Essential Films: Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), True Grit (1969), The Shootist (1976)
Oscar Dish: Three nominations; one win, for True Grit. Other nominations: Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Alamo (1960).
DVD You Need to See Right Now: Stagecoach; see below.
The image on the recently issued U.S. postage stamp commemorating John Wayne shows a definitively craggy “Duke,” the patriarchal pioneer patriot who’s an essential figure in American iconography and ideology. It’s easy to forget that the man never held political office, that he was just an actor, and it’s easier to forget that before he was craggy, he was—there’s no other word for it—beautiful. The lightning-quick track into a close-up that introduces him in Stagecoach is still one of the most breathtaking shots in cinema history.
And yet this was a guy whose first crack at stardom, nine years before in The Big Trail, didn’t take. This was a guy so unsure of himself that after John Ford had him read the story upon which Ford would base Stagecoach, and then asked him who, in his opinion, should play the role of the Ringo Kid, replied, “Lloyd Nolan.” Check out Wayne’s Sheriff John Chance going all awkward on Angie Dickinson’s bad-girl-gone-good in Rio Bravo and you still see that young man—a decent guy you wish the best for rather than some nationalist monolith.