“I’m a dying man, scared of the dark.”
I’ve put off watching The Shootist for a long time. It has such a weighty legend hanging over it. It’s John Wayne’s final film, and features melancholy appearances from a lot of greats such as Jimmy Stewart and Richard Boone. Even Humphrey Bogart’s ghost looms over it because of Lauren Bacall’s sad and spare performance. Even the horse figures prominently — Dollar was Wayne’s favorite horse, and its appearance was a condition of his doing the film.
My goal was to watch (or rewatch) all of Wayne’s Westerns before tackling this one. But it’s been hanging on my DVR for a few weeks, tempting me, and I decided to stop putting it off. Wayne died several years before I was born. There’s a finite amount of his movies any way you slice it, and why put off the inevitable?
Which is, of course, what The Shootist is about. Acceptance. It’s a powerful film. No matter how you feel about Wayne, it’s a moving portrait and one of his best performances. We all know Wayne wasn’t the most nuanced or gifted actor. He played himself.
His best films are a confident reflection of that — whether he was the young Turk in Stagecoach or the cantankerous Rooster Cogburn in True Grit or the wryly suffering J.B. Books. Wayne knew his image and knew his audience, and it took a lot of guts to be this emotionally naked.
There are so many moments where genuine sadness and regret well up in his eyes, and you can see the real man underneath. He’s a dying man, scared of the dark, clutching at his dignity as the vultures circle, wounded by the reality of his false friendships and love affairs. Did anyone like him for him?
Is there no one who will stand by him now as a friend, and who doesn’t want to profit by his corpse? As the audience eagerly peering in, wondering how he’ll take his last breath, it makes you feel rather dirty. After all, aren’t we paying good money to see whether Wayne will go out with a bang or not?
Despite the looming headstone and wintery landscape, The Shootist isn’t a dreary film. It’s funny. Wayne still shows a lot of relish and spark, and never stops throwing verbal barbs at his friends and foes. He isn’t going gently into that good night. No, he’s still going to get $300 for Dollar, take a pretty lady for a drive, teach a boy to shoot, and whittle the Marshal down to size. He may carry a cushion around for his aching bones, but don’t you dare tease him for it.
As I said in my last WW installment, there seem to be two kinds of Westerns — those starring cracking young gunfighters, or those tipping their hat to a passing legend. A lot of people have asked me why the hell I spend my weeks analyzing one genre, and I often ask myself the same thing, but it’s moments like these that justify it. For a genre of “junk” films, the Westerns took their stars and stories to heart.
I can’t think of another brand that actually stopped to note the passing of time, the rise of a new generation, and the men and women who made up a mythology. And if they swallow their fears and pride and go into that dark, well, then maybe we can be a little braver by their example.