26 March 2004 | JamesHitchcock
In My End Is My Beginning
In his last movie, John Wayne plays J B Books, an ageing former gunfighter who arrives in Carson City. Books has in the past killed thirty men in gunfights and has become a legend of the West, but this hard-won status has brought him unwelcome attention from would-be gunslingers hoping to gain their own place in history as `the man who shot J B Books'. Early on, Books is told by his old friend Dr Hostetler that he is dying of terminal cancer, and the film chronicles the last week of his life, from 22nd to 29th January 1901, his search for a dignified death in accordance with his own code of honour.
The film is about both endings and new beginnings, so it is significant that the action takes place in the first month of a new century. January 1901 marked not only the beginning of a century, but also the end of an era, because it was the month in which Queen Victoria died; this event is referred to several times in the film. The days of the `Old West' were also coming to an end; under the influence of new inventions such as the motor car and the telephone (both of which appear in the film) it was becoming a quieter and less lawless place.
The time of year is significant in another way. A film which is about both the end of a man's life and the end of an era will inevitably be elegiac in tone, and the standard way of making it would be to film it in autumn, with plenty of shots of falling leaves and grey, misty skies. Don Siegel, however, takes an alternative approach, setting the film during a brief period of brilliant winter sunshine and mild weather known as a `false spring'. This not only provides some strikingly beautiful images, but also has a double symbolic meaning. For Books and for the Old West it is winter; but for the younger generation, spring is coming. One of the most touching features of the film is the relationship between Books and Gillom, the son of his landlady. Gillom idolises Books and treats him as a hero; Books, in the last days of his life, treats the young man as the son he never had and tries to teach him that there is a better way than that of the gun. The Old West may be passing into history, but there are indications that the New West, although it may be less picturesque, will be a better place in which to live. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
The film itself also turned out to mark the end of an era in more ways than one. Although there is some doubt whether Wayne actually knew in 1976 that his cancer had returned, we now of course know that it was to be his last film and that he was to die about three years later, and this knowledge makes the film all the more poignant. It was also one of the last of the great Westerns. Although the genre had seemed in reasonable health in the early seventies, it was to suffer, for various reasons, a sharp decline in the second half of the decade and throughout the eighties. Perhaps the standard conventions of the genre had become so familiar that they seemed like clichés; perhaps the post-Vietnam generation had no time for films which often had as their themes honour, glory and courage. (It is notable that the patriotic war film underwent a similar decline at the same time). Certainly, the financial failure of `Heaven's Gate' made investors wary of backing westerns. Even Clint Eastwood, who had seemed to be the heir-apparent to Wayne's crown as King (or should that be Duke?) of the West, abandoned the genre for a time, although he was to return to it triumphantly with `Unforgiven' in the early nineties.
Wayne's great strength as an actor was his ability to convey the tough but honourable man of action. Both these qualities are present in `The Shootist', but he was able to add further qualities, pathos and as sense of a less honourable past. Although Books is hard-bitten and irascible, he is also fundamentally decent, resorting to force only in self-defence. He can show pity- early in the film he spares the life of a villain who tries to rob him at gunpoint, even though he has the man at his mercy. Nevertheless, we are always well aware that he did not gain his fearsome reputation by a scrupulous observance of the Ten Commandments; although this is not an overtly religious film, the story of his last days can be seen as the story of his search for atonement as well as for dignity. In his last film, Wayne achieves one of his greatest performances; it is remarkable that he was not even nominated for an Oscar.
The other performance that stands out is that of Ron Howard as Gillom. Howard, of course, is now best known as a director; if his acting career is remembered it is for his role that bland TV series `Happy Days'. Nevertheless, he was also capable of giving good contributions in films (`American Graffiti' is another example), and here he brings a touching youthful innocence to the part. There are also good contributions from James Stewart as the gentle, dignified doctor and from Lauren Bacall as Gillom's mother. (She has the unusual Christian name Bond, possibly symbolic of the close ties that grow between her and Books at the end of his life).
`The Shootist' is a marvellous film, sombre and elegiac, and yet at the same time with a message of hope. A fitting end to Wayne's career. 9/10.