Monday, March 22, 2004

Lazy Afternoons

We should definitely be working, we could even be blogging, but every afternoon this week will be taken up with watching old John Wayne films on BBC2. It’s a difficult job, but someone has to do it.
Yes, of course, Wayne was a right-wing Republican who would have regarded people like us as enemies of all he held dear, and - which matters more now that he’s gone - he gave far too many lazy performances in far too many bad films. And yet ...
Consider today’s offering, Tall in the Saddle (1944), also starring Gabby Hayes, who seems to have spent his entire career portraying (possibly being) the local drunk. The plot is standard twaddle about a legacy, mistaken identity and the like, and serves as little more than a pretext for entertaining dialogue and for rich monochrome camerawork that is impressive even on a small screen (much as the fairly similar plot of, say, Way Out West matters much less than Laurel and Hardy’s routines within it). It was also striking that at several points, in conversation with Latino characters, Wayne speaks what seemed to us to be word-perfect Spanish, which - combined with his predilection for marrying Mexican women, and the undoubted depth and range of his knowledge of the history of the Western US - suggests that he wasn’t the one-dimensional racist bastard his detractors still make him out to be.
Anyway, here’s some of the dialogue (initials indicating the actors, because it hardly matters what the characters’ names were):

Barkeep: Him! [i.e. GH] He’s nothin’ but a grumpy old cuss.
JW: I like grumpy old cusses. If I live long enough I hope to be one myself.


GH: Then they’ll bring their gosh-darned “law and order” with them.
JW: What’s so wrong with law and order?
GH: Depends who’s dishing it out ...


JW: I reckon it’s good to know where you belong. I wish I knew.

Acknowledging that Wayne at his worst could be intolerable, we’d suggest that this is Wayne at his best, enacting the kind of role he clearly excelled at - the thoughtful loner who’s courteous to all, but subservient to none - in an era when the questions that undoubtedly needed to be asked about such a stereotype weren’t being asked by anyone within earshot either of Wayne himself or of his fans. It’s a persona that can look dated and inadequate now, but it does have resonance in the real world, and it never was as simple or as shallow as some critics have deemed it to be. In even better films - such as Stagecoach, The Searchers or True Grit - it’s displayed with a subtlety and depth that still put the slick acting, and slicker scripting, of most mainstream films to shame. We wouldn’t go so far as to say Je t’aime, John Wayne, but nor would we deny that his better films remain rewarding, if necessary despite their intent rather than because of it.

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