Movie heroes today lack stature of Wayne, Cagney

Commentary

June 30, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Why don't they make stars like James Cagney or John Wayne anymore? It's partly because they don't make Americans like Cagney or Wayne anymore. We've become too self-conscious - maybe even too camera-conscious - as well as too polarized and fragmented. Without even trying, these stars represented things about their country in the way they walked or smoked or set off fireworks. Cagney stood for urban American drive and sass and gumption. Wayne became a walking dream of easy Western confidence and fortitude. And they could share each other's fan base; in many ways, they still do. That's why their movies pop up on cable or in new DVD sets every holiday.

There are few better ways to salute July 4 than to curl up with Warner Home Video's new John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection, heralded on the box as "The Star. The Director. The Movies that Define the American Spirit." This rich, deep anthology marks one of the rare times that the most celebrated title is also the best. It's the classic Western Stagecoach (1939), which limns a complex portrait of American democracy on wagon wheels while containing one of the most jaw-dropping chases and nerve-wracking showdowns ever filmed. Director John Ford knew how to energize Wayne and compose his broad features and frame within each shot so that he became an open-faced picture of rugged rural nobility. Wayne achieved major stardom in this film as the Ringo Kid. He helps to protect all the passengers, even the greedy or genteel hypocrites, from hostile Indians. But he becomes a knight gallant to the one shunned by all the others: Claire Trevor's pretty, sad-eyed prostitute.

I think Ford and Wayne nearly matched that peak - achieving a new, easy eloquence - 10 years later, with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, the second of Ford's "cavalry trilogy" (Fort Apache, contained here, was the first, Rio Grande the last). In this one Wayne plays Capt. Nathan Brittles, who must try to halt the spread of a vast, pan-tribal Indian war following Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn, while passing down lessons of command to his lieutenants before his impending retirement.

Wayne had already played an older man in Howard Hawks' Red River, giving a portrait of psychosis in some ways as remarkable as Humprhey Bogart's in John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Cagney's in Raoul Walsh's White Heat. But She Wore a Yellow Ribbon accents the virtues of the leathery sagebrush sage who could handle any job without raising a sweat, and who could make taciturnity seem belligerent. Every word Brittles says counts. He isn't overly sensitive - or at least not overtly sensitive - but he feels the ties of family, community and country.

What Wayne does in this movie resembles the postwar reach for raw truth that was spreading from Broadway to Hollywood. Of course, he was taking his cues from Ford. In this last great phase of his career, Ford reacted to his recent Second World War experience by framing profiles in courage, while reaching back artistically to the visual and dramatic spontaneity of his silent Westerns.

In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wayne brings an audience inside qualities that in lesser performers could be dramatically intractable, like rough-hewn dignity and reticence. The extra second it takes for him to mute the emotion before barking out a command only adds depth to his authority, and when Ford gives him a chance to express his feelings directly - at the graves of his wife and two daughters - he has a mellow, rueful veracity.

Unlike Stagecoach, this movie does have grievous flaws: too much amateurish service comedy with Victor McLaglen as a drunken sergeant, and too much incongruous glamour from Joanne Dru as the non-Army gal who fuels the competition between rich-boy 2nd Lt. Harry Carey Jr. and stalwart 1st Lt. John Agar. (Ben Johnson takes supporting honors as an all-business scout.)

But She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of the most magnificently photographed Westerns ever made in color - because cinematographer Winton Hoch succeeded in bringing a Frederic Remington palette to the big screen, and because Ford suffused it with the stormy and stirring feelings of a post-Civil War country knitting itself back together on the Western frontier. Although the movie hardly questions the role of the cavalry in the Indian Wars, Brittles and an Indian chief agree that they are too old to fight wars - and that old men should stop wars. Throughout, Wayne is a virtuoso of restraint; no movie actor ever showed more exquisite control over values and emotions like faith, duty, honor or loyalty than Wayne does in this picture.

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