Last night we had the pleasure of rewatching “The Shootist”. Most of you probably know that this film, released in 1976, was John Wayne’s last picture, filmed at a time when he had already lost several ribs and his entire left lung to cancer. At the time, doctors thought that Wayne might have been cured, but three years later the disease returned with a vengeance, and took his life.
On the scale of things, The Shootist is not that old of a movie, but today it watches that way, which I don’t suggest as a condemnation. I like it that way. Maybe it feels aged simply because the top half of my hourglass is running lighter, or maybe it’s because the writing and dialogue and the acting still carry a particular kind of dignity, a sense of humor and tailored wit that seems largely absent from modern films.
If you are not familiar, the movie is about the final days of an aging frontiersman, lawman, and gunfighter, John Bernard Books, played by The Duke. He is dying from terminal cancer, and takes a room at Bond Rogers’ (Lauren Bacall) boarding house in Carson City. Bond has a son, young Gillom, played by a young Ron Howard. It is 1901, well past the wild and woolly days of the frontier, and because of this Books’ presence in town is resented by many, including the Sheriff, where it isn’t celebrated by others who can see a profit in his death amongst them.
Those are the broad strokes, and I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it.
I think it’s the Duke’s finest performance. There is danger in that, but there is also no way to separate his life outside the role from the role itself. Wayne simply is the aging frontiersman, lawman, and gunfighter, a dying man who finds himself at a turn in history, where his caste and type are fading into memory. There is an interesting moment in this behind the scenes interview with Wayne where he comes very close to acknowledging it. He is speaking about how violence is portrayed in film. “It’s not that there’s more violence in today’s pictures,” he says wistfully, “It’s that it’s done with such bad taste.”
And I think that is one of the great takeaways from this movie. Books’ relationship with young Gillom Rogers is a reflection of that view, and Books is at great pains to make young Gillom learn the difference between gratuitous stupidity and violence as a last resort.
One of the other great takeaways, at least for this writer, is a moment between Books and Bond Rogers. It comes about midway through the movie, when Books is sitting down for breakfast and Bond tries once again to herd him into church, and to see what she considers the evil and error of his unrepentant ways. Books pushes back, and Rogers drives even harder, damning him, until Books, in full retreat, finally tells her that his past, however full of violence and things abhorrent to her nature, is unimportant now, that he is “Just a dying man, afraid of the dark.” It is one of the finest moments I have ever seen in a movie. And I think it resonates so well because it carries with it undertones of their own lives outside of film, a sense that they are confronting certain realities of their personal lives. Wayne, who lobbied hard for the role, likely knowing it was his last film, and caring greatly about his legacy, is making a loud statement, and Bacall, perhaps railing in grief at Bogart, who had also died of cancer. The scene is simply mesmerizing.
As an actor, it is hard to believe that John Wayne could have conceived of a better role to inhabit for the capstone of his career, and selfishly, for so many of us who followed him around that imaginary frontier in movie after movie. The final scenes of the film are extremely moving, when one considers that it was, simply, The Duke’s last gunfight, and a brief reappearance of Jimmy Stewart, who plays Doc Hostetler, at the batwing doors of the saloon, is simply moviemaking rapture.
They don’t make movies like this anymore, where a man can say without irony, without being mocked or buried under a baggage train of cultural gobbledygook, Books’ classic takeaway line: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”