Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Long and Tall XXL in the Saddle

The way John Wayne rides a horse is the closest thing lazy big and tall men have to their own form of liquid poetry. Always bumping our heads going down basement steps, cramping our legs in ordinary airplane seats, dangling over edges, looking apish in hand-me-downs from normal size cousins; we're often light-headed from being head in the clouds all the time and John Wayne is all these things, but turns them upside down through sheer moral charisma. He's so tall he seems like he's outgrown the pony below him, even if its a roaring stallion. He forces us to re-examine the sheer surreal strangeness of a man riding a four legged animal like some strange Martian centaur. He's the father who is both fearsome, protective, loving, and just a wee bit of a jokester. All that adds up to perfection, so when Wayne goes rogue on us, like halfway through RED RIVER, we're traumatized in a way we're just not when the diminutive James Mason loses it along similar lines in BIGGER THAN LIFE.

I'd been avoiding John Ford's cavalry trilogy (FORT APACHE, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, RIO GRANDE) my whole life, smarting from the childhood terror of Henry Fonda's stern anti-Indian policies and the mix of honor, tradition and whiskey-besotted sentimental blarney that is life in Ford's patriarchal colonialist west, and instant tedium to any kid who doesn't yet know the sweet soul-stirring taste of the 'water of life.'

But I should have known better not to just glance at labels and mustaches. (Wayne's mustache spooked me away from SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON). The problem with assumption means you're always predicting the lowest result. Period westerns with frilly bonnets and well-meaning old matrons stirring pots and yelling at young Jeff Carson to come in from the fields for dinner can be dull, but that doesn't mean Ford's are dull. In fact every aspect of every Ford movie would be dull in the wrong hands. In Ford's hands, however, it's poetic. The iconography comes to life. As he probably invented most of it, I guess that makes sense

To me it's proof that the conservatives and liberals are all mixed up - the neo-cons should making more movies and the liberals saving their sermonizing for the senate floor. And for god's sake, more drinking. If you look at the films of the 1970s compared to the films of now, it's clear what made them cooler, earthier, more poetic, dirty, cool, and real: more Valium, cigarettes (indoor smoking), booze, casual sex, long hair, and whatever the hell else.

In Ford's cavalry pictures we actually see (heaven forefend!) a situation where drinking, dancing, and killing are all socially condoned rituals. Most boys today find themselves stricken as social outcasts, hunted by the cops, the minute they sip their first beer or toke their first joint. Rather than an initiation into the social order with its laws, values, and common enemy (outlaws, Injuns), the first beer or toke casts us forever outside the social order - we become the outlaws.  Is it the drugs that are to blame, or the laws, those nanny state control freak tantrums that result when laws are passed but Americans don't instantly fall to their knees and renounce whatever it is the hysterical old people see fit to demonize? The sentences are lengthened, the fines stiffened, and still Americans cling to their freedom. Whether hurling tea into Boston Harbor, rising up against the whiskey tax, or growing dope in your parent's upstate New York basement, you're a true patriot! And you know who would agree with me? Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, you heard me, and John Ford, John Wayne and BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS star, John Agar, before, that is, the evil brain took over his body.

And especially if you're tall and heavy and don't move so well, let Wayne show you how it's done - and remind you that you don't have to do it. Summer's here, so soak it up the way the west was meant to be, in the dreams of a TV,  with Irish in your air conditioned blood finding itself warmed in every song The Sons of the Pioneers sing to their holy Shirley Temple.


  1. Terrific piece, Erich.

  2. I think you'd like "Wagon Master," made amidst the cavalry trilogy, which is among his most instinctive, sympathetic portrayals of misfit characters leading marginal existences. There's not much of a story, just a hymn to the pleasures and dangers of outsider societies, whether Navaho, Mormon, or a drunken theatre troupe--all seemingly just wandering around the desert looking for some kind of home. With maybe my favourite cowboy performance, from Ben Johnson, who looks even better on a horse than John Wayne.


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