By Carter B. Horsley
The non-nonsense swagger, good looks and long
career of John Wayne made him the most famous male movie star
of the 20th Century and a major icon of American culture.
He was the quintessential quiet but strong
leading man who was given more to force than words. Widely imitated
and parodied, Wayne's success was based on his persona as a "he-man
hero" without peer. His early reputation was based mainly
on his glamour and he achieved major stardom in "Stagecoach,"
a 1941 western, after about a decade of work mostly in minor westerns.
In this film, Wayne portrays Tom Dunson, a
troubled, embittered and mean rancher who loses the respect on
a cattle drive of his fellow cowboys and his adopted son, Matthew
Garth, who is portrayed by Montgomery Clift in his screen debut.
Wayne's portrayal of Dunson demonstrated that he could be a very
good actor for he ages admirably in the film and his performance
is memorable not only for its strength but also its subtlety.
While the movie is far from perfect, it is
extremely interesting in its pairing of Wayne and Clift in the
leading roles. Clift is quite wonderful. He is cocky, sensitive,
tortured, romantic, headstrong, uncertain, fearful and respectful,
and very expressive, all qualities that James Dean would embody
a few years later in his brief but stunning career. Clift's persona
is rather poetic whereas Wayne's is titanic and bold. Both are
highly mannered but in very different ways.
Wayne is simple and brutish. His walk/saunter
is that of a determined, possessed, focused man.
Clift is more dimensional. His hesitatations,
ponderings and waverings are that of a sensitive, reflective,
Their characters, however, are not black-and-white.
Clift is agile with his gun and no coward. Wayne may not hesitate
to shoot someone, but will honor them with a "reading"
over their grave.
Many critics and reviewers have commented that
the film's "love interests," initially Coleen Gray for
Wayne and later Joanne Dru for Clift, slow the film's momentum.
They are, however, necessary as Gray's death early in the film
helps the viewer sympathize with Dunson's bitterness and lack
of humor and Dru's appeal to Dunson to spare Matt's life after
he has led a mutiny of Dunson's men and expelled him from the
cattle drive is a quite remarkable and surprising scene in which
her willingness to sacrifice her love of Matt by agreeing to give
Dunson an heir is as startling as Dunson's request. Dru, a very
beautiful brunette who would appear in other Westerns with Wayne,
portrays a "pioneer" woman of formidable strength. She
handles this scene very well and it is perhaps the finest in Wayne's
career. When Matt first encounters Dru, she has been wounded in
her right shoulder by an arrow during an attack by Indians on
her wagon train. The scene is quite surreal as she asks Clift
many personal questions while he is shooting at the attacking
Indians. Many reviewers have scoffed at the scene's incongruous
dialogue, but it is one of the film's surprises, which is needed
because of its quite slow beginning. We take most of the clichés
of the Western genre in stride and because this film used many
as well as setting many the scenes with Dru are jolting, but they
serve the purpose of making the drama much more interesting as
well as giving a pre-politically correct culture a big dose of
Most critics and reviewers have been disappointed
with the film's ending when Dru breaks up the "showdown"
fight between Dunson and Matt with a long harangue about how much
they love one another. Virtually all those critics and reviewers
note that however much they are dismayed by this "happy"
ending, the intensity of the film is not seriously impaired. To
a large extent, they are right: Matt refuses Dunson's demand that
he draw, but after being punched about he does fight back, although
the viewer suspects that Matt would not kill Dunson under any
circumstances and Dunson's march on foot through a herd of cattle
suggests that nothing will dissuade him from revenging Matt's
mutiny. In retrospect, however, the ending fits well with the
scene in which Dru appealed to Dunson to spare Matt. Dunson has
been humiliated and humbled by Matt, the presumptive heir to his
empire. Dunson recognizes that Dru is a remarkable enough woman
to ask her to have his child. He has raised Matt for about 15
years and clearly had come to love him.
Wayne's decision to relent after her harangue
is really not all that surprising. One often sees the humor, if
not futility, of anger at the moment of rage. It is one of the
thin lines that usually makes truth stranger than fiction. A hero
encounters fear. A villain discovers guilt, or remorse, or just
tiredness. Anger needs to be spent somehow and time often is a
fine cure and some things that appear ultimate and vital and uncompromisable
sometimes are shocked in different perspectives.
The characters portrayed by Wayne, Clift and
Dru are absorbing and interesting. We are fascinated by them and
their unpredictability and their maturing. Our interest in them
is also supported by its focus on people's often misplaced hope
that other people can change their personality.
This epic Western film is about the first cattle
drive in 1865 on the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Abilene. Like
some of John Ford's westerns, it suffers some from the rather
hokey singing that would be more appropriate for a children's
campfire than the rigors of a real cattle drive, and one wonders
why both directors resorted to such campiness in this genre. Presumably,
such scenes were included for a bit of levity and relief from
the more somber realities of the stories and perhaps to appeal
to a wider "family" audience, but apart from establishing
camaraderie, which is not unimportant, they detract from the sweep
and impact of the stories.
The American mythologizing of the "pioneer"
West goes back a long ways, but this film is one of the classics
that defined the genre. "Westerns" would not begin to
treat Native Americans with much respect for another couple of
decades and their appeal has always been the primary notion of
rugged individualism in a wild and awesome physical environment.
Pure lyricism, of course, rarely made for good drama. Simple morality
of the good guys and the bad guys did, even though life is more
complex and this film, to its credit, focuses on those complexities
to a good extent.