It was 1976. The year of the bi-centennial. The year America celebrated two-hundred years of independence. Tall ships were in New York Harbor. Fireworks were in the sky. There was a good feel in the air. Vietnam was a year in the rear-view mirror. The boys were home. Our spirits were lighter that year, as I recall it.
All was not what it seemed however.
Three things were dying that summer. The much loved actor John Wayne (lung cancer) J. B. Books, his character in The Shootist . . . and America . . . at least America as we had always known her.
Every great actor or actress finally reaches the end of the line. Each and every one has a final film. Sometimes, even most times, they are not exactly epic. Generally speaking, the careers of some of the very best leading men and leading ladies, have gone literally into the ditch in their final years. It is a sad story, and repeated over and over again.
Not so with The Duke.
He went out in style. With what was arguably one of his best outings ever on the big screen. He brought along a few others with him, on his rather broad coat-tails. Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, and the legendary James Stewart.
It was a dream cast–to say the very least.
Everyone fit their part perfectly . . . each and every one giving a flawless and seamless performance. It was almost as though they each, in their own way, knew that they were ushering out an entire genre.
They took it out in style too.
The final shootout is memorable, as are the opening sequences, showing clips from some of the Duke’s best westerns, and demonstrating, beyond any question, that J. B. Books was a “Shootist” indeed.
A “Shootist,” referred to a person that knew how to handle an iron. And not the kind you pressed clothes with either. Irons as handled by Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp and Frank Butler. The kind of men that could make you dead . . . real quick.
When Books lies dead and covered at the end of the movie, I felt as though it was more than just a fictional character lying there. I felt the passing of Wayne as well, although he would linger on the planet for another three years.
But I knew he was gone in that final scene. And I knew that high quality western films were pretty much over as well.
It was as valedictory an ending as perhaps a film, and a legendary thespian ever had.
The movie was based on a novel written by Glendon Swarthout in 1975. Oddly, the screenplay was written by Miles Swarthout, the son of the author.
J. B. Books has come to town to make an ending. And he’s going to make it a good one too. Three bullies are badly in need of a good butt-thumping, and Books is about ready to dish one out. There’s also a young man to save from a wayward life, and oh yeah . . . a still beautiful widow-lady to romance as well.
In short, the book and the film follow the last days of a dying gunfighter (colon cancer) in what would also prove to be the final days of the frontier–and the old west of the storybooks. It’s 1901, and by golly, not only are there rail trollies and steam cars, but telephones and dry process cleaning as well.
And no room for men like John Bernard Books anymore.
Fact of the matter was, that there wasn’t anyplace for men like John Wayne in America anymore either. The great American western, and the vanishing culture it embodied, in forms both book and movie, were a dying art as well. And the values–the good old-fashioned conservative, self-reliant American values that men like the Duke exemplified was well on their way out too.
You see . . . Books had a Credo. A statement of the beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions. Back in the day, a lot of special people had them. Sometimes these people were referred to as heroes.
This was J. B. Book’s.
I think maybe John Wayne had the same one. Surely America had it too. It was a statement of belief that was born out of the fire, blood, death and destruction that was two World Wars. Oh, it was unspoken–but it was there.
It died in the rice-paddies of Southeast Asia.
And it never came back. Through the decades since–through troubles, trials and travails. Through conflict after conflict, and crisis after crisis, American has proven itself to be without a Credo . . . rudderless–and adrift.
And fading . . . fast.
We miss you Duke. Thanks for all the great films you gave us.
We sure could use some men like you today.
Heroes . . . with Credos.
Next up–A Western Profile. “A Steely-Eyed Gent”. . . Jack Elam.
Until then . . . Good Day!
Dumb joke of the day–Question: Why do Dalmatians never get lost in the woods? Answer: Because they’re always spotted.