Saturday, September 1, 2012

Friday Night At The Movies VI

Last night was another DVD night. After last week's post about Macho movies I did some thinking about the most Macho movie and added to the post that I thought John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, was about the most Macho movie around. So last night I watched it again.

Briefly, Wayne's character is an aging gunfighter who has just had a diagnosis of terminal cancer. After his doctor describes what his last days will be like, he plans a birthday party and invites the three best gunslingers in town. The shoot'em up is inevitable, and in the course of the battle, The Shootist is killed, dying the way he wanted to, not in a bed having strangers tend his every need.

Set in January of 1901, the movie sets up the death of one era, and the beginning of another. The age of the Gunfighter in the Old West is over. Civilization, Law and Order and Technology have arrived. Carson City Nevada has paved streets, indoor plumbing, electric lights and motor cars. The lawless West that created men like Wayne's character, J.B. Books, is disappearing, and soon so will the men themselves.

And you can't beat the cast: John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan and Ron Howard. Made in 1976, it was Wayne's last movie, and one of his best. My basic criteria are met- a good story competently told- and as usual the film is beautifully photographed.

Why do I consider this the greatest Macho movie? First, J.B. Books, has a very natural reaction to his diagnosis, and his progression from the diagnosis to his final actions are logically made. A man who has faced down many enemies is given another battle. This one he knows he cannot win, so he redefines what winning will be. Even so, in the end, although his wish is to die in a gun fight, and he has set up a battle against 3 gunmen, his will to live causes him to defend himself. Almost too well.

Second, John Wayne had fought and beat cancer in the late 1960's, and was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him a couple of years later. He knew the fight his character was fighting was personal, and knew it personally. Just how much was real and how much was character is anybody's guess. You also have to read into the movie if Wayne knew this would be his last film or not.

I think he knew. He was almost 70 at the time, and the making of a movie is a long and arduous process. By that point he had made over 250 movies, starring in over 140, and I think he wanted to go out well, not as a has been. He wanted his last film to be the culmination of his career, not the last gasp of a wanna be has-been.

This film is that. From the opening sequences- clips from some of his older movies, starting with Red River- through his various talks with Ron Howard's character Gillom Rogers, J. B. Books becomes John Wayne, not the reverse. I forget who said it, but someone once said the greatest character John Wayne ever created was John Wayne. You knew what he stood for, and would defend that position to the best of his ability.

Third, this movie is about a man who has lived his life on his terms, always in control. He was now facing not death- death he was always prepared for- but facing a loss of being in control. So while he is in control he decides to control everything he can, including the end.

And it almost works. Books does die at the end of the final gunfight, but not from the bullets of competent men, but shot in the back by a shotgun-toting bartender.  The final scenes are integral to the movie, and to the message. J. B. Books lived his own way, and died his own way.

But it was his way. It was a way of life developed for a specific time, and that time had passed as well.

Macho has taken on a definition that includes crazy and ignorant actions. I'm not a fan of that definition, and I think it has been developed to emasculate men. You want a true definition of Macho? Watch The Shootist.

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