The Shootist (1976)
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Scott Hale, Miles Hood Swarthout
John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, Bill McKinney, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North, Scatman Crothers
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DIE WITH YOUR BOOTS ON
If you are a true movie fan, you just have to be a John Wayne fan. That's just how it is. I've seen many of the most famous Wayne Westerns repeatedly--the ones I return to the most, in no particular order, are Stagecoach (1939), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), McLintock! (1963), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and Red River (1948). In all of those films, and many more, the men Wayne portrays are nothing if not a model for consistent behavior. Wayne isn't always a hero so much as he is a man of undying principle and character; qualities in short supply in these modern times. When I watch the lead protagonist in Crank (2006) raping his girlfriend in public and knocking down patients in a hospital, it's tough to escape the notion that the Wayne type of lead character is forever gone. Stranger still is that a new generation of film fans will (probably) never take a chance on an "old" John Wayne movie. Right or wrong, most film fans use their date-of-birth as a point of reference when it comes to how far backwards they are willing to travel in terms of world cinema. For those of us who take the time to write about the films we admire, it's our job to convince new film fans how rewarding it can be to discover what captivated audiences before the era of summer sequels.
Perhaps fittingly, one of the best Wayne vehicles was to be his final film. Director Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976), based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, offers a critique of the gunfighter's life and death, both in a biological sense and in terms of his displacement from a society no longer in need of his services. At the film's onset, terminally ill John Bernard Books (Wayne) arrives in Carson City to die. Though he helped civilize the frontier, the 1901 town has developed significantly since his younger days, complete with telephone poles, billboards, newspapers, and impatient people on the move. The type of law and order represented by the lone gunfighter has been replaced by the smug Marshall Thibido (Harry Morgan), the woman (Lauren Bacall) who once needed protection is now strong and independent, the horse is being replaced by the automobile, and electricity is scheduled to power the town's public transit system within a year. Hardly thankful for the gunfighter's help in making all of this progress possible, the town considers him a nuisance. "What I'll do on your grave won't pass for flowers," observes Thibido. Wayne has plans to die peacefully, but his past has a way of following him around, continually forcing him into action.
To say The Shootist is a great film seems understated. The film is well-written and well-cast, with a number of distinguished performances. Naturally Wayne, in his 69th Western, is the centerpiece of the film's 98 minutes. Given the fact that Wayne's own health was failing at the time (he had already had one lung removed), his performance seems all the more remarkable. Much like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), The Shootist serves as an aggregate of all Westerns that came before it, particularly those that starred Wayne, who offers one of his most appealing performances ever. Books' credo neatly summarizes over 40 years of Wayne films, "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."
Many notable personas have graced the Western: Eastwood was the most mythical. Gary Cooper was the most subtle. James Stewart had the most range. Wayne was, without question, the best.
--Eric Somer, 2/11/2007
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