problem with coming to symbolize an entire cinematic genre is that
venturing out of it becomes problematic. John Wayne was, and really
still is ,the American West on film. His stature, his cadence, the way he threw a punch, it’s all shorthand for the Wild
West. Wayne’s success out of the genre was mostly in war pictures,
which operate in a shorthand very similar to the Western (honor,
sacrifice, manifest destiny, testing and proving masculinity, and so on). Plenty of his peers had great success in
Westerns, but Wayne was the Western. So when the West (and really the
entire film industry) changes, do you change too?
Today the Western is almost extinct, and the first steps on that path
began in the late 1960s and early 1970s when the earnest Westerns of
Wayne and Ford were replaced by revisionists one from Peckinpah (The
Wild Bunch), Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller), and particularly Leone (The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly).
Leone’s star was Eastwood, who came to symbolize a new kind of West;
tough as Wayne, but meaner, crueler, and observing a darker moral code. Eastwood
transferred this persona very successfully to modern cop movies in
Dirty Harry, which became a massive success and sparked a host of
imitators. Wayne made his own, a very derivative, thoroughly
unimpressive film called McQ.
Down the line, McQ is a Harry knock-off. It’s set on location in
Seattle, Eastwood’s original choice for Dirty Harry (they eventually
settled on San Francisco). McQ is chided by his boss for a brutal
incident last year, like Harry and the mayor and his "trouble last year
in the park." Harry concluded powerfully with him symbolically tossing away his badge. McQ does it twice.
Give Wayne credit for trying something unusual, and refusing to
repeat himself any more than he already had. But he’s not Dirty Harry,
and the almost seventy-year-old Wayne looks silly driving a Mustang. He
just doesn’t have the scowling disposition of a tough-as-nails cop; as
famous as his reputation for manliness is, Wayne, especially as he got
older, had a sad, and almost sweet disposition. Elmer Bernstein’s
superior jazz score lends the film a lot of credibility but it’s mostly
wasted on the star; he’s more a curmudgeonly grandfather than a bad ass
mother. The best performance in the film is given by Wayne’s love
interest, an Uzi machine gun he acquires and uses to such absurdly
powerful effect in the finale that it renders the scene utterly
anticlimactic (nobody is a match for Wayne because he and his Uzi are
unstoppable). The gun even has its own credit: "Special Weapon:
Military Armament Corporation." What kind of agent does a gun need to
have to get its name in the credits?
It could have been a sad coda to a career, but Wayne rebounded;
working with the director of Dirty Harry, he concluded his career two
years later in "The Shootist," a moving elegy on the death of a life
and a way of life. If the West is to die, better to die with it.