The Shootist (1976) Revisited
Legend has it, The Shootist (1976) wasn’t supposed to be John Wayne‘s last film. Hmmmm could have fooled me, with all the trouble to build up his latest character J.B. Books who is given a myth that’s built up of old film clips from Wayne’s back catalogue of we see another fictional version of him, another gunfighter whose been depicted in many guises, merging as one, Books who has had a long and eventful life. I also noticed that the sequence was all in black and white, even converting colour film to create this new character that has this back-story,as if we have been building up to this gunfighter over the course of his career. He’s already being built up as these mystical figure of the West. Not that he really needs that, his position in the genre was assured during the 1940’s as the strong, silent and powerful figure who always spoke his mind and took little s*** from others. The ideal man in many eyes, the personification of America to the world. So to say his wasn’t going to be his last film is not something I can accept. Maybe its the fact that he was ill during filming (not with cancer) that got audiences thinking after that he would never be on-screen again.
Dying three years later drawing the end of an era of the genre and cinema. In part leading to my title for my degree show piece Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave? (2012) The genre by the time of his death had long since entered a period of decline that would take years to really come back out of in any healthy shape that we could again be excited by. His last appearance at the 1978 he was by then a shadow of his former self before Hollywood. It was only a few months later that he died, leaving behind a long career, a legacy and a lasting image of the cowboy. The genre was very much left in his image. Something that would later affect me like many others.
Ok so all the emotional context out of the way and down to the business of the film itself, which was released alongside The Missouri Breaks and The Outlaw Josey Wales (both 1976), only one of them has really raised in stature. Damp squibs at the time of release, the genre was tired out and had become a tumble weed itself. You could say that The Shootist was a too late for genre. However it fits well into the arc of Wayne’s career, this larger than life figure become a dying man who rides into a town, in a time where he has become displaced. The roads are being paved, the town is more substantial. Civilization has reach the West, its been won and now its being enjoyed by society who have begun enjoy a modern way of life. The first automobiles are seen on the roads. There’s little place for the cowboy or the gunfighter who have been left out in the cold to die. J.B.Books is very much a dying breed and he knows it as he gets a second opinion from Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) who confirms his first diagnosis of cancer. Instead of going out into the woods to die like a dog, Books has come into the warmth of civilization to end his life in quiet.
Taking up residence at a guest house run by Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) who is weary of his presence, especially when his alias of long-dead Wild Bill Hickock is blown by her son Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) whose in awe of this larger than life figure who is a shadow of his former self. An idol of a gunfighter who over his lifetime has killed 30 men is his home, a fact he wants to boast about. Before learning of his intentions of a quiet few days seeing out his life. The peace is soon broken when the local paper wants to print his life story, making money out of the man. Whilst the local Marshall Thibido (Harry Morgan) wants him to get out, know his place is not with society who has since moved on, accepted the law and progressed. Books is learning that is position has changed, no longer one of fear but one of living legend of the past, a walking dinosaur and feels it too as his symptoms worsen.
Wayne surrounded himself with old friends on-screen, that we have seen work with him in various films throughout his career, all apparently working for less than their standard fee. Maybe they all knew something that he didn’t at the time. It’s strangely timely that actors from his past, friends surround him in a film that sees him die on-screen. Something I have only seen a few times on-screen, part of an image he has help create, one that never dies, doing all the killing, delivering justice in the film, putting right the wrongs. Here however the his character is going to die the death of an old man, not one at the hand of the gun, one he has become accustomed to. With his presence known in the town, there are men who want to try their luck at taking down the legendary Books, the one who has killed so many.
With Sweeney (Richard Boone), Pulford (Hugh O’Brian) and Cobb (Bill McKinney) after him, he decides to go out the way he wants to be remembered. In a blaze of blood and gunfire of a saloon where so many gunfight’s have gone down before. It’s a calculated battle that takes only a few minutes to be over, A bunch of old men with guns, scores to settle and glory to be had. The West is not quite dead yet. All ending in a twist that I forgot even happened, the barman returning with a shot-gun that deals the final blows. Before Gillom has to kill him, an act he knows he will never again commit. The days of gun-fighting are over in one battle, not the most bloody of battles, it’s an end of era really, with little hope for the future really. Not in the same tone of a Peckinpah Western who laments that passing, all the great figures are gone as we wander into the modern age. Here its one last moment drowned in the inevitability of death.
If it was intended to be Wayne’s last film could be argued about forever, biographies state that it wasn’t, however with all the evidence on-screen and reading into the film there must be some unconcious intention on the part of The Duke to make this his last film. Surrounded by so many friends, he wanted to be comfortable. Still making way for new talent in the form of Ron Howard who go onto bigger and better things. It’s a swan-song really, not one of his biggest films like those featured in the prologue, this is a much smaller affair sees him bid farewell to the big-screen. It looks as tired as the majority of the actors, not in terms of performance however which are solid, Wayne still stands out in his last starring role before bowing out. Leaving the Western very much in the state that it was in the mid 1970’s tired and worn out, needing to rest those boots to be reinvented for a new generation.