September 2, 2014 at 1:00 am

Reclaiming John Wayne: The Duke's 10 best

Wayne in the 'The Searchers,' perhaps his best performance. (Warner Bros.)

John Wayne was a great actor. There, I said it.

It may get me thrown out of certain intellectual circles, it may cause some to wonder about my politics, but that’s my premise and I’m sticking with it.

Sooner or later (usually sooner), anyone who writes about Wayne has to face the topic.

“For years,” writes Scott Eyman in his new biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” “the debate about Wayne centered around the ridiculous question of whether or not he could act, with liberals generally taking the negative position.” That’s a big part of the problem in assessing Wayne’s acting skills. His personal politics (conservative) got in the way of seeing the acting clearly, much in the same way that Mel Gibson’s loopiness or Woody Allen’s family troubles get in the way of seeing them.

These days, there are other factors as well. Let’s face it: Most of Wayne’s later films aren’t very good and he’s well past his prime in them. Yet these are the ones that most often turn up on television. Contemporary audiences may not even know Wayne’s best work. What’s more, the genre in which Wayne gave his most indelible performances – the Western – went out of fashion decades ago, replaced by Space Age sci-fi, oaters of a different stripe.

Some object to Wayne’s perceived narrow range as an actor. He was no Shakespearian. The narrow range objection could be made about any numbers of actors in Hollywood’s studio era, though – Bogart, Cagney, Stewart, Cooper – that’s how films were made in those days, tailored to the stars, written for their particular type.

Naturalism in any kind of art can be hard to read. If the artist does it well, especially an actor, it can look like he’s not doing anything. At his best, Wayne was a naturalistic actor, never theatrical, never chewing the scenery. He held back. It was by design.

“I have very few tricks,” Wayne once said of his acting. “Oh, I’ll stop in the middle of sentence so they’ll keep looking at me, and I don’t stop at the end, so they don’t look away, but that’s about the only trick I have.”

Wills observed something else about Wayne’s delivery: “The stop-and-go phrasing is what all his imitators get; but few capture the melodic intervals of his cadenced speech.” There’s a singing quality in Wayne’s best line readings.

Wayne’s physicality, of course, became a big part of his screen persona, and not just the famous walk, but the way he used his hands, the way he rode a horse, a grace of movement. Directors and actors noted it. Even when still, Wills points out, “Wayne constantly strikes the pose of Michelangelo’s ‘David.’” He was compelling to just watch.

Here, then, are 10 of his best films, most of them Westerns that, when taken together, nevertheless show a surprising range within a limited scope.

“Stagecoach” (1939): Wayne’s breakthrough role came in this landmark John Ford Western playing the Ringo Kid. He got second billing (to Claire Trevor), but he’s the moral and visual center of the film, an outlaw with generous human impulses. The first shot of Wayne – a rapid dolly shot in to a close-up as the actor cocks a rifle – is among the most famous in cinema. The barest of plots serves Ford’s purpose, a study of character and class, played out in the interior of the stagecoach and in cramped way stations. Wayne’s character is typically laconic, gentlemanly but not polished, strong, impervious.

“They Were Expendable” (1945): Another Ford picture, this one leisurely, with an ensemble cast. It follows the life of a PT boat unit in World War II, hardly a flag-waver (it’s actually about a defeat in the Philippines), but rather more of a slice of the grinding life of the crews, on land and sea. Wayne again gets second billing, behind Robert Montgomery this time, and gives an understated and charming performance. His eulogy for a fallen comrade, restrained, is particularly effective, as is the comic scene when a nurse asks him for his pants in a hospital.

“Red River” (1948): One of Wayne’s rare roles as a villain (Tom Dunson), the Captain Bligh of an epic cattle drive staged memorably by Howard Hawks in the great outdoors. Wayne’s barely sympathetic, a tough-as-nails taskmaster ready to kill to have his way, but his performance is gripping, leopard-eyed and jaw-clenching. Montgomery Clift and Walter Brennan are his co-stars, as is a terrible Joanne Dru. The movie has its silly moments, but it’s impossible not to watch.

“Fort Apache” (1948): Ford’s fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Little Big Horn, with Henry Fonda as a martinet commander (in the Custer role) who will not listen to the reason of his second in command, Wayne. The actor pulls off a fine balance of toughness, truth-telling and ineffectuality. The film is the first of Ford’s celebrated calvary trilogy, which also included “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande,” both with good Wayne performances.

“The Quiet Man” (1952): Wayne is the title character in this film set in Ireland, an ex-American boxer who has killed a man in the ring. “Wayne’s pugilist does one of the slowest burns in movie history – the fuse smolders for two hours,” writes critic Michael Sragow of the film, as Wayne’s character gradually gets sucked into the Irish community around him, which includes Maureen O’Hara as his love interest. Ford’s Technicolor photography captures the emerald greens and small-town life. Wayne’s restraint is perfect, a fish out of water.

“Hondo” (1953): An early production of Wayne’s own company, Batjac, “Hondo” was one of the most successful films of its time shot in 3D. It’s a fairly lean Western, though, as a lone man, part Apache (Wayne), shows up out of nowhere at the ranch of a mother and her young son in the middle of Indian territory. There are echoes of “Shane” here, as Wayne and stage actress Geraldine Page, oddly but effectively cast, gradually fall in love. Their courting is a delicate and fraught dance; Wayne plays the scenes with a surprising touch of vulnerability.

“The Searchers” (1956): Is “The Searchers,” John Ford’s epic widescreen Western, a mess or a masterpiece? I think it’s both, a truly magnificent film with plenty of flaws to go around. What everyone seems to agree on though is that Wayne’s performance as Ethan Edwards is his greatest. He plays a racist veteran of the Confederacy who embarks on a yearslong search for his niece, kidnapped by Comanche who also massacred her parents. Ethan has an uneasy and edgy relationship with everyone in the crowded film, and intends to kill his niece (played by Natalie Wood) when he finds her. It’s a searing, scowling acting job – “What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture?” – held in check by powerful undercurrents of doubt.

“Rio Bravo” (1959): One of Wayne’s greatest comic performances, typically quiet and light on its feet. He plays a sheriff in charge of a prisoner that a powerful gang wants to break out. In a spin on “High Noon,” in which Gary Cooper couldn’t get any help from the townsfolk, director Howard Hawks has a motley bunch of co-stars (including Dean Martin as a drunkard, a pretty, sharp-shooting Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan as an old, cranky cripple and a flirty Angie Dickinson) line up to help Wayne, who wants none of it but can’t stop them. It’s completely ridiculous and just as completely fun.

“True Grit” (1969): As Rooster Cogburn, Wayne won his only Oscar. His roisterous performance is a send-up of his upstanding film image; he plays an old, worn-down, unscrupulous marshal, drunk, eye-patched and not always using the best judgment. The acting is hammy and lovable; he’s having fun with the wheezy geezer. His line readings are melodious growls. Bad guy: “I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!” Cogburn: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”

“The Shootist” (1976): In this, Wayne’s last film, he plays an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, trying to go out with dignity. Don Siegel (”Dirty Harry”) directs it with an autumnal feeling (also nicely captured by Elmer Bernstein’s score) that seems to know its star is dying, too. He takes a room in a boarding house run by Lauren Bacall, whose son, played by Ron Howard, idolizes him. Wayne fills the role with tenderness, wisdom and resignation, looking truth in the face without sentimentality.