A more complex John Wayne in ‘Quiet Man,’ ‘Yellow Ribbon’

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  • In the popular imagination of John “Duke” Wayne, there’s a soft side to him that goes unpraised: the delicious romantic, the cool hipster or relaxed compadre who doesn’t want to get in anyone’s way. We tend to think of Wayne as a prowling neon sign of America, an uncomplicated cliche: a hard, indestructible cowboy, more mythic than mortal (think of that unbearably hammy Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”), a self-appointed symbol for “justice” in a West that, in the pervasive myths told about America by Americans, was lawless and untamed.

    But Wayne’s greatest roles are those in which he is but a humble sliver of a mosaic-like community. There is Wayne in Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo” (1959) as a human puppy, shy around womenfolk, best buddies with struggling alcoholics and Mexican hotel owners in a middle-of-nowhere town. There is Wayne in John Ford’s “They Were Expendable” (1945), a World War II film in which he plays a young PT boat captain who doesn’t spout banal speeches about what war and America mean to him, but who simply tries to survive, even as the men around him are maimed or blown apart.

    Two more Waynes, directed by John Ford and on display at the Stanford Theatre, are surprising in their lyricism and complexity: the American boxer who goes to Ireland to escape his past in “The Quiet Man” (1952) and the aging soon-to-be-retiree of the cavalry in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949).

    With Howard Hawks’ Western “Red River” (1948), Wayne began playing older, world-wearier men — thus marking a deepening of his acting skills. But in “Red River,” he was cruel and vicious, gunning after the soft-edged Montgomery Clift with an un-Wayne-like homicidal fire in his eyes. In “Yellow Ribbon,” as the tired Nathan Brittles, Wayne calmed down considerably. In the twilight of his years, Brittles’ sole desire is to hang up his hat and spend the rest of his days in the quiet company of his wife — and her tombstone.

    Likewise, in “The Quiet Man,” Wayne lives up to the film’s title. As Sean Thornton, he barely speaks, instead preferring to listen to his wife, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), as he stands, hip and statuesque, in a ditch digging holes for no particular reason other than the pure pleasure he gets when fresh Irish dirt stains his Irish gray tweed.

    For my money, the film to catch is “The Quiet Man.” It’s impossible to overrate the blazing beauty and solemnity of the worlds Ford and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch conjure up. In “Yellow Ribbon,” during the funeral of an ex-Confederate, the mourners are huddled under a dismal gray sky, the hopeless scene looking less like a Frederic Remington painting and more like one of Francisco Goya’s existentialist Black Paintings.

    It shows just how great Ford and Hoch were at rendering displacement, at communicating the moods of whites (Wayne’s Confederates in “Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers”) lost in the wake of the Civil War, with no steady ideology on which to rest their unshakable beliefs. As Ford aged, he would more actively question the foundational myths on which these whites had built their homes, in such poetic and extraordinary works as “The Searchers,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960, starring Woody Strode as a black soldier falsely accused of raping a white woman) and the guns-a-blazingly feminist “Seven Women” (1966, his final film).

    But as we see in “The Quiet Man,” Ford’s tribute to his Irish blood, Ford and Hoch were just as adept at evoking mysterious moods of love and of a past slowly slipping away. Though the film was made for the low-budget Republic Studios, it doesn’t look it; the color palette swells with the moneyed beauty you’d expect from MGM’s Vincente Minnelli. The base for Ford’s and Hoch’s palette is a swath of endless greens: the rolling grass of Ireland’s County Mayo that the frame can’t contain, the delicate spring green of Maureen O’Hara’s dress (a fine counterpoint to the fire and fury suggested by her red hair and skirt).

    Despite being shot mostly on location in Ireland, his film is a tribute to the weird bouillabaisse of America. “The Quiet Man” was made by an Irish American (Ford) whose one great emotional tragedy in life, according to O’Hara, was that he was not native Irish. And yet the whole point of the film is to dissolve those socially imposed boundaries that divide people of different cultures, genders, walks of life.

    The more we watch “The Quiet Man,” the more its greens soften and fade — not because the Technicolor stock is aging, but because we are, because our minds are in the throes of nostalgic reminiscence. But of what? It’s hard to say. Ford and Hoch make you desire a place you may have never been to, and make us recall those immigrant roots which we may too often forget.

    Carlos Valladares is a freelance writer. Original article available at: sfchronicle.com
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