Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Shootist

The Shootist (1976)
Dir: Don Siegel
Staring John Wayne, James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard

Famed gunfighter J.B. Books (Wayne) learns that he has terminal cancer, and spends his final days in Carson City.

This is a movie about endings. The movie is ostensibly about the end of the west through the eyes of one of the last legendary gunfighters, but it is also John Wayne's final film, capping off a long career in the genre that made him a star. While it is easy to fallback on the theory that his cancer was caused by the unfortunate decision to film The Conqueror downwind from a nuclear testing site, it also should be noted that Wayne believed that his smoking was what led to his cancer. But then again almost 100 of the people that worked on The Conqueror developed cancer after the film ended production, so either one could be possible.

In the film J.B. Books comes to town, sees the town doctor (Stewart), and rents a room from widow Bond Rogers (Bacall) and her son Gillom (Howard). After Gillom learns the identity of the new tenant, news gets out around town and some people try to make a name for themselves by taking out a legend, and Gillom becomes starstruck and wants to learn from Books. Throughout the film Books talks about the loneliness of his life, and strikes up a friendship with Bond, who at first is uneasy with him due to the life that he's led. But ultimately Books is a man that has accepted his fate but at the same time he wants to go out on his own terms, which leads to him engineering a final confrontation between between himself, and several foes that have various reasons to want to be the one to take him out.

One interesting thing about the movie is when it is set: End of January, 1901. This was a time when technology was changing the frontier, with things like the telephone and the automobile changing the way things were out west. Ease of travel and communications tamed the west, shortening the gaps for travel and creating a more peaceful environment than the world that J. B. Books lived in. Parallel to this it can be seen as one of the last great old Hollywood westerns, with tastes changing and the genre not being popular for a while, with the kids becoming obsessed with Star Wars the following year, and westerns becoming less frequent for the better part of a decade. Really aside from Silverado and the Young Guns films*, the western didn't really become really popular again until Clint Eastwod made the old man western Unforgiven, and that film and Tombstone led to a new wave of

This movie has got some great performances in it, with Ron Howard giving a great performance as Gillom. You get to see him going from being in awe of the excitement and danger of a gunfighters life, but at the end of the film you get to see how the violence affects him, and how it leaves him disgusted. Harry Morgan is pretty great as the funniest character in the film, the town sheriff that seems a bit too happy that Books is going to die in his town. It's a role that some people might find annoying, but his inappropriate enthusiasm worked for me. But John Wayne is incredible in this film. He's been kind of slighted as an actor, with a lot of people writing him off as one note, which could be seen as a side effect from his choices of roles. But in this film he gives the character a hint of sadness and weariness, while at the same time presenting a man that still has a since of goodness to him even though he has done some bad things. It could be argued that some of the weariness could be attributed to some of the health problems that he had suffered, but he didn't have those traits in The Cowboys, so I'd consider it more of an acting choice than one of just being too ill to do his normal thing.

No matter how it turned out, John Wayne's final film would always be noteworthy. But luckily he was able to go out on a high note, capping his career off with a great film that can also be seen as a meditation on his life and work as an actor in westerns. But really, it's just a great film, and that would be the case even if John Wayne continued to work and had not succumbed to cancer in the years following this film. Recommended.

*I'd also argue that the Young Guns films were mainly successful to them being full of a bunch of handsome young actors. They probably would of done the same business no matter what genre they were in.

No comments:

Post a Comment