Tuesday, July 31, 2007

One last stand

He rides into town looking for a place to die. He has a cancer. He wants to exit the world with dignity.

But when you're John Bernard Books, the most famous of the Old West gunslingers, things don't work out that way. Instead, he's the talk of the town.

The marshal wants him gone. Old friends want to make a buck off his name. He just wants to die in peace.

I watched John Wayne's last film, "The Shootist," last night. My pal Dean Harned jokes that I always screen this movie whenever I reach a "crossroads." Not so. It's a darn fine picture that improves with age.

There's something real about it, gritty, even prophetic, given that Duke died of the "Big C" three years after this film's release. It's also damn fine moviemaking, further evidence that those who say Wayne couldn't act either have an agenda to advance or just don't know of which they speak.

Don Siegel's picture is loaded with stars. Wayne, of course, and Jimmy Stewart, Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall, John Carradine, Hugh O'Brian, Richard Boone, Scatman Crothers, Harry Morgan and Sheree North.

Pay close attention to the scenes in which Books (Wayne) learns from the Doc (Stewart) that he's dying. You're watching two old pros at the twilight of their careers. They simply don't act this well anymore, y'all.

The best moments, really, are Wayne's mentoring of the young Gillom Rogers (Howard). He's clearly attracted to Books' life of violence. But the old gunfighter steers the young man in a different direction.

"The Shootist" is sad, tragic, even maddening when Wayne meets his fate just before the credits roll. But it's a fine epitaph on the finest of all American acting careers.

It feels like the end of Hollywood's golden era. Not long after this film was released, big-budget, CGI-dominated mindless epics replaced quiet character-driven stories as the dominating movie genre. It's too bad. Those films have their place. But so does something like "The Shootist."

Somewhere amid this brooding character study about dying lies some thoughts on living, and on having true grit in the midst of one final gunfight.

"The Shootist" is John Wayne's last stand. And what a stand it is.

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