"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." J.B.Books (well...Glendon Swarthout)
Now this is one of those films that is darned near perfect, partner. It is fun, entertaining, clearly structured and full of classy people giving classy turns. With comedy toupées. And in terms of where it sits – at the very end of John Wayne’s film career, the story just into the twentieth century and at the passing of the gunmen and the wildness of the west – it is beautiful.
Old Jack watched this in my bedroom on the Xmas iPad young Steve gave me. I’d gathered a small crowd inside ten minutes. The world may have forgotten John Wayne, but the goodly folk of our generation still love him. And he gives one of the best – top five, let’s say – performances of that mighty career in The Shootist.
Wayne’s J.B. Books is dying. Queen Victoria is just dead. He comes to Carson City, with its rattly new horse-less carriages and jeering residents, to confirm a cancer diagnosis with the last medico he trusts, Doctor Hostetler. The diagnosis is bad. The pain-management is swigging from a bottle of laudanum.
The few scenes with Wayne and James Stewart (Hostetler) are gorgeous. These two old war horses, rare screen comrades, know what they’re doing. Wayne is discomfited; Stewart is sad and still.
Stewart produces the funniest moment in the film. I’m not sure it’s intentional, but it certainly underlines Wayne’s predicament and puts us on his side for what comes: “There will be an increase in the severity of the pain… The pain will become unbearable… If you’re lucky you’ll lose consciousness. Until then you’ll SCREAM.” Really. Even Nurse Stabby-Fingers was shedding tears of laughter. We’re going to get that moment playing on a loop in reception.
To the heart of the film: Wayne shapes his final eight days by taking a room with Lauren Bacall’s Widow Rogers. They have a fight each day over guns, intruding killers (who lose) and Wayne’s impact on her errant son, the distressingly young Ron Howard. The boy is impressed to discover the last, great shootist is under their roof. It is an impression that nearly turns him into one.
Wayne reveals a noble heart beneath his legend. Not that the legend is examined too hard; old Jack certainly read it as a nod to Wayne’s life-time of good men with guns. Sympathy comes mainly from the reaction of others to this old man and their “pawing over my death”: Harry Morgan is the scared then jeering Marshall Thibido; Sheree North is Serepta (really) the grasping ex-love in cahoots with Rick Lenz as Dobkins the similarly grasping local journalist; and John Carradine is the magnificently lugubrious undertaker, Beckum. They all want to use J.B. Books and his legend for a touch of associated glory and money when he’s dead: from the marshall who ended it, to a salacious book credit, to simple cash for life, to putting on a show with the corpse. Even his barber keeps the hair trimmed off the toup. These characters keep the middle of the film bouncing along and build a kind of love for Wayne.
And then there’s Scatman Crothers as Moses. Everyone needs to see his moments with Wayne. They are thoroughly life-enhancing!
Only Bacall matches the heart of Wayne’s performance, and it is a controlled joy to watch them lean towards each other with grace and courtesy. They take a buggy trip and are tentative friends from then on. It is a warming thing to see Bacall – here in her mid-50s – drop the starched cool and let this old man touch her heart. Don’t get me wrong, they row and scrap like pros, but they have moments of classier truth than the histrionics that win Oscars these days. Mid-row, challenged on his morals and his soul, he takes down the pious widow with “I’m a dying man, scared of the dark…” Damn you, she says.
But the gunman has a logical heart. He organises his gravestone, gives Ron Howard some sober advice, selling and buying back his old horse to give the boy something real, and sends out messages to the under-developed (but, honestly, who cares?) bad guys of the town.
SPOILERS IF YOU FEAR THEM…OLD JACK LOVES THE ENDING AND DOESN’T STINT ON THE DETAIL
And so John Wayne reaches the end of his career. The Shootist dons his newly dry-process cleaned Sunday best and says farewell to Bond Rogers (oh…masters of their craft are in that scene: “Goodbye , Mrs Rogers”, “Goodbye, Mr Books”), gifts his only constant companion, an arse pillow, to an omnibus driver, says a sweet wish to a girl on the bus, and walks into a saloon in the sunshine of January’s false spring. The bad guys are waiting.
There’s a photograph old Jack remembers from the film’s release in ’76. Wayne is on his side, bloodied, gun out and face angry and hurt, trapped behind a bar. The chaos and brutality of the scene, made surreal if not comic by the garish slop they used for blood, is implied. That photo, however, captures the end of Wayne’s adventure, Books’ brutality, the natural finish to the shootist’s days – all of that.
In the actual scene, director Don Siegel lifts the moment higher: Wayne despatches the bad guys as the boy Howard arrives. The shootist is shot in the back by the bartender. The boy shoots said bartender and in a long moment of decision that marks the change in times, throws the gun away. Wayne nods approval and dies.
Then… Stewarts’s Hostetler comes through the door as Howard leaves and looks at the dead J.B. Books. There’s the whisper of approval on his face: he had done the right thing in the right way at the right time. Outside, the boy pushes his way through the crowd to join his mother, sad but not filmed as such, they walk away into the shiny new twentieth century.
Plot, character, century, actors, structure and emotion – all land beautifully in a moment of unsentimental rightness. This is how we should die.
AND…IT’S SAFE TO READ ON
The ending perfectly captures the moment it represents, on and off-screen. It is character-led through-out, entertaining for fans of westerns, of Wayne and those uncomfortable new films of the 1970s. It gives Wayne a dignified, funny and lovely last hurrah. And it is just so brilliantly done.
Old Jack waited until he was alone and watched the film again. If there’s a new Crumbly Template here, then let’s have one called Own Your Ending.
Here’s to the Duke.
That beautiful man.