Saturday, June 06, 2015

38: The Shootist

I don't particularly like Westerns and I don't particularly like John Wayne. So when my Dad sat me down and encouraged me to watch The Shootist with him, I did so much more out of a sense of duty rather than any expectation of cinematic greatness. And yet here it is in the list, and indeed I've watched it several times since that original viewing, and it always strikes me as fascinating because of what it says about the times - both the time the movie was set and the time the movie was made - as much as for the usually-trotted-out piece that it was essentially all about John Wayne.

The premise is this: John Wayne plays an old cowboy in the year 1901 and doesn't really know how to handle both getting old and the fact that his old wild west seems to be ceasing to exist. Add to that the fact that his doctor friend has just diagnosed him with terminal cancer, this old boy just wants to go out a way of his own choosing. So he comes to town, gets to know a few people, he reads a newspaper, organises a shoot-out in a bar and dies in said shoot-out.

And the usual thing trotted out at this point is the following: this was John Wayne's last movie, after he had already lost one lung to cancer and knew he didn't have long to live, and thus the movie is a reflection of the man. Right? Well, maybe, but that's not the point for me. What struck me the most was the observations of the townspeople during the film.

Firstly you had the mother-and-son combination of Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, and Wayne's uncertainty over whether a rough, gun-toting (read: very capable of killing people) cowboy is the right role model for a young lad in the new century. Which is interestingly played out all the way through.

But even more so was Wayne's confrontations with the town marshall, played by Harry Morgan (yes him from MASH). Morgan's character makes it clear that there's no place for old cowboys in the new world they're trying to create:

"The old days are gone, and you don't know it. We've got waterworks, telephones, lights. We'll have our streetcar electrified next year, and we've started to pave the streets. We've still got some weeding to do, but once we're rid of people like you we'll have a goddamn Garden of Eden here. To put it in a nutshell, you've plain, plumb outlived your time."

And that was the quote I always remember. In 1901, when people were planning and building the towns, cities and what has become the 'urban jungles' of today, the people of the time really, honestly thought they were building a "Garden of Eden". That was the vision behind our cities today, our concrete wastelands, our brownfield sites, our dilapidated city centres and our urban sprawls. It was supposed to be a Garden of Eden. And the people at the time really thought that.

And maybe I'm over-reacting but that one line has stuck with me all these years, helping me understand how our world - our urban world of the UK and US at least - came to be the way it is. And it was John Wayne who took me there.

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