed cargo plane, struggling to keep both he and his men physically and emotionally alive in the hostile conditions of the frozen north with little hope of rescue. This is another film with a great supporting cast that includes Andy Devine, Lloyd Nolan, Bob Steele, Harry Carey, Jr. and James Arness among others. The film plays on deeper levels and emotions than just the straight adventure storyline thought, touching upon separation from family, sacrifice, mental strength and commitment.

And throw THE QUIET MAN in there as another to watch and learn from as to whether Duke could act.

(Any harassment over Randolph Scott being MIA is said with a smile too, Gary. But watch SEVEN MEN FROM NOW tonight as your penance.)

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Agree Island in the Sky is excellent, as is The Quiet Man. And regarding Scott see the afterword to the top ten series.

Tay - Tay said...

I may not be old enough to remember when any of his movies came out, in fact he probably died before I was born, but I am a die-hard John Wayne fan! When I hear the word "western" I think of John Wayne. I grew up in a house with three of his pictures on the wall, and just about all of his movies in the t.v. case. I've seen nearly all of them, from Rio Lobo to my favorite The Quiet Man. I have to say, I've had 2 weeks to watch the remake of one of Wayne's finest movies "True Grit", and haven't had the heart... Anyone who tells me they re-made the book, not the original movie is not going to convince me. They put Rooster's eye patch on the wrong eye. My dad said it best: "John Wayne only won one Oscar, and it was for True Grit, he did it right the first time..."
Regarding his last movie while he was battling cancer, I'm sure it did take loads of courage, but he of all people knew what courage was. In my opinion John Wayne gave the best working definition of courage I've ever heard, "Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway." I wonder how many times he asked himself how much longer he would make it, but kept pushing through anyway. John Wayne is my hero! :D