‘Is That You John Wayne?’ Remakes and Impressions

I was checking out a Western made a year or so back called Bone Tomahawk – a mashup of The Searchers meets The Walking Dead and a film I would suggest you do not watch if you have either recently eaten or intend to eat – and the sight of Kurt Russell channeling his inner Duke (again) got me to thinking about the number of John Wayne films that have been remade over the years along with those movies in which Duke doesn’t appear but his spirit is heavily invoked.

John Wayne Remakes

I understand there’s a remake of Angel and the Badman with Lou Diamond Phillips but I’ve not had the chance to check that one out so it’s not reviewed here.

Also, I’m not including films that might be some kind of a remake to one extent or another such as The Missing, which is supposedly an updated version of The Searchers, so apologies in advance for any obvious examples not included or mentioned in this article.

Poster for Stagecoach 1966Stagecoach (1966)

I managed to avoid this film for the last fifty years but my curiosity got the better of me when it turned up on TV a while back.
I knew it was never going to be as good as the original – after all how can you improve on a John Ford / Wayne opus anyway – and of course my suspicions were correct.

What were they thinking of when they cast Alex Cord as the Ringo Kid? He looks the part if I’m honest, rugged and tall and energetic just like Wayne, but the minute he opens his mouth he sounds like he’s auditioning for Ann Margret’s role instead.

Doris Day as Calamity Jane
any excuse to include an image of Doris Day

In fact it might have been more interesting if they’d reversed the gender of the kid and made him a tough Calamity Jane type character but of course this is a product of 1960s Hollywood when men were still men and women weren’t so that was never going to happen.

I have to admit some of the rest of the cast fare a bit better. Bing Crosby makes a pretty good drunken doctor, even though on occasion he looks like he’s about to start singing White Christmas at the drop of a Stetson.

There’s also Van Heflin as Curly the sheriff, and Slim Pickens does a good impression of Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. Keenan Wynn pops up towards the end as the evil head of the Plummer gang but you’re still left with the inevitable question that always arises whenever Hollywood decides to remake a classic movie. Why?

I see it was announced back in 2013 that a remake of The Cowboys was on the cards with Tommy Lee Jones taking Wayne’s. More recently I’m hearing there’s a possibility of a remake of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in the works.

Let’s just hope that a) they relocate the story within another genre and b) they don’t turn it into a comedy. The thought of someone like Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler playing the part of Tom Doniphon might trigger the rampant postal worker in me and let me tell you, that’s not going to be a pretty sight.

Jeff Bridges in True Grit 2010True Grit (2010)

I’ve already made my feelings known on this remake of the Charles Portis novel, which again is ‘why?’. I read somewhere when this version was released that the Coen brothers had gone back to the original material to make a more faithful representation of the book.
On the basis of that claim I read it myself and came to the conclusion that the Hathaway / Wayne version is also a pretty good reflection of the original story, so I’m still not sure why they bothered with the remake in the first place. I have to say Jeff Bridges is good as Rooster Cogburn, but it does nothing to dispel Wayne’s excellent performance in the original film.

I’m sure someone is going to correct me on this but I think the main difference between the films is that the Texas Ranger La Boeuf, as played respectively by Glen Campbell then Matt Damon, doesn’t die in the remake, as indeed he does not die in the book.

The remake is also slightly more faithful to the novel in that the actress playing Mattie, Hailie Steinfeld, is closer in age to the character in the book than Kim Darby.

A review of the remake in the Guardian put it thus:

‘True Grit is a harsher, more sombre film than the Wayne version, the tone chillingly wintry rather than gently autumnal, the music less jaunty, more religious and pastoral. It’s also funnier, yet never inviting the description “comic western”. The villains, when they eventually appear, are perhaps a little less colourful than those in the 1969 film, and Jeff Bridges’s diction lacks Wayne’s clarity, though in other ways he’s altogether more complex.’

I think sombre kind of sums it up. Faced with the choice on a Sunday afternoon of Wayne or Bridges then I’d have to honestly say I’d go for the earlier version. I guess I’m just a sucker for Elmer Bernstein.

Still on the subject of the character of Rooster Cogburn, Warren Oates played the part in a 1978 TV film called True Grit: A Further Adventure. I caught it recently over the holiday break. Not necessarily one to avoid but not that inspiring either.

The Alamo movie poster 2004The Alamo (2004)

Obviously not a straightforward remake of Wayne’s effort but I’m intrigued by the way in which Billie Bob Thornton’s depiction of Davy Crockett is so far removed from Duke’s ‘country bumpkin’ take on the character.

It would be fair to say that Wayne didn’t stray too far from the template laid down by Fess Parker in the Disney films, or Arthur Hunnicut in The Last Command (1955) for that matter.

Billy Bob on the other hand depicts Crockett as someone slightly out of their depth behind the walls of the Alamo, alarmed by the position he finds himself in, but even more concerned that his celebrity status will be tarnished if he tries to sneak over the wall in the dark.

JOhn Wayne poster for The AlamoWayne’s Crockett had no such qualms, accepting his demise as a price to be paid for the greater good. Thornton also dilutes the bumpkin aspect of previous Crockett portrayals by having his version of the character playing a fiddle, implying his Davy is a slightly more educated and erudite person than earlier cinematic incarnations.

In the remake Davy Crockett is controversially still alive at the end of the battle, a fact that was apparently brought to light by the discovery of a diary in the 1950s kept by a Mexican officer who supposedly fought at the Alamo.

Although this claim is still in contention, Thornton’s Crockett still dies a hero’s death when he is executed along with a handful of other survivors, so his name and reputation remain unblemished.

One other aspect of the remake that I should mention is that the battle is shown taking place early in the morning, which is a more accurate representation of the conflict than depicted in previous films about the Alamo. I also liked the fact that we get to see the aftermath of the battle in which Houston and his army finally defeat Santa Anna at Goliad.

There’s quite a lot of other aspects of John Lee Hancock’s 2004 remake of the story that are worth highlighting versus Duke’s epic version of the Alamo but I think I’ll cover that in more detail at a later date. I think, however, the remake is a worthy effort that deserves a belated critical reappraisal by Alamo scholars and film writers alike.

John Wayne Impressions

There have been quite a few John Wayne impressions that have featured in various movies over the years, so let’s start with the most obvious – to me anyway.

Big Trouble in Little Chine Kurt Russell posterIf the truth be told Kurt Russell has served up at least three cinematic impressions of Duke over the years, starting with his turn as adventurer Jack Burton in John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986).

In the last couple of years, with both The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk respectively, Kurt has morphed alarmingly into the irascible and stubborn late career persona of Wayne that it’s starting to be hard to tell the two apart.I’m not sure whether this is something Russell is consciously aware of.

I do note, however, that he once said in an interview that he decided to do an impression of Clint Eastwood as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York as an homage to his co-star in the same film, Lee Van Cleef, so maybe Kurt’s going to continue exercising the limits of his impressionistic skills in his future work.

I might advise him to avoid the Eastwood impressions from now on though. Christian Bale annoyingly growled so much like Eastwood every time he put his cape on that I’m now unable to watch any of the Batman films he starred in without wanting to crawl through the TV screen and strangle him with my bare hands.

Mathew Modine in Full Metal JacketMatthew Modine’s Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket is a full-on Wayne impression, although if memory serves he only does it twice in the film. The first time he drawls ‘Is that you, John Wayne? Is it me?’, incurring the wrath of the platoon sergeant who rewards his impressionistic skills with a punch to the gut.

The second time is when he exhorts one of his fellow soldiers to forage for peanuts in his excrement. At least he had the decency to refer to his co-killer as Pilgrim.

Someone reminded me of Nathan Lane’s attempt to replicate Wayne’s walking style in The Birdcage, in which Robin Williams, as Lane’s partner, remarks that he never actually knew Duke walked that way.

I seem to also recall a film with Peter Fonda, made back in the 1970s – Open Season maybe? – in which Fonda, along with two other Vietnam vets, indulge in a joint Wayne impression exercise.

Fonda also does a pretty good impression of Duke in a documentary entitled Being John Ford, which can be found in the Ford at Fox DVD box set, released in America back in 2007.

He recalls an incident in which Wayne complained that Ford was so drunk he had collapsed in the cabin of his sailing boat and Duke was going to have to literally hose the famous director down in order to make him once again acceptable to polite society.

When I was a kid I caught a Wayne impression by Rich Little on TV that always stuck in my mind because the basic joke was that Duke was going to try his hand at Shakespeare, Hamlet to be exact. Little joined the two word ‘to’ and ‘be’ together and pronounced it as ‘tubby’ instead, so it came out something like this:

‘Tubby or not tubby. That is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrers of some goddam Comanch renegade
Clean off the reservation, and by opposing,
Put the son-of-a-bitch in the ground where he belongs’

Something like that anyway. I made up the last 3 lines myself but I’d give an arm and a leg to actually hear Wayne try his hand at the Bard.

Walter Brennan John Wayne & Dean Martin still from Rio BravoMy vote for one of the best Wayne impressions is when Walter Brennan suddenly mimics Duke as John Chance at the end of Rio Bravo, sweeping the front of his hat back and bellowing ‘I told you to stay in there’ in a loud commanding voice.

You can tell by Dean Martin’s reaction that the whole thing was totally unexpected, trying hard to stay in character as Brennan walks off-screen. Although it might not be a definitively accurate Wayne impression, Brennan successfully summons the essential essence of Duke and nails it in about ten seconds.

In the final analysis I don’t think anyone does John Wayne better than John Wayne himself. In fact there is an argument that True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn is in effect a self-parody of all the characteristics that define Duke’s persona, off-screen as well as on.

John Wayne in True GritOld, bald, running to fat, a little too much affection for the bottle, cantankerous, irascible and a mean streak that comes in handy when dealing with the bad guys. The fact he finally got an Oscar for just playing himself kind of says it all really. Why take an impression when you can get the real thing for free?

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