10 Movies That Made Me Me - Movies 9 and 10
Essays by Gerald DiPego
These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now. They are in no particular order.
Movie 9 - STAGECOACH, '39
I watched this film again and again on early TV until I knew every scene and almost every word, and even carried the musical theme in my mind (and still do). It had everything: thrills, the mystical Apache Indians, interesting characters who were very well played, romance, and a hero.
The film follows an ancient path of storytelling: a mix of distinctive characters on a dangerous journey, each of them revealed in depth by the turns of the tale. In this case they are traveling on a stagecoach through Apache country in the 1880s.
One of the passengers is a man who has escaped custody in order to hunt down the dangerous Plummer boys who murdered his brother, and this young man’s name is Ringo, and he is played by another young man, John Wayne.
I had never seen Wayne’s earlier work in B westerns. This was my introduction, and I unabashedly admit that when Wayne played his first scene, when he stands in the desert and fires his rifle to halt the stagecoach, and then twirls that Winchester, he became my hero – no, not the actor (although I was very drawn to Wayne’s early work and saw nearly all his films.) It was the character, Ringo, who rose up out of the film and captured me.
I wanted to BE Ringo. I wanted to move as he moved, in a deliberate way that also contained a kind of grace, to be what he was, a good man, a bit toughened by life, but with a sense of humor and a surprising tenderness.
He was the only passenger on the coach who treated the prostitute among them as a worthy woman, worthy of kindness and respect. It touched her to be treated that way, and it touched me, and even at eleven or twelve, I hoped that I could grow to be a man who could surprise a woman with kindness, tenderness. I could BE a Ringo. I just needed to grow and find more confidence, and then I could navigate the world as Ringo did, taking his time, never nervous or awkward and always ready for a laugh or a fight -- but only a worthy fight, a good against evil fight.
The Apaches attack the coach, and seeing the fluidity of Ringo in action riveted me, and I wondered and hoped that maybe I could learn that, that knowing efficiency of motion, that courage under pressure. I could learn to do that, if I kept Ringo as my model and carried him with me through the labyrinth of SCHOOL.
I could walk down the crowded, booming hallways more slowly, more contained. My shyness would lessen, and, when it came to bullies, I could be ready, not tight and worried, but steady and calm and ready for anything.
The stagecoach is rescued and the passengers arrive in town, and as night settles, Ringo has to face his toughest challenge, those mean-hearted, murdering Plummer boys.
Ringo was not fearless. I could see that he knew he might die, but he was steady, and he was teaching me. Jerry – be steady and face trouble, whatever it is. Yes, even that impossibly tall ladder in my father’s grocery store, changing the sale signs by reaching nearly to the high ceiling to pull them down and then raise the new ones, my knees shaking, stomach tight, signaling DANGER, DANGER! So, next time I would try to be Ringo on that ladder, slow and deliberate, maybe scared, but steady.
There were three Plummer boys (impossible odds!) walking straight for Ringo on that dark street. When would they shoot? When would they shoot?!
The fight began, and after his first shot, Ringo throws himself down on the ground to make less of a target and keeps cocking and firing his rifle because he KNOWS what to do and does it in that deliberate and fluid motion. He KNOWS, like someday I would know and not hesitate or flinch or wonder, but KNOW.
He triumphs and thinks now he has to go back into custody, but the sheriff surprises him, says he’s free, lets him have a buckboard and his new girl-who-loves-him, and they go off to the ‘little ranch’ he told her about, and I thought, maybe someday I’ll have a little ranch and a loving girl and I’ll make that happen partly because of a touchstone I’ve have carried around called Ringo.
Movie 10 - ON THE WATERFRONT, '54
(a new hero)
This memory is more clear and accessible than any other time, from ages 10 to 20, when a movie ended and I rose from my seat and shuffled to the aisle and made my way out of the theater, and I saw hundreds of movies then, but this moment will be with me forever. I was thirteen or fourteen (our little theater in Round Lake, Illinois did not get first run features.) and that boy who was me, the boy who stood up to leave that theater, was not the same boy who had come in and taken his seat.
During the showing, I was shaken by powerful forces, and one was the performance by Brando. This was new. Somehow he had carved his character, Terry Malloy, out of his own flesh. It was beyond the acting I was used to. It was so much more real, even, somehow, dangerously real, an electric shock of authenticity on the screen.
Another powerful force was the filmmaking itself, the reality of those grey, urban locations, the streets and alleys I had known in my early years in Chicago. This film felt more true to life than any film I had seen, as if it wasn’t appearing on the theater’s screen at all. Instead, the screen was a large window into an actual place where these people were playing out their lives. It was expertly cast-in-depth and expertly directed by Elia Kazan, and the music, by Leonard Bernstein, never seemed to play over the film, but to come from within it. I can still hear that mournful trumpet.
And the story penetrated because of this reality. I was totally engulfed and swept along by the writing of Bud Schulberg, which disappeared as writing and came out as stark realism, as I saw through that great window into the drama and danger in the lives of these people.
Here was a new and different hero for me. Terry Malloy, a man of my time, of the here and now, and I was caught up in the anguish he feels for having been part of the murder of a neighborhood man he knew (he thought that the gangsters who controlled the docks were only going to rough him up – instead they throw the man off a roof, and Malloy is stunned, his loyalties torn already in this early scene of the film.) He works on the docks and does what the gangsters tell him to do, and in this neighborhood of the waterfront, you don’t rat, you don’t go to the cops.
So Malloy caries this anguish through the film, as he begins to fall in love (with the dead man’s sister!) as he opens his eyes to the thugs to whom he has given his allegiance (his own brother is in with the criminals) and I am sitting there feeling not only for him but with him, and that is the final power of this movie. I lived inside of it, inside of Malloy, a tortured man with a troubled past, and a new awakening inside of him that is moving him toward a terrible and dangerous choice.
Doing good, in so many movies I saw at that time, came down to the hero defeating the villain, often in a gun fight or fist fight. This film is much more complex. Doing something good, in this story, could get Terry Malloy killed, and everything about his upbringing pushes him toward staying quiet, going along, keeping your head down. This conflict makes him tear open his own life, his past in order to make this critical decision, staying safe or going after the evil on those docks, not with a gun or a fight, but flinging the truth at it.
This was a new hero for me. In the movie “Stagecoach” I had linked myself with the Ringo character, and, as the movie ended, I wanted to BE him. In “On The Waterfront,” as the movie ended, I sat there a while, feeling the great weight of this drama, and when I stood and slowly made my way out of the theater, I didn’t want to be Terry Malloy. I wanted to be a better man.
Even at fourteen, I wanted my life to have purpose. Even if it was a struggle, like Malloy’s struggle, I wanted to give something. I wanted to do the right thing.