When Steve McQueen went on his wild motorcycle ride in the Great Escape he created a symbol of the American spirit that has inspired audiences for decades. That impossible ride over hills and through fences with half the German army chasing him spoke to the heart of liberty that beats in every American, even if we have forgotten why it matters. When we watch his struggle to defy the odds, to rise above the tyranny, to win in an unwinnable situation, we believe – we believe that being American is something more than just where we were born. We realize that the United States is more than a country; it is an attitude, a strength, a commitment to having a dream. We want Steve McQueen to get away and leave the prison camp behind, but when he is captured and sent back to the cooler with his baseball and mitt we know that he takes his American values with him, and for that reason he will survive the ordeal. The Great Escape is a true story, with some Hollywood embellishment, but it doesn’t distort the truth that matters. Freedom is a state of mind as much as a physical condition, and once you own it, no one can take it away.
The huge misunderstanding about cowboys is mostly Hollywood’s fault and it all stems from fashion. When they tried to make people like Sylvester Stallone play a cowboy, you know they were reaching and they missed the mark completely. Real “cowboyism” has to go back to Gary Cooper and John Wayne who walked as though they were born astride a saddle, and talked as though they considered communication a courtesy, but not anything to get too excited about. The key was, they always wore the same clothes. Jeans and vests and shirts that buttoned, and no matter how long they had been on a cattle drive, or how many gunslingers they had faced, they never saw a need to change their clothes. They seemed to need the dirt and the frayed edges to keep their gun belts in place. Unless they were going to meetin’ (church) they pretty much kept to their boots and hats and their belts and the jeans that were broken in to the point of actually having a distinctive shape, like other people’s shoes, you couldn’t loan them to anyone else because your imprint had taken over. Awards were never given by the Academy for the costuming in a real western, but that was the whole point. When you walked out of the theatre you couldn’t remember what the stars were wearing, but you never forgot their hard lined, squint into the sun faces. They were cowboys, and they were the real thing.
“My formula for living is quite simple. I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night. In between I occupy myself as best I can.” Cary Grant
In 1944 actress, Barbara Stanwyck was the highest paid woman in the United States. In her thirty-eight year career she made eight-five movies and the highly successful television drama series, The Big Valley, where she was the widowed owner of a huge ranch that she shared with four grown children. She was the female answer to Lorne Green and the Bonanza series. She is still rated in the top twelve of best screen actresses of all times. She always seemed to play the role of a woman who had lived a hard life, but remained good at heart, and usually in her movies she came out the victor, despite the chip on her shoulder. The women she portrayed on film were not that far from the woman she actually was. Born Ruby Katherine Stevens in 1907, her mother died when Ruby was just four years old when a drunken man pushed her off of a street car. Two weeks later her father got a job building the Panama Canal and was never heard from again. Her childhood was spent in foster homes from which she always ran away, and then finally with her sister Mildred, until she was sixteen, which is when she got her first real job, paying her $14 a week and giving her financial independence. She took her anger at her less than ideal upbringing and turned it into a persona that was one of the most iconic Hollywood has ever known. Barbara “Ruby Katherine” Stanwyck – one of our favorites because when life failed to give her what she deserved she went out and got it for herself.
Take a guy who had an odd way of talking and an even odder way of walking, who couldn’t finish college because a body surfing injury made him lose his athletic scholarship, whose application to the Naval Academy was rejected, whose first real job paid him $105 per week, and whose given name at birth was Marion, and what do you get? You get one of the top three most popular film stars of all time, and the only one to make the list every year since the poll started. John Wayne, who was too tall and broad to really fit into the Hollywood scene, but ended up with lead roles in 142 films, and is now thought of as a legend for his work on the screen, didn’t start out with aspirations of stardom. The celebrity came to him after nine years of bit parts, one in which he played a corpse, and hours mentoring with stunt men about riding horses and straddling fences and taking a fall in a gunfight, and his “don’t mess with me” attitude when he refused to work with a major film maker because he didn’t like the way “the guy had treated him when he was nobody”. His stardom came from the way he owned the screen, the fact that he looked like he was born on a horse, the distinctive intonation in his voice that he didn’t even try to change, and the fact that in all but one of his roles he played a rough talking, heavy drinking, fight at the drop of a hat, good guy. He brought us bigger than life characters and better than life stories and he did it without being “discovered”. He just stayed with it until the screen was ready for John Wayne, and that took a few years.