The United States of America
John Bernard Books: 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.
Vittorio De Sica, the genius director of Bicycle Thieves (1949) and Umberto D (1952), said that everyone can only play one role: themselves. This was one of the key attributes of Italian neorealism, a genre that strove to bring a new sense of authenticity and social awareness to the cinema. If De Sica is right, then I would like to nominate John Wayne as one of the greatest actors of all time.
Yes, yes, he DID play practically the same role in every movie he was ever in. But that was because we didn't want to see him do anything else. He WAS the West. He was THE cowboy. He represented everything that Americans wanted to be: tough, self-reliant, calm under pressure, and a good shot in a pinch. I read somewhere that when John Wayne enters a movie, it is like a force of nature. And I believe that. When John Wayne is on the screen, you have to force yourself to notice the other actors. His legend was forged from countless Westerns shot by some of the greatest directors who ever touched a camera. His look, his swagger, his voice, and his height has entered modern American folklore. Famous quotes such as “Pilgrim” have entered the American lexicon. A true man's man, he represented the ultimate of masculinity. John Wayne's name has become synonymous with the American image of the cowboy.
But why? The best answer would be that when John Wayne played a role, it felt authentic. When he scowled, we felt like it was John Wayne the man, not John Wayne the actor, who was angry. Whatever he did on camera felt believable. This is probably because John Wayne didn't really act. His characters were a projection of his persona. In real life, John Wayne WAS a tough old sonuvabitch. He frequently turned down roles that he thought were un-American. He also turned down roles that he didn't believe were family friendly. When Mel Brooks originally offered the part of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles to Wayne, he famously said that he couldn't because it was too dirty. But, he added, he would be first in line to see it. When we see Wayne make moral decisions in his movies, there was always the impression that the real John Wayne would make the same one in real life. He was a staunch conservative. But he didn't do so out of disdain for the poor or because he was particularly fond of the free market. John Wayne truly believed in self-reliance and the virtue of hard work. I wonder what he would think of the Republican Party today?
But no matter. The fact remains that John Wayne is one of America's most cherished celebrities and icons. He has starred in many of the greatest Westerns ever made. But one of his best movies is usually forgotten about. It was his last role, and quite frankly, his most personal. He may have won the Oscar for True Grit (1969), but the role that Wayne should have won the Academy Award for was as John Bernard Books in The Shootist. Why is it his most personal role? Well, there are many reasons, but I suppose that they would only make sense within the context of the movie's plot. This will be difficult, because I could easily do a shot-by-shot analysis of this film and have something important and meaningful to say concerning each shot. That is one of the magnificent aspects of this movie: it plays like a visual book. It is drenched in metaphors and symbols that most moviegoers would take for granted. Every line has an important meaning to it. Every prop has some symbolic or thematic property to it. Every character is a composite of ideas and mannerisms, instead of just your typical Hollywood archetypes. It only adds to the power of the film that these themes, symbols, and metaphors all play a duel role: one for the character of J. B. Books, and the other for John Wayne in real life.
The plot in a nutshell: J. B. Books is the last of the famous Old West gunmen. He goes to Carson City, Nevada where he gets diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. So, he moves into a boarding home to live out his last few days in peace. However, the past will not leave him alone. Well, now I should mention that at the time of filming, John Wayne was sick from stomach cancer. Well, that's not quite true. He had previously suffered from cancer that resulted in him having his left lung and several ribs removed. Three years after this film was made, the cancer returned. But he was still sick. And it showed. When we see him on his horse riding into town, we can't help but think that he looks tired. Turns out that the man who jumped onto horses in Stagecoach (1939) now has to ride sitting on a red pillow that he “stole form a whorehouse.” He goes into the doctor's office of his old friend, E.W. Hostetler, played here by a similarly ancient Jimmy Stewart. When he tells Wayne that he has “a cancer” the look of pain and disappointment that enter Wayne's face is so real that it hurts us. We know that at some point in his life, a real doctor told him that he was going to die of cancer. And now, he is given the same diagnosis in a movie. Wayne isn't the only one suffering in this scene. We too are suffering. We suffer at the thought of Books dying because that means that Wayne will die.
But in true Wayne style, he just shoves off after the diagnosis. He goes to rent a room from “Bond” Rogers, played here by Lauren Bacall. From the minute we see the two in the same frame, we know that they are destined to be together. The fact that she can't stand him at first is only an obstacle in our eyes, because we know, Wayne ALWAYS gets the girl. When their relationship begins to develop, and the truth about his condition is revealed, her pain seems real too. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Lauren Bacall's first husband, the incomparable Humphrey Bogart, died of cancer as well. I like to think that when Bacall acted sad over the character Books' illness, she was sad for two reasons. One, because of dear old Bogie. Two, because in real life she knew that John Wayne would suffer the same way. Keep this in mind when watching the scene where they say their final goodbyes. It really adds a new layer of meaning to an already powerful scene. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't even mentioned Bond's son, Gillom Rogers, played by Ron Howard. My friends, he gets his own paragraph.
Simply put, Ron Howard plays the audience. No, seriously. His reactions to the appearance of John Wayne are the same that we have. When he discovers that J. B. Books, he can't believe it. Then, he freaks out. He is amazed and delighted to have such a man living in his house. He even mimics an old-school shootout with Moses Brown (Scatman Crothers), one of the local townsfolk. They fake shooting each other and falling over. Think about this for a minute. Wouldn't you act the exact same way if you knew that John Wayne was in your house? Eventually, he asks Books for a shooting lesson. And then, finally, he begins to see Wayne as a father figure. How many young boys have dreamed that John Wayne could be their father?
Ah, but I'm forgetting the plot. He is approached by several people who want to take advantage of his death. A newspaper man wants to get the “real story” about his life and sell it. An old lover comes back and tries to marry him. It turns out that all she wants is his name so that she can write a tell-all about him and label it “By Mrs. Books.” He harshly rejects them all. His rational: it's his death. It doesn't belong to anyone else. He won't let anybody take advantage of him. Of course, throughout the course of the film, he meets other people who try to take advantage of him in a more passive aggressive way. The barber hordes his hair clippings so that he can sell it. The undertaker tries to trick Wayne into letting him become a display so that he can charge people to see his body after he dies. Of course, Wayne sees through this. He asks for a small stone with a simple inscription. Nothing else.
All the while, Wayne begins to act suspiciously. The doctor prescribes him a bottle of laudanum for the pain. The bottle is only a temporary dosage. And yet, when people ask if he will refill it, he refuses. “This'll do,” he says. He gets his best clothes cleaned. He gets his hair cut. Slowly it dawns upon that he is preparing for something....Something which he doesn't intend to survive. We then remember something that Stewart said earlier. He said, “If I had your courage, I wouldn't die like that.” He is referring to his diagnosis of Wayne's cancer. He said that at the end, it will be so painful that he will scream. It looks like Wayne is going to go out on his own terms.
It turns out that Wayne wants to go out by cleaning out the town of its worst criminals. He invitees three of the town's worst criminals to a saloon where he engages in an epic battle. He is shot, but manages to kill all three. Alas, the barkeeper appears out of nowhere and shoots him in the back with a shotgun. Howard enters and dispatches the barkeeper with Wayne's pistols. Once again, Howard has acted out the fantasy of the audience. As Wayne dies, Howard throws the gun away. Wayne smiles and closes his eyes. His death is tragic. Not only for the fact that he was killed. It was the WAY that he was killed that was so significant. He was shot in the back. Shooting somebody in the back is one of the worst taboos in Western culture. It is a coward's method of killing. When he was told that he would have to shoot somebody in the back during the final shootout scene, Wayne said on the set of the movie, "I've made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it." And change it they did. Wayne may have been killed by a coward, but he didn't kill as one.
And that's why we love John Wayne. Even as a villain, he didn't shoot people in the back. I wish I could go on about this movie, but if I don't stop now, I will be rambling on about it for several more pages. I could explore so many other interpretations of The Shootist: Wayne vs. Hollywood in his twilight years, romantic Westerns vs. revisionist Westerns, even the classic struggle of old vs. new. But I'm concerned with just one thing. The Duke. The Man himself. The man who still rode horses after losing a lung. The man who never shot a man in the back. The man who was a scoundrel, saint, and gentleman all rolled into one. The American icon. The American hero. The American legend.
The American Cowboy.