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John Wayne and me

Thirty years ago today, John Wayne died. He was 72. I was 14. And I remember that day, watching on our small black and white television the slow motion and then stilled image of Wayne as he turns and looks back at the camera .

To this day, Wayne remains my favorite of all screen actors. Yesterday, I read Roger Ebert’s wonderful tribute to and memories of Wayne, which reminded me of many of the reasons why I harbor this longtime affection for Wayne. In particular, Ebert’s words reminded me how the characters Wayne portrayed often were flawed yet had a sense of goodness and strength about them. As a kid and young adult, my favorite Wayne films were the likes of Quiet Man, Donovan’s Reef, Rio Bravo, Hellfighters and Chisum. But in recent years, my favorite films have become those in which the characters are more deeply flawed and wounded: in particular, The Searchers and True Grit. These are two of his more broken characters, but—especially with Wayne’s character history—they carry with them a sense of redemption towards goodness.

Regarding The Searchers, I am among those who see the ending as a very moving and hope-full moment of transformation for Ethan Edwards, who has spent most of his life as a bitter, angry and callous man. But his experience in searching for his niece and the subsequent choices he makes when he finds her make that final image a moment dripping with redemption, new life and hope. (See more here.)

But it was in Ebert’s piece that I realized the power of Wayne’s persona and character history to transform a specific character, particularly that of Rooster Cogburn (the only role for which Wayne won an Academy Award). When Wayne asks Ebert what he thinks about his image, Ebert writes:
What came to mind was a scene in "True Grit" where Wayne and Kim Darby are waiting all night up on a hill for the bad guys to come back to the cabin. And Wayne gets to talking about how he was married once, to a grass widow back in Cairo, Illinois, and how she took off one day. And how he didn't care much, how he missed her some, but he'd rather lose a wife than his independence. And how he took off alone, and glad to be alone, and stuck up a bank or two, just to stake himself, back in the days before he took up marshaling. And Darby asks him about those old days, about how he got to where he was now. . . I think it's sort of a summation of the dozens of Western characters played by Wayne.

"Well," Wayne said. "Well, maybe so." He stood up and walked over to the glass doors, hands in his pockets, and looked out at the patio. Frosty was wagging his tail and begging to be allowed back inside. "I guess that scene in 'True Grit' is about the best scene I ever did," he said.
Then Wayne goes on to reflect on the film, particularly its ending:
He sprawled comfortably on an old leather sofa. "And that ending," he said, pouring a few more drops of tequila into his neglected glass, "I liked that. You know, in the book Mattie loses her hand from the snakebite, and I die, and the last scene in the book has her looking at my grave. But the way Marguerite Roberts wrote the screenplay, she gave it an uplift. Mattie and Rooster both go to visit her family plot, after she gets cured of the snakebite. By now it's winter. And she offers to let Rooster be buried there some day, seeing as how he has no family of his own. Rooster's happy to accept, long as he doesn't have to take her up on it too quick. So then he gets on his horse and says, 'Come and see a fat old man some time.' And then he spurs the horse and jumps a fence, just to show he still can."
I read the novel by Charles Portis earlier this year and hadn’t yet blogged it because I wasn’t quite sure how. For a story laced with biblical references and themes exploring justice, sacrifice, the power of our relationships and the effects we and our choices have on one another, I found the ending sad and disheartening. Not that the ending is inconsistent with the novel itself; themes like that don't necessarily lead to hope-full outcomes. I just wasn't quite sure how to process it all. Now, in light of Wayne's comments and Ebert's words, I think that was probably because of my experience with and appreciation of the film—and, of course, my affection for Wayne.

In the novel, Mattie is narrating the story from old age and her voice dominates the story. As a 14-year-old girl, she hires and goes with Cogburn to hunt down the man who killed her father. She is a headstrong, tenacious and very opinionated girl—and I’m with those who conclude that it is her grit rather than Cogburn’s that the novel is ultimately named for.

Through most of the story, the film and novel are pretty similar (with a few significant differences). Wayne captures Cogburn perfectly, and Kim Darby does a excellent Mattie. But the film diverges from the novel most significantly at the end. In the latter part of her life, Mattie is a one-arm spinster (losing her arm to that snakebit) whose work at a bank is her whole life. Though her words suggest she is content with her life, I can’t help feeling a sense of loss and sympathy for what must be a deeply wounded heart that she covers with a hard and bare look at life and the people around her. She goes in search of Cogburn, whom she’s told is traveling with a gun show that is stopping near by. But when she arrives, he’s already dead and she sees to his burial. The ending leaves us knowing that neither Mattie nor Cogburn were changed by their encounter except that they discovered like souls in each other. But even that is empty of sorts. The two remain unconnected to each other or anyone else in their lives. They are alone.

But the film, as Wayne points out, leaves us feeling hope and new life for the two. They are family, connected. Whether you agree or not with the idea of changing the ending of a story, the change is arguably a good example regarding the power of Wayne’s persona and the history of his characters (or, at the very least, a good example of the redemptive edge his characters seem to share).

The novel is an extremely enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. But personally, this is one time when I prefer the film over the book. Heh, perhaps that has more to do with my sense of pragmatic optimism than the quality of the stories themselves. I resonate with and am attracted to stories that witness to the power of love and sacrifice to birth transformation, and the film portrays that more than the novel.

Most probably, however, it is a testimony to my enduring affection for John Wayne.

(Image: film posters and book cover via Wikipedia; John Wayne’s footprints and fist impressions in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, mine taken July 2008)


Joseph said…
What a great post. I love the way you weave novels, films, biography and personal reflection into an excellent piece of writing.

My dad has always been a Wayne fan, I never saw the attraction. However, reading your post has made me want to put some of his films on my viewing list.

Carmen Andres said…
joseph, thank you! and i do hope you enjoy wayne's films--True Grit and The Searchers are two of my favorite, but The Shootist (his last film) is very good as well. then there are my other favs like El Dorado, Rio Bravo, The Sons of Katie Elder, Hondo and Big Jake. His non-western, Donovan's Reef, was one of my favorite movies for a long time, and even in light of Wayne's other work, I still have a fondness for it.