Monday, May 18, 2009

Lost in the West with John Wayne

It was hot outside and hotter inside my so-called ritzy, second-floor flat in the quaint bungalow neighborhood of tony Los Altos. Somebody forgot to install the air conditioning. Far worse, I'd received a call on Sunday morning from my father's doctor. He reported to me that my Dad had a new disease to add to the others that are wearing him down. It wasn't a great day. As the day grew hotter and the wallpaper began to melt, I decided it was time for me to look up the Duke and disappear into John Ford Country.

The movie Rio Grande was playing at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto, California. Big of screen, high of ceiling, conditioned of air, the old restored movie palace was showing one of director John Ford's best. It called to me and I answered.

The movie Rio Grande was filmed near Moab, Utah, in Monument Valley and the ranches and environs that surround it. Wayne was 43 when he made this film, young enough to retain the long, lean body of a man who could still wow 'em in that fitted cavalry uniform, but old enough to have the face of a man who had lived. He was beginning to look like the sadder and wiser John Wayne. It was a darn shame the Academy waited until he filmed the hokey True Grit to give him an Oscar.

Everyone in the cast is excellent. The scenery is stupendous. The wranglers, their horses, and the stunts are almost unbelievable. And there are stunts at every scene change, new stunning scenery at every twist of the story. IMDB says two stunt men were killed in one river sequence. John Ford, who was known to chew on a large handkerchief the way Gene Wilder does in the original The Producers, probably stopped chewing for a couple of moments after that and then moved on. The studios made him shoot this film so he could go to Ireland and make The Quiet Man.

Maureen O'Hara plays Wayne's wife, as she often did in Ford films, and the two were estranged, as they almost always were in Ford films. Her beauty was at its peak and the longing Wayne and O'Hara suggest with almost invisible motions of their hands and eyes and bodies is enough to make you weep. Ford seems to understand the strange mysteries of the rituals between men and women and understands as well how these mysteries can just as easily drive men and women apart. Ford was, after all, an Irishman. (Born Sean Aloysius O'Fearna in 1894.)

Claude Jarman, Jr, who four years earlier played Jody in The Yearling, is a man grown in this movie, or almost grown. He's long-legged as a colt and slender and almost as tall as Wayne, though Wayne, even in trim, has quite a few pounds on this talented young man who plays his son.

Families clearly intrigued Ford and that's reflected in the story line. America intrigued him too. The Sons of the Pioneers, playing a cavalry choir, underscore many of the movie's tenderest moments with their renditions of the traditional American pioneer tunes that Ford uses in all his Westerns.

I don't want to give too much away. The plot isn't new. The chases and Indian fights have all been done before. But here, they have been done in a way that they were never done before and never will be again. Every scene is perfection as is the supporting cast of Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, Victor McLaglen, and J. Carrol Naish. Corny, predictable, touching and fun, it simply has everything in a great, great, movie.

Like a bridge over troubled waters John Wayne and John Ford gave me two trouble-free hours. They did it with magic even though both have gone to that great round up in the sky. They did it with a movie that is fast and funny, wonderful, thrilling, and sweet and is as new as a shiny new penny ... even though it was released 59 years ago.

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1 comment:

Steve Latshaw said...

What a wonderful, beautiful article about a great American film. I envy you seeing it on the big screen. Here's a little trivia note... while the bulk of the film was shot in Monument Valley, the Fort was built and photographed at Corriganville, in Simi Valley, California. You can visit the site of the fort on a hot, sunny day... and while the walls and buildings are gone... mounted, sealed photographs of the locations remain, as do the old dirt and asphalt roads. You can squint your eyes and imagine the cavalry marching their last march out of the fort.