Walking like a man

There’s a famous story about John Wayne, whose real name was Marion Morrison, when he was directing The Alamo. One day, watching in displeasure from behind the camera as Laurence Harvey moved up and down the battlements, Wayne shouted in frustration, “For god’s sake, can’t you walk like a man?”

To which the bisexual Harvey stopped, put a hand on his hip, shaded his eyes from the sun and replied archly, “Are you talking to me, Marion?”

I only learned that story after my father died, and I’ve always wanted to tell it to him because I think he would have found it funny, and because he was a great John Wayne fan. John Wayne, he said approvingly and not very originally, was a real man. He rode like a man, he talked like a man, he walked like a man.

I have a picture of my father walking down the street, snapped by a street photographer in the 1960s on Durban’s West Street. My father was a big man, six-four and built like a bar fighter, with an excellent head of pomaded hair and a manly moustache. You can’t see his gait in the picture, of course, but I like to think that in his head he was striding down the sidewalk like John Wayne approaching the saloon, an effect only slightly compromised by the fact that it was the 60s in South Africa so he was wearing a short-trousered safari suit with long thick socks.

It was generally agreed that John Wayne walked as a man should walk – in La Cage Aux Folles and The Birdcage he’s offered as the model for the camp protagonist to imitate when trying to walk straight – so it was quite surprising when I discovered John Wayne’s walk for myself. What was I expecting? Some sort of bow-legged, bent-armed, shoulder-heavy swagger, I suppose – a sort of saddle-ready Sylvester Stallone – but that is not his walk at all. Wayne’s walk was surprisingly tight and controlled, a kind of mince without moving the hips. He took small, precise, almost dainty steps that seemed to land with the toe before the heel, as though he was wearing high heels, which, in cowboy boots, I suppose he was. The only stereotypically manly part of it is that he stays extraordinarily still – the only parts of him that seem to move are his legs. He walks, in other words, like a man with a sore back.

My father revered John Wayne and disdained John Travolta as a degenerated avatar of modern manhood (my father died a long time ago, so these examples may seem out of date), but if you compare Wayne’s walk with Travolta’s opening strut in Saturday Night Fever, the only real biomechanical difference is that Travolta walks faster and his head bobs up and down.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about walking. When a boy grows up in a house of women, there comes a time in his adolescence when he starts to wonder how to be a man, and if he’s doing it right, and who he should copy. For me, walking was a place to start.

Men use the way they move in the world to send signals about how they want to be perceived. How you walk down the street, how you walk into the cellblock on the first day of your sentence, how, if you’re Warren Beatty in Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”, you walk into a party like you’re walking onto a yacht – all these movements are an attempt to project your manhood onto women, sure, but mostly onto other men, without having to back it up with words or action.

I read Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man when I was 14 and found myself scooching eagerly closer to the page when teenage orphan Rudy Jordache begins the process of inventing himself as a man. He wants to seem controlled and competent, to project an image of seriousness and capability. The first thing he works on is his walk. Shaw describes him holding his shoulders very still and his head very straight, trying to move as though there are wheels on his feet. This was evocative but not practically helpful. At night when my mother and sister were asleep I would practice walking in the lounge as though there were wheels on my feet, trying to watch my reflection in the window from the corner of my eye. I did not move like Rudy Jordache. I moved like a skinny dork made up of elbows, knees, collarbones and unnecessary erections.

I gave up on trying to walk like a man who is at ease in the world, but I still have an interest in how others do it. I’ve spent happy hours watching clips of Denzel Washington walk. Whereas Idris Elba embraces a kind of stylized catwalk swagger – part male model, part boxer’s shuffle, partially leading with one shoulder and making a presence of his arms and elbows – Denzel is all control and glide. The arms do minimal work – the action is all happening in the legs. To imitate Denzel’s walk, you have to pull off the trick of placing one foot in the front of the other without swinging your hips, and you have to spend microscopically more time on one leg than the other, pivoting your weight through it slightly slower and longer: that’s where the glide comes in. There’s a lot of focus needed when walking like Denzel, there’s a lot of engagement of your core. I liked describing the interview in which Denzel admitted to inventing his walk by copying his friend Donald Fletcher when they were teenagers.

Vladimir Putin has another style altogether. Watch Vlad stride down those long red carpets on his way to signing some diabolical covert order. Putin has a good walk for who he is. He walks the way Daniel Craig should walk. Daniel Craig is all muscles and arms akimbo and trying to look tough through his eyes. That is not the way a spy would walk – spies try to seem smaller than they are. Putin walks like a dangerous man who is temporarily pretending to be harmless. His main trick is to move his left arm normally but to keep his right arm close to his side. Some point out this is because KGB training manuals encourage operatives to keep their right hand close to their hip-mounted pistols for speed of drawing and shooting (Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev often uses a similar walk), and that might be true, but the real reason, as all of us anxious young teenage boys would have recognized, is that it creates the necessary asymmetry a good male gait needs – that ineffable impression of concealment and control, that promise of something being held back.

To this day the person who knows me best can recognize changes in my mood or mental state by the infinitesimal changes in my gait when we walk side by side, and I still admire the simple pleasure and beauty of watching someone walk well, but I am not anxious about it any more. My father was a strong, proud man, and he walked well and held up his chin and wasn’t afraid of the world, but I know that in the end nothing protects you. I remember when my father became ill and was weak when he walked and held onto the wall, and I remember the last time I saw him in our house before he went to the hospital, when he fell walking to the bathroom and couldn’t pull himself up, and he called for me and I couldn’t help him because I was too small and too weak, and how I cried because I could see how ashamed he was for me to see him like that.

All walks lead to the same place, and we’ll all get there in our own way. All we can do is walk together as far as we can, and try to choose the right walking partners, and know when to let each go on alone. I know all that, but I still wish I walked like Denzel.


The Times, 15 November 2018