Thursday 9 August 2007

The Shootist (1976) Don Siegel

The introduction starts in 1871, then moves on to 1880, 1889 and onwards, and shows us lots of clips from John Wayne movies of years past. This is completely deliberate because John Bernard Books the character and John Wayne the actor are not particularly far away from each other: they're both legends of the Old West who have outlived their environment and are about to die. Books discovers he's dying of cancer and he's come to Carson City, NV, in January, 1901, to get a second opinion from his old friend Dr E W Hostetler. Playing the part in 1976, Wayne was dying of cancer himself, making the pain in old friend Jimmy Stewart's eyes as he gives him exactly the second opinion you'd expect very real.

He isn't the only old friend here who's come to see off the Duke in style. After he gets the bad news from Stewart, he takes a room with Lauren Bacall. He hides who he is, given that he's possibly the last notorious gunman in the west, but Bacall's son Ron Howard finds out from the name on his saddle at the same time as liveryman Scatman Crothers. Howard tells his ma and she calls in the local marshal, Harry Morgan, who's more than happy to find out he's going to be in the land of the living much longer. Soon he meets up with local pain in the ass old relic Richard Boone and it won't be long before he'll be visiting undertaker John Carradine.

You'd expect a story like this to be all about this but it's completely inescapable. It literally counts the days from his arrival, knowing full well that it's a countdown to his death. How many days will it take? Death is obvious from moment one when the first news we hear when Books arrives in Carson City is the death of Queen Victoria, far more than just an obituary but the end of a whole chapter in history. The point of this film is to do the same to the west. It's a pretty simple story but it says a lot.

It isn't just the gunmen and the wild lawlessness that supposedly vanished with the advent of civilisation, it's the legends and what they mean to people. John Bernard Books is a pretty simple man who's always been consistent in his beliefs and his actions, but he has become and will still become a lot of things to a lot of people. Some want to be near him, some want to be far away from him; some help him out of goodness, some don't help because of morals; some judge him, plenty misjudge him; generally people see him not for who he is but who they think he is. It's what he represents that matters most, far more than what he is, and what he represents is a passing era.

It's very well and very believably told. It was obviously a lot more than a film to a lot of the people in it and that's hardly surprising. Some of them may have done it out of perceived duty and others as a farewell or a tribute, but they did it for reasons that mattered to them. It's also pretty obvious that the biggest reason belonged to John Wayne himself. Harry Morgan may have been hilarious and very memorable, but this is the Wayne's movie from moment one and it's a great and highly appropriate last film for the Duke.

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