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 many modern films.
If you are not familiar, the movie is about the final days of an aging frontiersman and gunfighter, John Bernard Books, played by The Duke. He is dying from terminal cancer, and takes a room at Bond Rogers’ (played by Lauren Bacall) boarding house in Carson City. Bond has a son, Gillom, played by a young Ron Howard. The year is 1901, well past the wild and woolly days of the frontier, and Books’ presence in town is resented by many, including the Sheriff, when 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 claim, but there is also no way to separate his life outside the role from the role itself. Wayne simply inhabits 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. In the clip, 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 and necessary resort.
One of the other great takeaways from the film is a moment between Books and Bond Rogers. It comes about midway through the movie, as Books is sitting down for breakfast and Bond tries once again to herd him into church, and to finally acknowledge what she considers the evil and error of his unrepentant ways. Books pushes back, and Rogers drives even harder until Books, in full retreat, finally tells her that his past, however full of violence and things abhorrent to her nature, is unimportant now. He draws a long breath and admits that he is “Just a dying man, afraid of the dark.”
It is one of the better scenes I have ever seen in a movie. I think it resonates so well because it carries with it undertones of their lives outside of the film, a sense that they are confronting certain uncomfortable facts 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 it’s hard not to think that Bacall may be railing in grief at Bogart, who had also lived hard and fast and finally 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 for the capstone performance of his career. And that is selfishly true for so many of us who followed him around the imaginary frontier in movie after movie. The movie’s final scenes are extremely moving when understand in the light thet they are, in fact, The Duke’s last gunfight. And the brief reappearance of Jimmy Stewart 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.”