by Steve Taylor
John Wayne’s last film, The Shootist, opened in late August of 1976. It was widely seen at the time as John Wayne’s epitaph. Working with one lung, coughing and wheezing, frequently absent from the set with one ailment or another, Wayne nevertheless delivered the sort of performance that cemented his status not just as one of the preeminent movie stars of his day, but one of its finest actors as well.
Opening with clips from earlier Wayne westerns, mostly directed by Howard Hawks and John Ford, the film marches with almost biblical solemnity through the final eight days of the life of J. B. Books, a legendary gunfighter. Books has returned to Carson City, Nevada, on January 1, 1901, the day of Queen Victoria’s death, to seek a second opinion from his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart). Hostetler confirms the diagnosis: advanced cancer.
Books has returned to a town that offers him precious little hospitality, a bustling place that is too busy striving for modernity and respectability. It has electricity and paved streets and a trolley car. The horse that pulls the trolley is, in fact, soon to go the way of Books himself, an anachronism of the Old West for which the new century has little use.
Books’ determination to live out his final days in peace and quiet is continually frustrated by the equally fierce determination of the town’s various opportunists to cash in on his newsworthy demise. A sinuous journalist wants the last in-depth interview. An unctious undertaker (John Carradine) promises a glorious sendoff until Books reveals that he’s wise to the scam. A former love (Sheree North) drops in with an offer of marriage — and a book contract from the aforementioned journalist who proposes to ghost-write an authorized biography “by the widow.” When Books points out that she knows nothing about his life, she says it doesn’t matter, they’ll just make up a bunch of exciting lies. Books’ disgust is palpable.
Hostetler has steered Books to the boarding house of the recently widowed Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who is initially uneasy about having a person of Books’ notoriety under her roof. But their frosty relationship develops into an easy friendship during a bucolic buggy ride. Ron Howard plays her impressionable adolescent son, for whom Books ultimately becomes a surrogate father figure and redeemer.
I’ll not lay a spoiler on you. Suffice it to say that Books’ decision to avoid the painful demise that Doc Hostetler has drawn for him, and the means he chooses to accomplish it, raise moral and ethical questions for many, but it has been a proper subject for serious debate since the time of Socrates.
Don Siegel directed The Shootist from a background of action movies like Dirty Harry and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His background was as an editor, not a writer, and it shows in the meticulous, yet curiously bloodless, approach to what could have been a real masterpiece. But the film’s combination of cast and script, which was nominated for several awards for its screenplay (adapted from a roman a clef about real-life gunfighter John Wesley Hardin’s last days) make it a minor classic, and a valued part of my personal video library.
Most folks over the age of 50 may recall Wayne’s politics, which he himself described as being to the right of Ronald Reagan, but it would be a mistake to take, as the sum of the man, the stereotype drawn from his politics and the flag-waving Vietnam-era war movies. Consider the portrayals of the xenophobic Indian-hater of The Searchers, the arrogant and obtuse cattle drive foreman of Red River, the prudish male chauvinist of The Quiet Man, the fanatical Naval commander of The Wings of Eagles, the hard-drinking but uncompromising protector of
True Grit, and the gruff surrogate father to The Cowboys. These are subtle and complex performances that elevate Wayne’s oeuvre into the realm of the cinematic pantheon.
John Wayne through the years:
In The Big Trail (1930) at age 23; in The Shootist (1976) at age 69.
For most of his career, Wayne’s most memorable characters seemed to share a set of values that, while essentially conservative, were thoroughly part of the American mythology: personal honor and integrity, individualism, devotion to family, commitment, and responsibility. In his westerns, the West he represented was an imaginary land, a place of hope, compromised by death, but undiluted by vulgarity. He gave us myths built out of contradictory urges — the urge to settle down and the urge to move on; the need to be alone and the need to find community; the love of woman and the fraternity of men; strength and vulnerability. And through it all, it is John Wayne who stands astride all borders, at the veritable crossroads of our mythic universe, reconciling, in perhaps a dozen glorious performances, these conflicting ambiguities of which his political persona was but a crude distortion.
For me, one of the loveliest aspects of The Shootist is the affectionate and respectful friendship with Bacall’s Mrs. Rogers, which is never allowed to descend into a cloying Hollywood romance. Not that he never had on-screen romances. Look at Rooster Cogburn, the thinly veiled remake of The African Queen, in which his crusty retired U.S. Marshall was paired with Katherine Hepburn, or his work with Patricia Neal in In Harm’s Way. But how many maturing male stars will, even today, allow themselves to be paired with actresses who are roughly their contemporaries, rather than dropping down a generation or two? Does Woody Allen spring to mind?
From the vantage point of his own conservative Puritanism, he might look askance at these women, like the worldly-wise brothel operator played by Angie Dickenson in Rio Bravo, or the proud and outspoken Irish spinster played by Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, but he would eventually learn the lessons of moral compromise through their instruction, and ultimately accept these self-defining women on their own terms.
In his later films, Wayne allowed himself to look old, and he even allowed himself to be killed. But he would never allow his characters to go down in disgrace and without purpose. As legacies go, it may not be timeless, but a man could do far worse.