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The Shootist: The Duke of Dignity
by Asa Butcher
2010-07-06 08:29:38
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The Shootist
Directed by Don Siegel
1976, Paramount Pictures
As I sit writing this, the clock on the kitchen wall reads 1:43am; obviously, I cannot sleep. For the past half-hour my mind has been stuck on a film and the only remedy for this rare bout of insomnia is to write down these raging thoughts and exorcise them from my brain. The title of the film is The Shootist, which is of particular importance to the worshippers of John Wayne because it was the actor’s final film… and what a film.

I have been an admirer of John Wayne’s films ever since those childhood Sundays when my dad would inevitably watch the afternoon western on television. I am intimately familiar with John Ford’s Death Valley, the U.S. cavalry, Ethan Hawke, John Chisum, cattle drives and more from my time with the Duke, yet I had never sat down to watch his curtain call, his farewell to cinema, his coup de grace.

Only one word comes to mind, “dignity”. It is the word that has been reverberating around my skull, acting like some caffeine shot to the system, and finally forcing me up out of bed and into the kitchen wrapped in a duvet. If I had read that John Wayne exudes  dignity in every scene then I would probably be a little doubtful, but to sit and watch this great actor give the performance of a lifetime through only his eyes, well  doubt is replaced by respect.

A great deal was made in reviews about Mickey Rourke’s role in The Wrestler and how he was portraying a direct reflection of himself, yet this is what John Wayne does throughout The Shootist. The film begins with a brief montage of Wayne through the years, reminding us of some of the roles he has give us and then we are introduced to the aging cowboy riding alone through the desert. He looks weak, tired, old and then he is held up by a bandit and ordered to hand over his wallet. Wayne reaches inside his jacket, pulls out the money and BANG, shoots the man in the stomach with a tiny pistol. The Duke will never go down without a fight.

His character, J.B. Books, then rides into a turn of the 20th century town, which is equipped with telephones, electricity, running water and a streetcar, reminding us that the gunslinger is a relic from another age and that perhaps John Wayne, too, is almost out of place in a new Hollywood filled with films like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Steven Spielberg’s 1941, which he felt was an insult to World War II veterans, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which he claimed "destroyed the myth of the Old West".

John Wayne did and does  still divide public opinion, but so does his character Books, who is a respected and feared gunslinger whom few people ever like, and he freely admits that to Lauren Bacall’s character Bond Rogers. It is in their scenes together that the sparks of brilliance fly from the screen as two cinematic greats are able to make you emotionally invest in these fictional characters with such ease and bring them almost to life. The same must be said for the few scenes between John Wayne and James Stewart, reunited for the first time since 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

I am still trying to grasp just how The Shootist managed to get under my skin and necessitate a review in order for me to get some sleep. I feel as though I gained a glimpse into a man who knew his time was coming to an end, both on screen and in life, but wanted to go on his own terms. The creation of this character Books is all but Wayne in name and much of the dialogue could easily be applied to the actor’s life: I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.

The Shootist is by nowhere near the best western or even film that John Wayne made in his illustrious career, but it is the most truthful portrayal of the actor, or any actor, that I have seen in a long time. Love him or hate him, you must search this film out and discover the power of dignity in a man’s eyes. John Wayne: Unmatched, unrivalled, undeniable. The Shootist is a reminder to every actor just how they should take their final bow.

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