John Wayne was the original Man’s Man. Never before or since has there been a manlier man than The Duke. Not only was he the epitome of manliness, John Wayne also happened to be the greatest western star of all time. His rugged charisma, along with his badass persona, and of course, The Voice, makes any movie he’s in an instant must-see. Because of that, John Wayne is a Legend of the Silver Screen.
Our first John Wayne film up for discussion is…
THE MAN FROM MONTEREY (1933) ***
The early John Wayne films of the 30’s can be divided into two categories. The first has The Duke riding into a new town and helping an old timer fend off claim jumpers who are trying to snatch his land; all the while falling in love with the old guy’s daughter. The second featured Wayne riding into a new town where he is mistaken for a murderer and has to clear his name; all the while falling in love with some old guy’s daughter. The Man from Monterey falls into the former category.
What makes the flick different than most Wayne westerns of the time is the Mexican setting. Instead of ghost towns and ten gallon hats, The Man from Monterey features palatial ranchos and giant sombreros. I also liked Wayne’s gypsy comic relief sidekick too. Other than that, it’s a pretty typical vintage Wayne oater.
And just so you know, I don’t want you to confuse “pretty typical” with “run of the mill”. Most Wayne pictures of the era are fun because of their familiar plots, emphasis on action, and abbreviated running times. (This one runs a scant 57 minutes.) But just because it’s a typical example of an early John Wayne movie doesn’t mean it doesn’t have share of surprises. I mean at the end of the flick, Wayne eschews his pistol to fight the bad guys with a sword a la Zorro! How cool is that? The Man from Monterey also has kind of a South of the Border Romeo and Juliet flavor going for it that I admired too. Even with the brief running time, we do get some slow patches here and there, but for the most part, the flick remains a solid example of what The Duke was capable of early in his career.
Wayne gives a terrific performance befitting a Legend of the Silver Screen. In addition to beating the crap out of people and being a total pimp, he gets at least one positively badass moment where he enters a guy’s house through the window and smoothly strikes up a conversation. If anyone else did that, it would seem goofy and out of place, but The Duke just has that air of coolness about him that you welcome him into your home whether he comes through the door or the window.
And I didn’t even mention the best part of the movie, John Wayne’s character’s name. His name in this flick is… (are you ready for this) JOHN HOLMES! Man, with a name like that you know The Duke is packing more than a six shooter if you know what I mean.
The next Duke picture is…
THE BARBARIAN AND THE GEISHA (1958) **
John Wayne stars as Townsend Harris, the first American diplomat to Japan. When he first arrives, he is met with much resistance. In an effort to make Townsend’s stay hospitable, the governor sends him a lowly geisha girl (Eiko Ando) to see to his needs. During the course of his stay Townsend butts heads with Japanese officials, has to contend with a cholera outbreak, and predictably, falls madly in love with his geisha gal.
The Barbarian and the Geisha is an atypical John Wayne picture. It’s much more of a Technicolor travelogue than anything you’re used to seeing The Duke in. And it has to be said that even Wayne himself looks a tad bit uncomfortable wearing his awkward period attire. And despite his Legendary stature, Wayne’s severe miscasting nearly cripples the flick.
On top of that, the film is painfully low on action. There is one scene where The Duke fights a couple of slow-witted Japanese villagers but it’s not especially memorable. It would’ve been a lot cooler if he had an out and out Kung Fu battle with them.
The flick was directed by John Huston, who apparently clashed with the studio as well as Wayne during filming. This off screen tension seems to have transferred into the film itself because The Duke looks pretty miserable in this one. Then there are the odd scenes that aren’t filmed very well or seem like they were tinkered with afterwards. Like the scene where the geisha argues with the governor. We see their lips moving but she does all the talking via voiceover narration. While his lips are flapping, she tells us on the soundtrack, “He told me, they were planning an invasion”. Why couldn’t he have just told us that himself?
Part of John Wayne’s charm is seeing him wearing a ten gallon hat and/or soldier uniform and reenacting the same six or seven plot lines over and over again. As an audience member, we want to see him up to his usual tricks. We don’t want to see him out of his element. In Barbarian and the Geisha, he’s about as far away from his element as he can get. Because of that (and the languid pacing, lack of dramatic tension, and piss poor supporting performances), this is one of Wayne’s lesser outings.
And our final Wayne film is…
IN HARM’S WAY (1965) **
John Wayne stars as a captain on a naval battleship on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. When he disobeys orders and engages the enemy, The Duke is relieved of his duty. During his down time, he tries to get reacquainted with his estranged son and romances a nurse. Eventually, Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda) gives Wayne his command back and he sets out to regain his honor.
Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way is a sprawling WWII drama that’s a bit too sprawling for it’s own good. There are ultimately way too many inconsequential supporting players that bog the movie down and the copious melodramatic subplots don’t do the film any favors either. Also, the flick lacks a real sense of urgency. Most of the characters act rather nonchalant that their base was just bombed and there’s a war going on, which is kinda odd. On the plus side, the film does have featuring some mild cursing and even a chick in a see-thru wet bra, showing Hollywood’s ever-loosening mores.
The Duke gives a solid performance as the forthright captain and his Legendary presence keeps you watching even during the draggier passages of the flick. Kirk Douglas (who went on to star with The Duke in The War Wagon) is also great as Wayne’s alcoholic cuckold second in command and Burgess Meredith is hilarious as one of Wayne’s cantankerous buddies. The colorful supporting cast features such familiar faces as Patrick O’Neal, Carroll O’Conner, George Kennedy, Barbara Bouchet, and Slim Pickens; all of whom do a fine job with their limited scenes.
While the film starts with a bang, it takes forever for the action to heat up again. At over 2 hours and 45 minutes, the flick is just too long and bloated to be worthwhile. The cast does what they can and you can at least get some enjoyment from watching Wayne act like a badass, but that’s about all In Harm’s Way has going for it. As Wayne’s WWII movies go, this one feels even longer than The Longest Day.
Douglas gets the best line of the movie when he chews out Wayne’s good for nothing son, “I refuse to accept you as your father’s son. I think somebody got in there ahead of him!”
Next time on Legends of the Silver Screen, we’ll be profiling the great Jean Claude Van Damme and take a look at the brand new director’s cut of Cyborg on loan to me by my good friend Ryan Kenner from over at Movies in the Attic (http://moviesintheattic.blogspot.com/). See you all then!