George Washington McLintock (John Wayne), G.W. to his friends, owns most of the land around a small Arizonian town named after him. When his estranged wife Katherine (Maureen O’Hara) returns home with divorce papers to try and bargain the future of their daughter Becky (Stefanie Powers), sparks soon fly as McLintock tries to discover why his wife left him the first place – and if they can put up with each other now she has moved back into his home. Meanwhile, a couple of new members have also joined the McLintock household: former farmsteaders Mrs Warren (Yvonne de Carlo) and her son Devlin (Patrick Wayne).
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In a secondary plot, McLintock has to defend a Comanche chief against an unscrupulous Indian agent and the local worries caused by the return of some Indian chiefs from jail.
During the 1960s, the western genre took some interesting creative paths. In the previous decade it had more regularly explored adult themes, but now threw up a range of differing approaches away from the more familiar Hollywood product such the amorality of the spaghetti variety, or the increasing nostalgia and violence characterising the work of Sam Peckinpah. John Wayne, who apparently loathed Peckinpah, faced some interesting decisions too. After a classic period working with Howard Hawks and John Ford, which could be said to have ended with the great Rio Bravo (1959), the star went in for more personal projects such as The Alamo (1960), partially financed by himself. The film was less successful than had been hoped and in order to fill the coffers of his production company, Batjac, projects had to be found with more immediate appeal. Wayne’s answer was to broaden the base of the films he worked on, giving increased prominence to the rambunctious elements.
Wayne’s work with Ford had always included an element of knockabout humour, such as can even be found in films such as The Searchers (1956). The actor first brought it to the fore in North To Alaska (1960) and the manner also crops up in The Commancheros (1961). The big, brawling style reached its apogee in Donovan’s Reef (1963), with Lee Marvin, and most especially in McLintock!, of the same year. The present film indeed contains the most memorable of all mass screen fistfights, one set around a mud hole. It the one about which, in the accompanying DVD commentary, stuntmen recall fondly as introducing a new standard into cinematic fisticuffs.
Like The Alamo, McLintock! was a project personal to Wayne, not least because members of his family appear in it. Son Patrick plays Devlin Warren, the eventual winner of G.W.’s daughter, while Wayne’s real life daughter Aissa has a small part. His eldest son, Michael, produced the film for Batjac. As others have pointed out the film is also laced through with Wayne’s Conservative viewpoint: his opinion that a man should work hard for what he gets in fair exchange, a disdain for bureaucrats and a sense that minorities should be allowed to stand on their own two feet without special treatment amongst them. More explicit a comment is found in the name of the Governor of the Territory here, Governor Cuthbert H. Humphrey, called by G.W. a “a cull… a specimen that is so worthless that you have to cut him out of the herd” – the character a contemporary reference to Democrat Hubert Humphries. In a crucial scene, McLintock explains to his daughter what will happen to his ranch lands when he dies. “I’m going to leave most of it to, well, to the nation really, for a park where no lumbermen’ll cut down all the trees for houses with leaky roofs.” It’s an old fashioned, benevolent Conservatism – to which the now largely disinherited daughter notably makes little objection.
The heart of the film remains however the troubled relationship between McLintock and Katherine, his wife. Maureen O’Hara is one of the few actresses who could stand up to Wayne on screen, and her typically feisty performance here recalls the equally successful partnership had together in The Quiet Man a decade earlier. Whether this, that, or her role as an earlier Wayne wife in Rio Grande (1950) is their best film is a fine point. But as a broad, western reworking of The Taming Of The Shrew, McLintock! is a fine example of their rapport as a team, giving each other as good as they get, their scenes together most enjoyable.
McLintock! is concerned with dignity, pride and reputation. Those who succeed in achieving the right balance, and who get the respect they deserve, will be rightly assimilated into the broad church of family or society. Those who overstep the mark and make too much of themselves, are derided, or otherwise excluded, remain at arm’s length. Loyal retainers like Drago (Chill Wills) or the Chinese cook are already “one of the family.” The Warrens quickly find their place too, by ending up attached to the right partners. Some, like the c Comanches, have to go to a government tribunal to (unsuccessfully) address the balance. Others like the Governor or the Douglas family we know will never find it. Tellingly, Mrs McLintock’s obsession from the start is in maintaining her own dignity, pouring a cold disdain over husband and servants alike, even to the point of formalising her name from Katie to Katherine. But as Drago, the family’s steward says, calling inadvertently her that “just slipped out from times when I remember you as being nice people…” By the end of the film a correction to such a state of affairs is clearly expected, and it is duly given in an extended scene that invites the most comment today. In that earlier critical moment with his daughter Becky, G.W. has explained what is really important, as “all the gold in the US treasury… can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman, all that growing together.” The big spanking scene in McLintock!, in which he physically corrects Katherine wilfulness, aims to rectify a balance between his wife and himself felt to have been out of kilter for a couple of years.
In a film where people often question what vocabulary means, big actions are made even more significant. “You’ve learnt a lot of words, I wish to God you’d been taught meanings,” is what G.W. says to his sometimes wayward daughter. Her mother needs firmer treatment and, in a parody of the familiar ‘long walk’ of western gunfighters towards their opponents ready to draw on Main Street, he finally stalks Katherine though the town, exacting humiliating punishment over his knee. Becky has already suffered anticipatory, minor such treatment at the hands of her erstwhile fiancée. Mrs McLintock’s loss of dignity is far more profound and dramatic however, especially as the whacking is exacted in full public gaze, but is apparently enough to trigger a renewed love and respect for her husband.
To a modern audience such an ending is not only psychologically laughable, but such a parody of sexism that it ceases to be objectionable, as it can’t be taken seriously. Shopkeeper Birnbaum’s objectionable maxim notwithstanding, that “if raising your voice to a woman doesn’t work then it is time to raise your hand,” G.W.’s actions are best seen as a realignment in a comic universe where other, more resilient women (Little Mouth, Mrs Warren) are also represented and where men can also be figures of ridicule.
Of course McLintock’s masculinity is never in doubt (his wife’s final recognition of “310 times without a miss – that’s a record” is a much an implied celebration of his potency in the bedroom as a celebration of his hat throwing skills while drunk). But this remains a good-natured film; one ultimately just as genially sprawling and inclusive as a community fistfight, and it remains a favourite Wayne vehicle for many.
The splendid anamorphic restoration, an authentic collector’s edition DVD, after years of inferior versions on the market, is well worth seeking out not least because of the disc extras. Included is an introduction from Leonard Maltin, interviews with Maureen O’ Hara and some of the other principals, a look at the production of the film with a fine tribute to the skills of producer Michael Wayne, as well as commentary track and even a short piece on corsets.