My father is more of a man than I will ever be.
When I say that, I am talking about a particular type of masculinity, the classic definition of it that I was aware of as a young man. Growing up, I felt put upon when asked to do anything that felt remotely like a chore, but looking back at it all now, I can see that he was simply trying to pass along the knowledge he had about doing various things because he thought that knowledge was important to have. As a parent now, I am acutely aware of just how much responsibility comes built into that relationship. Kids are sponges, and every word you say could be endlessly analyzed and considered and internalized by them, good or bad.
There is a Steve Martin joke that I’ve always loved that plays off that responsibility.
“I’ve got a great dirty trick you can play on a three-year-old. See, kids learn how to talk from listening to their parents, so whenever you’re around them… talk wrong. So now it’s like the first day of school and he raises his hand. ‘May I mambo rhino dogface to the banana patch?'”
That same premise also serves as the springboard for the disturbing “Dogtooth,” the film by Giorgos Lanthimos about three teenagers who have been raised in near-total isolation by their parents, who have intentionally taught them to fear anything outside their walls while intentionally teaching them completely insane language skills.
When I was young, my mother was probably more responsible for what I saw and read than my dad, and as a result, when my dad did go out of his way to share something with me, it always felt like more of an event. I’ve written here before about him taking me to see my first James Bond film in a theater, and one of my earliest pieces here at HitFix was a description of the time I took him to a reception so he could meet Clint Eastwood. Bond and Eastwood form two points on the Holy Trinity of icons my dad raised me on, with that third point reserved for John Wayne.
I have always known that I shared two things with John Wayne: a birthday and my father’s heart. The first Wayne film I remember seeing was “Red River,” which was part of a revival program at a theater in Chattanooga. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s one of the best overall Wayne films, the story of a particular cattle drive where things come to a head between Thomas Dunson (Wayne) and Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift), who is, for all intents and purposes, Dunson’s adopted son. I love the dynamic between Clift and Wayne, and it’s a fairly complex and layered relationship that the two of them have onscreen, made more intense by the fact that their relationship hinges on a choice made by Dunson. I am acutely aware of how fortunate I am that I was adopted by my parents. I’ve read more than enough about situations that have gone badly to know that adoption is a crap shoot. My parents have never made me feel like anything less than their flesh and blood, and they have always had my back. Sitting there next to my dad, watching this film that meant so much to him, and seeing how difficult things got between Dunson and Garth, I found it enormously powerful, and while Wayne is known for playing uncomplicated heroes in the vast majority of his films, I’ve always favored the more ambiguous roles he’s played. “The Searchers.” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” This film.
If you’re familiar with any of my writing for film, then you’re no doubt aware of the importance of John Carpenter to me. Not only was he a major inspiration through his body of work, but he was the first filmmaker to allow me onto his set (I was 13 at the time) and he has directed two pieces I’ve co-written. We’ve spent a fair amount of time together talking about movies, and it’s no secret that “Rio Bravo” is one of Carpenter’s favorite films. Considering how easy it is to see the basic Western tropes in much of John’s work, it would be an easy assumption to think that he should be making actual Westerns himself. I asked him one time why he never made a full-blown no-apologies Western, particularly since it would seem like his favorite star, Kurt Russell, was pretty much born to be a Western icon.
“I love Westerns,” John explained, “but I hate horses.” I get it, but it’s still a bummer that I can’t use a John Carpenter Western to introduce to the genre to the boys, because I’ll bet that film would rule.
Up till now, the Western has been one of the genres that my kids have had little or no exposure to, and it hasn’t been a conscious exclusion so much as a lack of urgency. It’s such a big genre that I was sure we’d get there naturally, and once you start, it’s a lot of territory to explore. This past fall, my parents wanted to get together with the kids, something that happens far less often than I’d like. They live in North Carolina now, and it’s hard for us to find time to spend together. We arranged to meet at Big Bear Lake, a mountain retreat community here in Southern California, and rented a couple of side-by-side condos where we could spend a week.
While we looked forward to a number of outdoor activities during the week, I also took along my Playstation 3 so we could watch a few movies together. I specifically asked my dad what I should bring along so he could share a few of his favorite movies with my sons, making this the first guest-programmed installment of Film Nerd 2.0.
The first film we watched together was “The Cowboys,” the 1972 film in which Wayne plays Wil Andersen, a ranch owner who finds himself short-handed on the eve of a major cattle drive. Seeing no alternative, he agrees to use the local boys instead, not one of them older than fifteen. Based on a novel by William Dale Jennings, it’s a film that makes great use of Wayne’s iconography. He’s older and slower in the film, and the kids look insanely young next to him. It was hard for me not to see my sons and my father in that combination, since all week, we had been doing things that were outside our typical experience. My kids had never been fishing before, for example, and spending a long afternoon fishing worms out of a cup of dirt, putting them on a hook, watching each of the kids land their first fish, all with my dad watching and giving tips was one of those indelible memories that the boys obviously treasure now.
In the film, they are joined on the cattle drive by Jebediah Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Browne), who serves as a cook and also as a sounding board for Andersen. The young cast really made an impression on the boys, and while there are a few moments they didn’t totally grasp (the encounter with a traveling bordello went largely unexplained), they got the primary tension that unfolds when three men who were turned down by Andersen for lying to him end up hijacking the entire herd. If you haven’t seen the film, it has a fairly atypical ending for a Wayne movie, and it genuinely shocked the kids. After we wrapped things up for the night and I went to tuck them in, they peppered me with all sorts of questions about the film and about life in that era. They weren’t sure what to make of Wayne, though. They seemed far more invested in the kids in the film, which makes sense. That was what they related to, and it did pull them into the film in a very personal way. It also upset them quite a bit because the film doesn’t pull its punches, and by the time Bruce Dern gets his comeuppance at the end of the film, I think the boys were more than ready to see some frontier justice.
It was later in the week that we watched our second film, breaking it up over two different nights, and there was a little bit of duplicity in the reasoning behind the film we selected. My wife gets irritated at times by the attention we pay to movies, and knowing that it might be a bit of an uphill battle to get her to agree, we stacked the deck. She is a huge fan of Dean Martin, but she mainly knows him from his comedies with Jerry Lewis. When I saw her roll her eyes at the mention of watching a film, I had told both boys how to help win her over, and they were quick to point out Dean Martin’s picture on the cover. I know she saw right through the pretense, but she couldn’t really argue the point.
Of the two films, I think it’s safe to say that “Rio Bravo” is the one that landed most for Toshi. It’s such a smart set-up for a film, and then once everything’s in motion, it’s all character. Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) finds himself in a tough spot when Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) kills a man during a bar fight. He ends up behind bars, and Chance is almost killed during the arrest. It’s only because Dude (Martin) steps in that Chance isn’t shot. The problem with keeping Joe Burdette in jail, though, is that his brother Nathan (John Russell) is a powerful rancher with deep pockets, and he’s used to getting his own way. Joe is sure his brother’s coming to get him out of jail, and Chance is determined that he’s going to wait it out until they can hand him over to a higher authority. The only person besides Dude who can help Chance is Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and Dude’s not really 100% able since he’s a hopeless alcoholic, shaky unless he’s liquored up.
The film takes place over a long few days, and it’s got some strong suspense, a whole lot of character humor, and a great, rousing finish. It is also a fairly small-scale affair, all focused on this one small town. Not a lot of time is spent on horseback, which may be part of what Carpenter loves about the movie. You can see this film’s influence in “Assault On Precinct 13” and “Ghosts Of Mars,” and the character work is an obvious influence on Carpenter overall. Wayne is at his best in this film, whether he’s dealing with the hot-tempered kid named Colorado (Ricky Nelson) or flirting mercilessly with Feathers (Angie Dickinson) or busting Brennan’s balls. It is a very funny film, but the stakes are deadly serious from the very start. Toshi’s seen the film three more times since that initial viewing, and it spurred him to start asking about other Westerns.
When we were driving home from the vacation, the boys and I were in one car, and my wife and her mother and grandmother were in another car, giving us a few hours to talk about the week. What became clear as we spoke is how the boys had their time with my dad and the movies he’d shown them all sort of tangled up together as one big memory. At one point, we’d gone to a museum that was set up to give you a hands-on experience of life during the Gold Rush days, and the boys had learned how to rope a calf and they’d each had a cold sarsaparilla and they each had a tiny vial of “gold” that they had panned themselves. They had a strong set of sense memories to go with the images they’d seen in the movies, and the strongest of those was of my father, who always seemed like such a giant to me when I was young. He’s in his 70s now, and he’s certainly had his fair share of health issues in the last few years, but on this particular trip, he was in good spirits, and both of the boys seemed to be awed by how much they did with him, and by all the things he knows. These films were a window into a world where all men were like my father, rugged and competent and taciturn and capable, and talking to the boys about them on the way back from Big Bear, their feelings about John Wayne and their feelings about my father seemed to be one and the same.
Like John Wayne, my father seems larger in memory, a good foot taller than his actual height of 6’4″, and hearing my kids talk about their grandfather in the months since that trip, it seems like he looms just as large for them now. From now on, whenever Toshi or Allen sees John Wayne in anything, they’ll think of my father, and that’s exactly the way it should be. Whoever and whatever I am as a man today, I owe to him. He has always been a North Star of decency for me, even when I was at my most rebellious, and he has always been an example of real strength when I needed it.
When they were playing in the backyard one recent afternoon, both of them armed with their Nerf pistols, ready for a big showdown, I asked them who they were pretending to be. They told me that the neighbor kids were the Burdette brothers, and that Allen was John Wayne.
“And who are you, Toshi?”
“I’m Granddaddy,” he said, “cause he’s the best cowboy.”
Amen to that, little man.