Saturday, September 6, 2008

Olde Review: The Shootist

Written August 11, 1976

"The Shootist" (Don Siegel, 1976) I was briefing through the movie reviews of various magazines in the grocery store a year or so ago, when I came across Richard Schickel's review of "McQ" or "Brannigan" (probably "Brannigan"), in which he remarked that a proper bicentennial project would be to come up with a decent script for John Wayne.

I was hoping
'Rooster Cogburn" might be it, but that was a waste..of time...and talent. And besides, as much as I like "Rooster" Cogburn as a character, the acceptance of Wayne's acting that suddenly sprang up smacked a bit too much of "Well, we'll like him as long as the old galoot knows he's a joke." Well, there were times in "True Grit" when Wayne--the Wayne as the screen force--came through. I didn't want to see Wayne made fun of or exploited. I wanted to see him triumph, as of old, in his now twilight years, and as John Wayne, the very fine actor.

So, I am delighted at "The Shootist" and delighted with it. It is about Wayne, as about Books (instant cliché time). Why else would Siegel in his opening use shots of old Wayne movies (and mostly Howard Hawks Wayne films, where Wayne played a character built out of his own persona, rather than playing "honest-to-God" characters ala John Ford) and with young boys---in 'Red River" and "Rio Bravo"--as Wayne the mentor, as he is, in an odd way, in this film.

Siegel is still a little obvious in his handling of things, but the ideas are so good, who cares? He literally numbers Wayne's days. And what a nice idea for a living legend and soon-to-be-immortal legend to have his birthday and the day of his death on the same day, on a gravestone that doesn't mark its day.

Death hangs over this film, in conversation, in song, in thought, in way of life. But this is nothing new. Death has walked with Wayne through many a picture. For a long time. Both were winners in the end, and, as in real life, Death must have his due.

"The Shootist" is the film John Wayne went out on, and as a summation of his career, and a the last ring of the bell, it's nearly perfect, even though the film is a bit flawed. Still, director Siegel did a masterful job of keeping the stars corraled--there was a lot of people wrangling to be in it--and Wayne healthy, although there were times when he was too weak to be on-set (although he was, at that time, cancer-free). And even though Wayne and Siegel got on like a house afire (the two couldn't have been more different, politically) there were still dust-up's about the way Siegel, the most economical and least fancy of directors, would line up shots. Lauren Bacall, who was no doubt reliving her own time of dealing with cancer with husband Humphrey Bogart, braved up through the movie, and provided a steely shoulder for Wayne to lean on. Stewart signed on for a cameo, comprising the most jarring scene; it's Stewart who provides the cancer diagnosis. And Richard Boone, John Carradine and Hugh O'Brian did the same out of respect and love for their old co-star, and Ron Howard, eyes set on a directing career instead of acting, still pursued the juvenile lead one last time. The budget was tiny, but top-heavy with stars...and history.

All those guest stars work against the film and make it lose focus a bit. You can tell that Siegel might not have gotten all the coverage he might have wanted--sequences seem stretched a might' thin. But overall, the film works well.

With time, perspective...and maybe a slight blurring of can look at "The Shootist" as the death of the Western--a sturdy movie genre for decades. The 60's had slowed it down, made them seem irrelevant, but one could still count on a number of Westerns being shot every year...until John Wayne died. And then...nothing.

A few things crop up here and there. "
Tombstone" and its cousin "Wyatt Earp," Eastwood's classic (and Oscar-winning) "Unforgiven," and "Silverado," which reminded how good a time an intelligent Western could be. "Deadwood" is a wickedly nifty updating of the "Gunsmoke" stories of a frontier town, and "3:10 to Yuma" this year briefly revived interest in the Old West and its ways. But a case can be made that without Wayne in the saddle, green-lighting a Western became a difficult proposition.

Why bother? Wayne kept the genre alive for so long, but with his passing, they became less viable.

They might still come back. Turner will do a period piece, a
Zane Grey adaptation, once in awhile, "Lonesome Dove" certainly proved popular, and even "Brokeback Mountain" made a contribution. But that "3:10 to Yuma" popularity was certainly encouraging.

Then there's the curious phenomenon of the Western morphing into another genre--Science Fiction, precisely. The "
Back to the Future" series capped off with an Old West yarn, and it was easy to see the gun-slinger in Han Solo in "Star Wars," the fight in the bar, etc. and, Joss Whedon created a future Western in the "Firefly" series, and its movie-spin-off, "Serenity." It's funny. Just as the western was a broad enough genre to encompass all sorts of morality plays that would reflect today's society, so, too does the Science Fiction story. The two overlap, and share much the same elasticity, that frequently it turns into a case of "You got Science Fiction in my Western/You got Western in my Science Fiction."

Maybe the Western hasn't rode into the sunset just yet.

Maybe it's just waiting for a new dawn.

Or a new star to guide her.

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