This is the second entry in a series on the final Westerns of the great cowboy stars. The previous entry looked at Gary Cooper and The Hanging Tree.
Don Siegel’s The Shootist is an elegy. Made three years before John Wayne’s death from cancer, it tells the story of a gunfighter (or a “shootist” to use the archaic newspaper term) who rides in from the range, gets a room in town with a prim widow woman and her impressionable son, and settles down to die. The film is an elegy for many things—for the Western itself, for the idea of the cowboy hero, but mostly it’s an elegy for the man who, more than any other, defined the idea of the American film hero for the entire world.
By any standard, John Wayne had an amazing career. Born Marion Morrison, he started out in pictures in the 1920s as just another tall, good-looking guy in crowd scenes—a football player here, a solider there. (In the 1928 Noah’s Ark, he survived the botched flood sequence that killed three extras.) Raoul Walsh gave him his big break playing the lead in the epic 1930 Western The Big Trail. The film was a flop, and Wayne spent most of the next decade riding the range in cheapie oaters, playing second fiddle to guys like Tim McCoy and gradually working his way back up the call sheet. His second big break—the one that actually succeeded in breaking him out of the world of Poverty Row horse operas—was John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. He was 32, a bit old to be playing someone called the Ringo Kid, but there was no doubt he was a star. Those nine years had taught him how to work a camera, how to pace his walk, how to listen to other actors. (“I’m a reactor,” he once said of his approach to his craft.) He looked like he’d been born with a gun in his hand, and though he famously didn’t care for horses, you can never catch him thinking about what he’s doing with one. He rode like it was second nature.
For much of the forties, fifties, and sixties Wayne was a superstar. Like most leading men of his day, he did a little bit of most things (adventure, drama, comedy, romance), but the Western was his true calling. During these years, he made the films that movie geeks and cineastes still love him for, the films by revered directors Howard Hawks and John Ford. Dark and brooding (Red River, The Searchers) or light and fluffy (Rio Bravo, 3 Godfathers), these are films that are beloved by the kind of people who also love classics and foreign films and art house flicks. These are the John Wayne movies beloved by people who don’t normally love John Wayne movies.
By the end of the sixties, however, Wayne had outgrown both Hawks and Ford in stature and influence. As the postwar American consensus came apart, Wayne picked his side in the culture wars and in so doing became something more than an actor. He became an icon for a certain brand of reactionary Americanism. Roughly speaking, then, you can divide Wayne’s career into three phases. Phase One (Wayne as Apprentice) lasted from his entry into films in 1926 to 1939. Phase Two (Wayne as Superstar) lasted from 1939 to about 1968 when he made his Vietnam propaganda picture The Green Berets. Phrase Three (Wayne as Icon) lasted from about 1968 to the end of his life. During this last phase, Wayne stopped being a romantic lead and fully transitioned into being a caustic authority figure and a political lightning rod. Oddly enough, for a man whose career lasted the better part of fifty years, it was his films of his final period that have, in many ways, defined him since his death in 1979—at least for the people who love him the most. For while movie geeks might cherish the Hawks and Ford films, diehard John Wayne fans love movies like Chisum (1970), Big Jake (1971), and Cahill US Marshall (1973). It doesn’t matter who directed these films—the real auteur here was Wayne himself. By the 1970s, no one was telling John Wayne how to be John Wayne.
All of this makes The Shootist more interesting because it’s one of the few films where those two diverse audiences—the film geeks and the John Wayne fans—can find common ground. It’s not one of the regular John Wayne shoot ‘em ups that had arrived in movie theaters every year like clockwork for decades on end. It was slow and quiet, a Western drama rather than a Western adventure.
It’s a film about death. Most Westerns, it should be noted, are very much about life—about the struggle to survive. Only a few really address themselves to the subject of dying. The Shootist is melancholy, but it’s not haunted by violence and regret in the way that something like Eastwood’s Unforgiven is. It’s not about the past, it’s about the rapidly dwindling future. In case we didn’t get the point, the film begins by recounting the storied gunfighting career of its protagonist and shows us clips from some of John Wayne’s past movies. We see him mowing down indiscriminate bad guys in black and white, and then the film switches to color and we see him—heavy and tired-looking but still able to quick draw. We’re reassured that he “never killed a man who didn’t deserve it.” This is what I mean when I say the film isn’t haunted by the consequences of violence or by any sense of regret.
Maybe that’s another way of saying that the film isn’t an elegy for the complicated, bloody history of the West, but for the heroic movie career of John Wayne himself. The film is notable for all the Western talent involved. Jimmy Stewart is on hand to evoke not only his own cowboy career but his teaming with Wayne in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Harry Morgan’s cowardly sheriff recalls his turn as the cowardly city councilman who abandons Gary Cooper in 1952’s High Noon, and John Carradine is here as the last link back to Wayne’s youth in Stagecoach. In the final shootout Wayne guns down Western mainstays like Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, and Bill McKinney. Even Ron Howard, here as the kid, had done plenty of Westerns by 1976. The only major member of the cast who didn’t have Western bona fides was Lauren Bacall, who plays the widow who befriends Wayne in his final days. In a way, though, Bacall serves another function—linking us back to Bogart (the liberal, city counterpoint to Wayne’s conservative, rural hero) and to old Hollywood.
At the center of it all is Wayne, still as powerful a screen presence as ever. His eyes are as blue as they ever were, but damn it if they’re not unmistakably tired and sad. He brings a weary dignity to the role—as well as the authenticity of a man who had already suffered terrible health problems, with more on the horizon. By the end of his life, John Wayne had about as much power over his films as any actor ever had, so he deserves no small degree of credit for ending his career with an ideal encapsulation of his screen persona. Few stars ever ended their career on as perfect a note as The Shootist.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.