Friday, January 21, 2011

Observations on The Shootist

A couple of weeks ago, I finally sat down and watched The Shootist from start to finish. I hadn't seen it in its entirety before, and I feel bad about this fact. Although I'm not one of those people who stroke themselves furiously at the mere mention of John Wayne, I do think that he is an incredibly important figure in American film history, having been a part of so much American cultural iconography over many years.

The Shootist was Wayne's last film, and although he wouldn't die for a couple more years, the similarities between Wayne the actor and J.B. Books the character are more then a little obvious. By the end of his career, Wayne was a living caricature, with so much legend and apocrypha woven around his life and his career that he has become almost infamous. Like his character J.B., every person who came into contact with him at the end of his life no doubt wanted something from him or had some kind of angle, or at the very least, approached him with some kind of seriously skewed misconceptions.

While watching this film, I began to draw some interesting parallels. The most blatant of these was that Book's return to Carson City, and the sort of awkward, impolite reception he received, reminded me of a lot of Vietnam veterans who would have come home over the years preceding the making of the film. In some ways, the movie even reminded me of First Blood; the confrontation between the tired, misunderstood warrior and a cold, unfriendly, "civilized" or modern world that sees the warrior as an unpleasant, misplaced problem to be dealt with as quickly as possible so the Pleasant People can move along with their lives. This comparison was driven home when Books talks to the Carson City marshal, who becomes almost ecstatic when he learns that Books will die soon, and "can't wait for it" so his town will return to normal.

I also found a lot of Books' platitudes on violence really resonating with many of the post-modern pulp protagonists; men who are violent not in nature but by necessity, who live by a code, and kill by a code, but do not kill indiscriminately or without thinking. It was also interesting to hear Books take on gunfighting; that it is not the man who shoots the fastest or the most accurately who wins, but the man who doesn't hesitate or pause in "taking the shot" and killing another man. The man who can kill without hesitating will win out over the man who can shoot straighter or draw a little faster because the killer shoots to do just that - kill his opponent. Being willing to hit a man with a bullet in actuality is ultimately of more value than just being able to hit a man in theory and practice.

I also find it interesting that both The Shootist and Shane are western novels that became very successful films, and both deal with similar themes; the role of The Killer in Polite Society, and the awkward duality of how this person is both necessary and reviled. I'm sure there's a film/psychology Ph.D. thesis out there written on this topic, and I'd love to read it some time; the closest I've come to it is On Killing, which deals in part with the killer's interactions and attitudes with society.

I think that's it for now. I may have further thoughts on the matter, especially as I work more on my current novel; one of the main characters is an aging retired mercenary, and I was able to see some similarities between his sentiments towards a life of violence, and those of J.B. Books. The similarities were very encouraging.


Hank Brown said...

Took me a long time to see it, too, and I think I share your opinions on it. One of the most poignant Duke roles IMO, next to some of the performances Ford milked out of him. The scene with the doctor (Jimmy Steward in a nice cameo) still sticks out in my mind--at one point it was like the fear and hopelessness caused by the cancer transcended the role of Books and provided a rare glimpse inside Duke's vulnerability.

BTW, I make fun of John Wayne a lot, but he's probably my favorite movie star of all-time. It still baffles me how the worst performance I've ever seen him give won him his only Oscar. And now that painful film has been remade. But that's another story...

Hank Brown said...

Stewart, not Steward. Argh.

Indyguy said...

Lovely movie all around with some wonderful performances by a very strong cast. Lauren Bacall is wonderful as a stony and proper widow running the boarding house Books picks to spend his final days. Ron Howard plays her son. His role as a teen thrilled by "manly" stuff but still young and unaware of the weights and costs that go with big deeds and adventures shows more about growing up than all of the season of Happy Day's combined.
Books' final farewell to Laruen Bacall is a tremendous scene. Wayne's performance shows off his talents, not just in the rip roaring "Duke Wayne" scenes but in the tender moments when he shows the depths of Books' pain and lonesomeness and utter fatigue.
Oh, and along the lines of a PhD thesis, I'd recommend the books Regeneration Through Violence and Gunfighter Nation by Richard Slotkin- excellently written and researched books on violence, growth and mythology in American history, novels and movies.