Thursday, July 09, 2009

John Wayne in The Shootist (1976): Swan Song of a Giant
By Nicholas Stix

As a child, I was never much of a John Wayne fan. The idea of someone calling himself by a royal moniker (“Duke”) should be repugnant to every red-blooded American. My hero was “Coop.”

It was only many years later that I learned that Wayne’s nickname came not from royalty, but from local firemen. Young Marion Michael Morrison delivered newspapers, accompanied always by his trusty Airedale Terrier, “Duke.” Local firemen who’d befriended Marion dubbed the pair, “Big Duke and Little Duke.” That was fine by Marion, who hated his name, and took to calling himself, “Duke Morrison.”

And so he would remain until 1930, when Fox studio heads changed his name to “John Wayne” for his first starring vehicle, The Big Trail, which bombed.

The other reason I was underwhelmed by Wayne was that his best pictures were rarely shown on New York TV channels, and I usually missed them, when they were. (In contrast, Coop and “Bogey” and “Jimmy C” and Jimmy Stewart’s classics were on all the time.) Meanwhile, most of his new pictures were duds, as the directors of his great vehicles had all retired, died, or lost their touch. Wayne had outlived his era.

In recent years, I’ve been able to watch most of Wayne’s best pictures, and come to appreciate what a fine actor he was.

The Shootist was Wayne’s last picture, about the title character—they called them “shootists” or “assassins,” rather than “gunfighters”—“John Bernard Books.” Like the man playing him, Books has outlived his time, is dying of (prostate) cancer, and wants to go out with as much dignity, and as little pain as possible. But his reputation as a legendary shootist, who has killed 30 men, keeps getting in the way.

The year is 1901.

There is a symmetry between life and art, because although Wayne’s stomach cancer had not yet metastasized, if it had even yet appeared, and he would hang on for another three years, he was a sick man when he made The Shootist. It wasn’t clear if he would even make it through the shooting. He had had one cancerous lung removed in 1964, and the Shootist crew had to shoot around him for two weeks at one point, while he was laid up with the flu. And Wayne was by then a Hollywood dinosaur. He was 68 and, having smoked entire fields of tobacco, and drunk rivers of Scotch, looked every day of it.

(When I was a boy, 68 made you an old man. The average “life expectancy” was ten years shorter than it is now, which in practice meant that men usually died of heart attacks or cancer while still in the full possession of their faculties. Today, they more frequently end their days in nursing homes in their eighties or nineties, confined to wheelchairs while drooling, staring into nothingness with empty, glazed-over eyes, and wearing soiled diapers. But, by God, they lived healthier lives!)

Indeed, as they knew Wayne was ailing, producers Mike Frankovich and William Self had initially offered the role to George C. Scott, who accepted. But once Wayne heard about the picture, he had to have in, and so they withdrew the offer to Scott.

The Shootist has a stunning opening sequence, unique to its star. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. Let yourself be pleasantly surprised.

And yet, between the opening and the climactic showdown at the end, there isn’t an awful lot of action. This is a character study. The young John Wayne couldn’t have carried off a character study, but as he had already shown in his Oscar-winning performance in True Grit (1969), the old man could, and did, splendidly.

J.B. Books has a simple creed, which fits John Wayne who, although he became the biggest star in the universe, was known for treating people pretty decently:

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 others and I expect the same in return.”

The strong supporting cast is full of old friends who had asked to be in the picture, in order to support the ailing star, in every sense—Jimmy Stewart, as the town sawbones, who gives Books the bad news; Richard Boone, who wasn’t long for the world himself, as an old nemesis seeking to avenge his dead brother; Harry Morgan, in the movie’s funniest role, as the cowardly, talkative, town marshal; Hugh O’Brian, as a casino dealer and shootist (O’Brian, by the way, had offered to perform for free). Lauren “Betty” Bacall, who plays the widow (Mrs. Rogers) who owns the local boarding house where Books spend s his last days, wouldn’t otherwise have made a Western. Ron Howard plays the Bacall character’s son, who is growing up without a strong man around, his soul torn between his murderous thug of an employer (Bill McKinney) and his strait-laced mother, with the thug definitely gaining the upper hand. The boy is star-struck by Books, who tries to show him another way to go.

The story, from Glendon Swarthout’s eponymous novel, with a screenplay by Swarthout’s son, Miles, and Scott Hale, has a real feel for the vernacular of the time and place. The great action director Don Siegel sets the right tone, whether a scene is quiet and atmospheric, slow and talky, or violent.

Unfortunately, Elmer Bernstein’s score is not up to the standard he set in The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, and while strong during the opening sequence, is exhausted there. Late in the picture, a brief, poignant moment is made all the more moving by Bernstein’s delicate music, which however does not fit the rest of the score. He cannibalized that passage from his “music box” score for Mockingbird.

Bruce Surtees' photography captures the washed-out, colorless look of the mountains and scrub of a Carson City, Nevada, winter.

John Wayne had churned out five straight duds before The Shootist, but in his swan song, he went out in style.

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