The Wild Wild West

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, March 5, 2006

The hype over "Brokeback Mountain" got us talking around the house about Hollywood westerns, and specifically about John Wayne.

"Who?" the kids asked.

"John Wayne."

Silence. To their ears, this was just a random person with two first names.

I was appalled. I'm all in favor of kids seeing movies like "Brokeback Mountain," which will teach them to be tolerant and supportive of alternative lifestyles, and to understand the great historical drama of How the West Was Won and Subsequently Decorated. That said, I think we should first lay down a solid foundation -- a base line -- of extreme homophobia, jingoism, fear of the Other, and a psychotic rapaciousness toward the natural world. Just like we grown-ups had!

See, kids today are being robbed of the great spiritual journey that comes from surmounting prejudice, because they don't have any to begin with. They emerge from the womb as egalitarians, wildly open-minded and completely unable to discern the labels that adults have assigned to various groups of people. It took me several years to explain the concept of "white" people and "black" people. Now we have the first gay cowboy movie, and my kids haven't even had the chance to see any hetero cowboy movies. This is where the Duke comes in, strolling into our tale like a club-wielding Neanderthal from a diorama at the Natural History Museum. The kids should know: Once upon a time, this was what we meant when we talked about "a man."

The Duke had many of the most acclaimed virtues of his era: He was hard-working, patriotic, gruff and looked plausible on a horse. He was as strong as an oak, and roughly as limber. He stipulated to his agent that he would accept only roles in which he carried a firearm. He was always whipping out his pistol to kill a bad guy or an Indian or an enemy combatant or someone who was standing around making fun of his acting.

In truth, his lack of range as an actor made him seem all the more authentic and studly. A real man didn't prance around and yap at the mouth and preen for the camera. John Wayne spent a lot of time on the screen doing very little other than looking rugged, with his brow furrowed, and an expression that seemed to say, "I'm fixin' to kill the next fella that tries to make me say any big words." In later years especially, he tended to look pained, as though he'd just discovered that he was the only conservative left in Hollywood.

Naturally, I had to show the kids a John Wayne movie. We went to the video store and settled on "Red River." Directed by Howard Hawks, co-starring Montgomery Clift. The teaser explained that John Wayne plays a cowboy who takes his massive herd on a long cattle drive. Perfect: A cowboy movie with lots of cows.

A little ways into the movie, the young Montgomery Clift makes his first appearance, playing "Matt," the adopted son of the John Wayne character. He sort of . . . slinks around. Pantherish. Boy, he's one pretty cowboy.

Another handsome young man, played by John Ireland, shows up and wants to join the cattle drive. Matt bristles at the newcomer, but it's clear that the two lads are instantly fascinated with each other.

"That's a good-lookin' gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it?" the Ireland character says.


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