John Wayne in Stagecoach© 1939 Castle Hill
BY STEPHEN WHITTY
There’s a little cowboy (or cowgirl) in all of us, especially during the National Western Stock Show. “A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage,” as Dale Evans once said. Though most of us have traded bucking broncos for Buicks and wide-open spaces for suburban bliss, lots of Western wannabes still keep Stetsons and cowboy boots in our closets and gleefully debate which cinematic gunslinger knows his (or her) way around a six-shooter best. So, saddle up, ReMIND readers, as we salute the Wild West in popular culture and beyond.
“You’re awful pretty when you’re mad.” “Take ’er easy there, Pilgrim.” “That’ll be the day.”
When you think about the Western, it’s hard not to hear John Wayne. Or see him, filling a doorway, his weight on one foot, that sweat-darkened Stetson dipped low. He made his first cowboy picture in 1926; his last came half a century later.
Any list of the 10 greatest Westerns has to start with him, so let’s begin with Stagecoach, the 1939 John Ford film that forever made Wayne into the star he was meant to be. And then follow that with Ford’s The Searchers from 1956 featuring Wayne at his darkest, a loner fueled by rage.
Not as tall in the saddle (but just as comfortable) was Henry Fonda, although — unlike Wayne — he was just as happy playing a villain as a hero. For example, catch him as lawman Wyatt Earp in 1946’s My Darling Clementine (with a never-better Victor Mature as the doomed Doc Holliday). Then skip ahead 22 years and shiver through his turn in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.
Fonda plays one of the West’s coldest killers in that one, although he has a little competition from Jack Palance’s icy gunman in 1953’s Shane. Still, the real attractions in Shane are the cherubic Brandon De Wilde as the hero-worshipping little boy who looks up at Alan Ladd in wonder and the gorgeous landscapes director George Stevens got on the wide screen.
Westerns began to change in the ’60s, helped by the original Magnificent Seven. With that immediately iconic Elmer Bernstein score (and a story stolen from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), it gave us wry humor and indelible antiheroes, including Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and the cast-against-type Yul Brynner.
Even more macho — but a lot less lighthearted — were the hard cases who made up the outlaws of The Wild Bunch, among them William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates (with the equally hard-bitten Robert Ryan on their trail). The 1969 movie made director Sam Peckinpah’s name a synonym for onscreen violence, but it also held its own kind of weary poetry.
By then, people were already proclaiming the death of the Western, although artists kept finding ways to renew it, like 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which threw the genre a curveball by turning its train robbers into a couple of comical free spirits in a modern ménage á trois. Or Clint Eastwood’s stunning High Plains Drifter, from 1973, in which his nameless Stranger finally seems to become Death himself.
That one connected with audiences, but not with John Wayne, who sent the star a letter complaining, “That isn’t what the West was all about.” (Of course, Wayne hadn’t liked High Noon, either.) So, we’ll let the Duke have the last word here with his own last word — 1976’s The Shootist, his final film and the tale of a man at the end of the trail. And a legend already in progress.
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