Monday, May 27, 2019

McLintock (1963),John Wayne and the modern western

I was watching John Wayne’s McLintock on Encore westerns again and a couple of things hit me about the film that surprised the hell out of me.

The plot for those who don’t know is about rich rancher GW McLintock who owns most of the stat he live in. Just before his daughter is to return from school, his estranged wife returns home to ask for custody of their daughter. As a taming of the shrew relationship plays out between the couple….

What surprised me was that outside of the anti-feminist stance of woman needs a good spanking the film is actually surprisingly modern and could be a quasi starting point or an early indicator of change in the genre.

Consider that the native American and ethnic characters are treated with dignity. Wayne allows them to be people. He also deals with their plight. We have the issues of the white men abusing the Indians and Wayne inverting things by making the smartest man in the film, the railroad telegraph operator being a highly educated college man. Wayne allows him to voice his displeasure at being looked down upon. Wayne’s McLintock has absolute respect for all the native American characters, and while some of the characters are used for comic relief the jokes are exactly the sort of ones he directs at every other character-hell the only ones not reduced to buffoons in the mud pit fight are the Indians who walk off unscathed. Granted it may not be perfect but consider the other films from the period and its a breath of fresh air.

And if you look at what was happening in Europe with the rise of the Euro western, particularly with the popularity of the Karl May sourced Winnetou films from Germany you can see a slow shift toward giving the native Americans a modicum of respect.   Yes  it wasn't perfect but where in cinema do you really see more than a single Native American character being seen with respect?

And aside from the spanking/romance angle Wayne's treatment of women is actually surprisingly feminist. The women are all head strong and able to not only pick their fights but win them. This portrayal of women in the film is considerably more than the typical woman alone on the range must rise to the level of men we see in most films with strong women characters. Here the  women are doing what they want from the get go. They challenge the men on every level. They do not do anything they don't want to, following their own very good sense of what is right for them.

As amazing as it seems Wayne's treatment of women is a hell of a lot more complex than you see in any other producer/directors films. If you look at the women in his films. Look at the women in the Rooster Cogburn films, Lauren Bacall in THE SHOOTIST, or  Michele Carey in EL DORADO and you have incredibly strong female characters who stand their ground.  I suspect that any softening of them is hat tip to the conventions of the time.

Watching  the film and comparing it to the other films Wayne was making you really see the inklings of a man who was slowly changing the way we see characters and situations. I'm sure that he wasn't out to change the world but at the same time I don't think he was going to leave things be either.

What I find fascinating is that if you watch the career of John Wayne you have the stereotypes, the cowboy, the gruff leader, but as he became more involved in making his own films, first as a producer and then as a director you have this sly duality- you have Wayne the man of old Hollywood making what appears to be old Hollywood style films , but he is quietly subverting that- you have characters that now seem to be of a type but if you really think of them not in the context of just Wayne's out put but in all cinema, or at least Hollywood, then you realize that he was doing things - like showing mostly modern women in a western- when no one else was.

John Wayne was one of Hollywood under appreciated filmmakers.

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