From William S. Hart to the Dude; or, We Have Met the Hero, and He Is Us

In the 1920s, William S. Hart was the icon of the West. As well as Uncle Sam, a shining-knight cowboy, west-ho adventurer, and all-around patriotic patriarchal figure.

Thirty years later, John Wayne became the next icon of choice for manly men everywhere. Embodying home and hearth as well as risky adventure, Wayne’s shade of derring-do was equally patriotic, conservative, rugged, and chivalric. (He once refused to be filmed shooting someone in the back, saying “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” (And hoo boy, that quote better be right as I have to skip checking. Jeeves, would you mind?)

Watching Hart’s mournful prologue of Tumbleweeds (his last film, from 1929, which was reissued with his only talking role) is an exercise in patience for us modern types. Maybe, for all his gifts and western-convention-creation brilliance, the guy’s flaw was that he took his persona too seriously. I regret saying that about a bucko who was sincerely aggrieved about the sun setting on the Old West and his popularity (and rising on flamboyant actors like Tom Mix). But well, compared to Wayne, he seems like a pity partyer.

Wayne, as monolithic as he seemed, allowed himself to be shown as a seething racist tragically isolated by a frontier mentality (The Searchers, 1956) and as a caricature of his tough-as-nails persona in True Grit (1969). If I see one more faux-parchment souvenir plaque of the Duke I’ll scream, but he does have some righteous acting behind him.

But will John Wayne someday be seen as an outdated curiosity? Will his particular brand of man be seen as antiquated?

Maybe it already has.

As I’ll be cubicle living for the next couple of months and blogging less frequently (every other day, I think, with the added bonus that maybe the posts will be more thoughtful!), I’ll leave you buckaroos and buckarettes with the future of the western hero (who is us, btw):

1920s: the great William S. Hart

1950s: the awesome John Wayne

2010: the epically awesome DUDE!

Yes, True Gritowski, I mean, a remake of True Grit, via the Coen Brothers, coming soon. (And what the hell does that say about us?) Here’s a trailer.

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