John Wayne spent nearly 50 years as a working actor in Hollywood, from the no-budget poverty row westerns of the ’30s to ascendant, unprecedented stardom following his role in the 1939 John Ford classic “Stagecoach.” He brought his sometimes-warm, sometimes-hostile persona to a number of film genres, but he’s best associated with the western — after all, he was in many of the all-time greats.
In his final western, 1976’s “The Shootist,” the nearly 70-year-old Wayne had visibly aged. He certainly couldn’t play characters like “The Ringo Kid” anymore. He couldn’t even play the cranky middle-aged character type he developed through much of the ’50s and ’60s, macho guys like Cole Thornton in Howard Hawks’ “El Dorado.” Even though he insisted on doing his own stunts for 1971’s “Big Jake,” there was a shift in his presence in his final years. “The Shootist” took advantage of that, using the shadow of the John Wayne legend to contrast against the sick, elderly human being, who had begun having heart problems and stomach cancer according to Scott Eyman’s biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.”
But there were other issues. “The Shootist” was a far cry from the kind of western Wayne liked to make, or thought he made. Like so many ’70s genre pictures, this would take the mythology of the past and subvert it. Don Siegel, the director, had big ideas for the movie. He and Wayne would not get along.
“The Shootist” begins with a veritable highlight reel of John Wayne westerns, as the bitter father figure of “Red River” and the beleaguered sheriff of “Rio Bravo.” This montage, full of classic John Wayne shootouts, effectively functions as backstory for the hero of this movie, J.B. Books. More importantly, it places “The Shootist” explicitly in a continuum of John Wayne movies, playing a more subdued take on the character against our memories of him. Neither he nor the filmmakers knew this would be his last western, but the montage makes it feel inevitable.
Coming from Don Siegel, the filmmaker who had revolutionized the “urban vigilante” genre with the “Dirty Harry” series, this movie would be tough, but with enough light and humor to prevent it from being a depressing slog. Wayne had expectations too and liked to craft characters of a similar type. According to Scott Eyman’s biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” the actor liked to play characters who have “a little more good than bad in him.” It’s no wonder he almost walked away from playing Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.”
For Wayne, J.B. was one such character. He has a tough hide, a violent past, but a tenderness that emerges in unlikely scenarios. When the old shootist, privately sick with cancer, ambles into turn-of-the-century Carson City, Nevada, he’s an easy target. Aspiring gunmen vie for the chance to take on a legend.
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