Cinema: John Wayne as the Last Hero

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At the edge of a birch grove, four mounted outlaws try to stare down the aging lawman.

"I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Fort Smith. . ." barks Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

"Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," the bandit leader sneers.

"Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!"

Cogburn answers, clamping his reins in his teeth and letting loose with a two-handed fusillade from his Winchester and long-barreled revolver.

At the end of the battle, four villains —and one horse—lie punctured and defunct upon the ground. "Dammit, Bo," says Cogburn to his mount as he lies pinned beneath it. "First time ya ever gave me reason to curse ya."

SELF-PARODY is the price of style.

Hemingway verged on it in his later novels; Presidents Roosevelt and Eisenhower accomplished it in their later speeches. John Wayne charges into it in his latest movie, True Grit. Like all consummate stylists, he remains unharmed. Only the enemy is hurt.

The broader the parody, the bigger the self. Wayne has been honing and buffing that self in some 250 pictures —mostly westerns—for 40 years. He has become the essential American soul that D. H. Lawrence once characterized as "harsh, isolate, stoic and a killer." Superficially his films have been as alike as buffalo nickels. Only the date changes; even the Indian looks the same. Yet through the decades there has been a perceptible alteration. The public, riding along in movie houses or taking the TV shortcut, has watched the celluloid Wayne pass through three stages of life. In the '30s, he was the outspoken, hair-trigger-tempered son who would straighten out if he didn't get shot first. By the late '40s, he had graduated to fatherhood: topkick Marine to a platoon of shavetails or trail boss to a bunch of saddle tramps. In True Grit his belt disappears into his abdomen, his opinions are sclerotic and his face is beginning to crack like granite. Audiences now recognize him as a grandfather image, using booze for arterial Antifreeze, putting off winter for one more day. They also recognize Wayne as an actor of force and persuasion. And the frontier town of Hollywood—which has never granted Wayne a single Academy Award—has begun to realize that it might just be a little behind in its payments.

Romantic Backlash

On one side of the screen, Wayne has often appeared to be loping through his roles. But on the other side, it seems, there has always been an exacting competitive performer. In McLintock, recalls Actress Maureen O'Hara, "he didn't like the way I was doing a scene, and he said angrily, 'C'mon, Maureen, get going. This is your scene.' I said I was trying to go fifty-fifty. 'Fifty-fifty, hell,' he said. 'It's your scene. Take it.' Then he added under his breath, 'If you can.' " The master of the western, Director John Ford, calls Wayne "a splendid actor who has had very little chance to act." Agrees Director Andrew McLaglen: "All of a sudden they're saying that he's an actor. Well, he always was."

Even such an anti-Establishmentarian as Steve McQueen is a Wayne buff. "Sometimes kids ask me what a pro is," he says. "I just point to the Duke."

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