“I was wrong you haven’t changed, have you Jacob McAndles?”
“Not one bit!”
So goes a poignant exchange between Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne in the early part of “Big Jake.” McAndles returns home after nearly 10 years to take part in the rescue effort to recover his kidnapped grandson. Martha McAndles learns quickly that her estranged husband is the same gruff, hard man she once knew!
I watched this movie for the umpteenth time the other night and those three simple words uttered by The Duke echoed in my mind. Three, three-letter words on a script: But somewhere in the past 40 years since “Big Jake” was filmed, I would argue these words have became more a statement of hope and comfort in a world gone crazy. It’s no news flash that we are not living in the same world of the 1970s. The headlines are pocked with stories of corruption, hate, tragedy and unrest. And to make matters worse, I see that AMC will not be running “Christmas with the Duke” this year. At a time when we need him more than ever, The Duke has disappeared.
Stick with me a minute and I’ll lead you across what may seem to be a ramshackle bridge between John Wayne movies and a world filled with tragic events. Let me start with a simple question.
Why are we still so drawn to John Wayne movies every time they hit the small screen? Hollywood continues to churn out hundreds of movies a year, yet so many people continue to hold an attraction for an actor whose last movie hit the silver screen nearly 40 years ago. Maybe it’s because, as a country, we still have a love affair with westerns. That’s possible, but I would argue, even as a huge Wayne fan, that there are many great westerns with stronger stories and deeper characters than most of Wayne’s work. (“Unforgiven” and the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” immediately come to mind).
Perhaps it’s because you just can’t see John Wayne movies everywhere, so we tune in to make sure we don’t miss one. Yeah, that’s probably not it either. If you’re a true fan like I am, there are few films they could show that don’t already have a hallowed place on your DVD rack.
No, I would contend one of the big reasons we continue to turn on and tune in is that John Wayne and his films bring stability and consistency to a world gone crazy. Duke is the Gibraltar-esque presence in a world where the waves of insanity continue to crash the shore. The darkness of mass shootings, heroes who have fallen from grace and a continual search for something or someone to look to that brings order and sense back into our world.
Wayne films, especially his westerns take us back to simpler times. Sure, there were struggles and hard times, but overall, it was easier to make sense of life. The line between right and wrong was more clearly defined, even in movies like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” where Tom Doniphon guns down Valance, but only after the law has failed repeatedly to bring him to justice. Our attraction may also be that we still want to believe in the ideals of America depicted in those movies, not the America we live in today, with its confused sense of integrity and justice.
And there was an additional element of consistency that The Duke gave us. Some argue his characters were merely thinly disguised sketches of the man himself. Even if that is true, there was an element of truth and consistency in every character he portrayed. Even men like Doniphon, Cole Thorton (“Eldorado”), and J.B. Books (“The Shootist”) were men of integrity. Doniphon stood up for the underdog and against the outlaw. Thorton sided with his friend and sheriff against the greedy Bart Jason. Even Books, a hired gun on his way out, did his part to ensure the young Gillam Rogers did not follow down the same path he had traveled.
In life, Wayne wasn’t without flaws. But even those flaws were consistent with the public image the world came to know and much of what we saw portrayed on the screen. I contend there is no one in Hollywood today that measures up in the same way.
So why can’t we get enough of The Duke? I think there is a part of our subconscious that wants to relive the values we see Wayne exemplify in his films, values that are so drastically lacking in our world today. This year, we’ll all have to break into personal movie vault for our fix on Christmas Day. Here’s hoping AMC sees what it is depriving America of and brings “Christmas with the Duke” back next year!
Until then, take comfort in knowing The Duke hasn’t changed!
“Not one bit!”