Marlon Brando is not the quintessential American male movie star. That honor belongs to John Wayne. John Wayne was a shrewd actor who carefully manufactured his on screen persona. For many, Wayne represents the All-American WASP, yet he was of Irish descent and a Roman Catholic. Most of the B western actors had a favorite horse. In his B western beginnings, Wayne had the horse Duke, yet he disliked horses, preferred slacks and dinner jacket to western duds, wore a toupee through most of his career, and felt more at home on his boat than he ever did on a ranch.
In addition to the being the archetypal cowboy, Wayne represented the ideal American soldier, yet he never served a day in the military. When the second World War broke out in 1941, many of Wayne’s contemporaries, such as Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda, all enlisted. These actors were already established as “A” list stars in 1941. Even with Stagecoach (1939) behind him Wayne was not yet secure in his career and still languished in numerous “B” films. Wayne saw this as a golden opportunity, while the competition was away, to grab the number one spot, and he did just that. It was less a case of draft dodging, and more a calculating career move, one for which John Ford would relentlessly needle him ever after. The war interrupted the careers of numerous actors, such as George Reeves, who seemed to be on the way up, but had not yet established themselves in a large enough body of “A” productions. Upon his return, Reeves and many others found they had been virtually forgotten while they were away, never to regain their previous career position, let alone surpass it. So much for studio patriotism towards its contract players.
Wayne symbolized American virtue, yet he had countless affairs with married women. Some maintain he was racist. In a 1971 interview he made naive and blatantly ignorant remarks about African Americans and Native Americans, yet he enjoyed working with African American co-stars, and was drawn to native American spirituality, an interest on display in his film Hondo (1953), produced and distributed by Wayne’s own production company. Fellow star Jimmy Stewart was far more inclined to pronounced racist views. Wayne married three Mexican women and bedded many more of them. He was a rabid anti-communist during the cold war. Both Wayne and Howard Hawks saw the film High Noon (1952) as anti-American and both saw to it that scriptwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted; Wayne bragged about that until the end of his life, yet Wayne also encouraged Hollywood to forgive and forget regarding Larry Parks’ communism. Despite his republican leanings, Wayne began as a socialist and later sided with Jimmy Carter in giving back of the Panama Canal, much to the chagrin of fellow Republicans. Wayne’s response was, “We promised to do so and we should keep our word.”
Wayne put on the facade of machismo, yet he was apt to be sentimental and easily shed a tear. His professionalism knew no bias. He lavished praise on the acting of Montgomery Clift, even if he felt Clift was “an offish fag.” He enjoyed working with Rock Hudson, even though he was well aware of Hudson’s lifestyle. Wayne also could express professional criticism of fellow actors. He frequently criticized Randolph Scott‘s laconic non-acting (which Bud Boetticher used to great affect), yet Wayne also hooked Scott up with his best director. Fellow actors could certainly return the criticism favor to Wayne. Robert Mitchum recalled that Wayne wore his screen persona as grandiosely as he wore his ten gallon hat. For Mitchum, Wayne was all image and only image. The difference between the two actors’ style lies in the difference between a great character actor and a great screen personality. Even the name John Wayne was a facade for Marion Morrison.
Wayne partnered up with skilled directors and learned from consummate professionals. John Ford was slow to realize Wayne’s potential. When the director saw Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Ford was surprised by Wayne’s performance and said, “I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act.” Ford was a tyrant and openly ridiculed Wayne’s masculinity frequently and mercilessly. Wayne consistently and quietly took Ford’s taunting and kissed the director’s ass. Actor Henry Fonda was not so inclined. When Ford punched Fonda on the set of Mister Roberts (1955), Fonda vowed never to work with Ford again, despite the fact that the two had a history of rich collaboration. Fonda kept his word.
Intentionally or not, Ford was most likely instrumental in nurturing Wayne’s increasingly public macho image. Other directors found Wayne more humble. Neither Mark Rydell nor Don Siegel, both liberals, wanted to cast Wayne (for The Cowboys in 1972, and The Shootist in 1976), but Wayne approached both directors, humbly asked for the part, and vowed utmost professionalism. Rydell and Sigel were both won over by Wayne and he delivered two of his better latter-day performances.
Years earlier, Ford and Howard Hawks were just as instrumental for crafting Wayne’s presence and persona as Wayne himself was. On screen Wayne represented virtue, integrity and honesty. Off screen, Wayne exhibited none of these qualities, but that matters only if one confuses the persona with the person. If one insists that the two cannot be separated, then turn to Gregory Peck, who was probably the greatest of classic Hollywood’s western stars; he usually played men that fit the ideal mold of integrity, and actually lived up to that image off-screen (and was a better actor than Wayne to boot).
Many, including Wayne himself, claimed that Wayne was no great actor. There is some truth in that, but he was a great reactor, and that was the most essential quality for movie stars of yesteryear. Wayne stunned John Ford and critics with Red River, but he surpassed that performance in Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which may be the greatest film about America, bar none. His character was fleshed through rage, loss, despair, racist hatred, and redemption, which Wayne expertly expressed. Wayne gave exceptional performances in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Quiet Man (1952), but his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969), which won him a long overdue Oscar, was, comparatively, mannered (just as mannered in its way as Brando’s Don Corleone was as in a different way).
Wayne’s last decade saw increasingly lazy performances in routine films. The Cowboys (1972) and The Shootist (1976) were notable exceptions. The former film understandably turned off most critics with its message of revenge for young boys, but Wayne gave a nuanced, emotional performance. The Shootist turned out to be his last film, and ,apart from The Searchers, the best acting performance of his career.
The Shootist was not exactly a B budget, but it was not a solid A picture either. The producers knew that a dramatic film about a gunfighter dying of cancer was not going to reap box office gold, so most of the budget went into the superbly detailed sets and costume design, with little money left over for name actors. However, when the script, based off Glendon Swathout’s well received novel, began circulating, the name actors started coming anyway, many so eager to be a part of the film that they drastically cut their salary demands (and, in Hugh O’Brien’s case, did the film for free).
Producers William Self and M.J. Frankovich and director Don Siegel were earnestly looking at George C. Scott for the lead role of shootist J.B. Books, until John Wayne contacted them, letting them knew he desperately wanted to do the film and lobbied for the part. The producers knew that Wayne’s iconic status and wealth of films in the western genre would greatly benefit the film. Wayne was secured. After casting Wayne, Richard Boone, Hugh O’ Brien, Scatman Crothers, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, and Ron Howard (in the role of the young apprentice) all signed on quickly.
Wayne, who had previously beat lung cancer, was ill throughout production. Unknown at the time, Wayne was in the beginning stages of the stomach cancer that killed him three years later. Illness aside, Wayne gives a superlative performance, acting with his expressive eyes and deftly interacting with his co-stars.
In the novel, Ron Howard’s character kills Wayne in the end. This was changed in the film, by Wayne himself. Some critics have felt this weakened the film, but Howard never feels threatening in the role. He comes off as a young man, raised by an overly fundamentalist mother, who simply wants to sow some oats; but it’s just not in him to go the route of a J.B. Books and we know, in the end, that he will be the boy his mother wants him to be. This is a frequent pattern with men raised by religious mothers. The young man may stray a few miles off the course his momma has laid down for him for awhile, but he will return to her course. That side of this story is a slice of pure Americana and, with this casting, the change fits.
Lauren Bacall is damn near perfect, as she usually is. Richard Boone is slimy perfection. That quality is what made Boone the perfect anti-hero protagonist, Paladin, in “Have Gun Will Travel” (1957), which easily remains the best western television series of all time. With post “90210” television, preoccupation with surface prettiness has become the norm, and the stardom of someone like the “ugly” Richard Boone is likely never to be repeated.
Jimmy Stewart, Scatman Crothers, , Sheree North, and Hugh O’Brien are consummate professionals and give The Shootist a beautiful sheen of great character acting.
The Shootist is, by no means, a sentimental film. It is the dawn of the 20th century. Books is an ugly reminder of the past and everybody wants him dead, gone and forgotten. That lack of sentimentality is to be applauded, but in the performance of Harry Morgan, as the marshal, it is taken too over-the-top and reduced to near caricature. The acting here falters badly and almost sabotages the film.
Morgan’s performance aside, the rest of The Shootist remains elegiac and poetic mythos. Books is told by his doctor, Jimmy Stewart, that he is dying of cancer: “Can’t you cut it out?”
“I would have to gut you like a fish.”
“Damn, you said I was strong as an ox.”
“Well, even an ox dies.”
So Books ambles away to find a room and die in peace. He winds up at the porch of Lauren Bacall’s character, Widow Rodgers. Immediately, they rub each other wrong. Ms. Rodgers’ son worships the Shootist, which worries his momma even more. Once Rodgers finds out about Mr. Book’s past, she calls the Marshal, who finds out Books is terminal and tells the gunfighter, “Don’t take too long to die.”
A nosy reporter gets a gun barrel poked in his mouth by Books and literally gets kicked in the daily duties for prying too far into Books’ business. Books here is ugly. The reporter is annoying, but he certainly did nothing to warrant Books’ rough treatment.
Books’ doctor gives him an opiate medicine and lets him know there will come a point soon when no amount of medicine will help. “You will die screaming,” warns the doctor, and strongly hints that Books should kill himself.
Books and the widow take a ride out through the country and he tells her, with a twinkle in his eye, “I have had a hell of a good life.” It is nearly the only sunny moment in the film, and a necessary one.
Books gets a haircut, has his suit dry-cleaned, and tells his young apprentice to contact the local three gunslingers and have them meet him at the town saloon on the morning of his birthday, come Monday.
Everyone but Ms. Rodgers and the faithful doctor are trying to wring the last profitable ounce of celebrity from their shootist—but even they have agendas, albeit well-meaning ones. Ms. Rodgers worries that the gunslinger will drive off her other lodgers (he does) and she wants to convert Books (she doesn’t). The doctor wants his famous patient to die a befitting death, with his boots on (Books obliges him, securing his own legend).
Scatman and Howard try to rip off Books for some money, the undertaker is eager for Books’ potentially prosperous funeral, the Marshal feels Books is an obstacle to the future, several local men want to kill Books to secure their own reputation, and even the barber intends to hawk Books’ hair for cash.
The off and on relationship between Books and Rodgers gives The Shootist its meat. They are combative but they genuinely come to love one another. She helps when he slips in the bathtub. She knows Books is up to something. He is running out of medicine and doesn’t want any more. He ceremoniously burns the newspaper he bought from the day he arrived, he has had his hair cut, his suit cleaned, but she promises to ask no questions.
Come Monday morning everything is in place. Books departs in his Sunday best. The film falters briefly here, and could have used closer interaction between the two actors. When Ms. Rodgers sees him leave, she knows he is going to go die, but they stand apart in separate rooms. However, anyone doubting Wayne’s skills as an actor should watch his face as he plays the scene in which he tells Miss Rodgers good bye.
The shoot-out is expertly filmed by Siegel, in front of a long bar mirror. Books picks his first opponent by a mere glance in the mirror, he shoots Richard Boone through a table that Boone is hiding behind and sees O’ Brien approaching through the reflection of shot glasses on the bar. As the shoot-out begins, the townspeople, knowing full well what is going on, gather together outside to listen at a safe distance. The violence of the 19th century west is having its final gasp inside the bar between Books and his opponents while the progress of the dawning 20th century safely witnesses it with understandable curiosity.
Elmer Bernstein’s score is one of his best, which is saying quite a bit. Howard’s throwing of the gun, a rejection of Books’ way, is overdone and contrived. Subtlety would have worked better. The Shootist is the near perfect coda to Wayne’s mythos and vast body of work. The final scene, in which Books’ dead body lies on the wooden bar floor, his face covered by a coat as Stewart and Howard look on, perfectly captures many of the preserved photographic images of dead 19th century gunfighters, killed in shoot-outs.
The subject of The Shootist had been previously approached in Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) with Gregory Peck giving one of his best performances. The Gunfighter is a superior and much more richly complex film, but The Shootist has a beauty of its own in its elegant simplicity.
John Wayne himself is not so simplistic. It is easy to dismiss him as a Republican thug. Indeed, he was that, but he was not only that and, of course, he was more than that. Wayne the actor was able to enshrine his own mythos, by choosing his own swansong, one that was almost perfect for his life’s work, something few actors are granted.
When The Shootist was released, most Wayne fans were disappointed. It was a drama, rather than an action film, and it predictably sank at the box office. My father often took us to see John Wayne films at the drive-in. It always seemed a special event, even if the films did not always measure up. I recall going, by myself, to see The Shootist in a local theater when it first came out in 1976. I was one of three people in the audience, but somehow I sensed, that, inexplicably, something was passing away.
Since then, Wayne’s final film, like Henry King’s The Gunfighter, has developed a cult following and garnered admiration among many critics. Both films, their filmmakers, and their stars, belong to a bygone era. That is as it should be.