"His name was J.B. Books..." says the voice-over of Ron Howard, introducing The Shootist. His name was also The Ringo Kid and Rooster Cogburn, Ethan Edwards and John T. Chance, Hondo Lane and Jake McCandles, Tom Dunson and Tom Doniphon, Captain Ralls, Captain Brittles and Sergeant Stryker. Also The Last American Hero. And when he died last week of cancer at 72, John Wayne took his era with him. For 40 years he had stood as a metaphor for his time and place: big, virile, swaggering, inarticulately articulate, a dangerous giant with the heart of a child. He was the last outpost of that primitive civilization that began with the revolution of 1776 and took to its deathbed in the late ’60s. Wayne had outlived his beloved country, the America that settled things with a punch in the mouth and a shot from the hip, the America he had done so much to create and the only America he understood. And he died the way he saw that America die, betrayed from within.
“You have a cancer—advanced,” Doc Hostetler (James Stewart) informs John Bernard Books (Wayne in his last role, as The Shootist, in 1976).
“Can’t you cut it out, doc?”
“I’d have to gut you like a fish.” “What yer tryin’ to tell me is ...” Stewart nods.
“You told me I was strong as an ox.” “Even an ox dies.”
They gutted John Wayne like a fish in January, 1979, hauled out his cancerous stomach, attached his intestine to his esophagus, and sewed him back up. The optimistic hospital administrator announced that he was in remarkably good shape and was wanting to do things. But even an ox dies.
There are not many people left who can recall a world without John Wayne. Marion Michael Morrison was an unknown when director Raoul Walsh took a chance on casting him as the lead in The Big Trail in 1930. Thereafter, he toiled in small-budget B, C, and D westerns for nearly a decade. Then came Stagecoach and the star that would never go out.
Maybe he made 150-odd movies, or maybe it was 200-odd. Maybe they grossed over $750 million, or maybe it was only $400 million. No matter. Even with the lowest figure, Wayne was easily the biggest box-office attraction of all time. From 1949, the year he had five major movies (Three Godfathers, The Fighting Kentuckian, She Wore a Y eh low Ribbon, Wake of the Red Witch and Sands of Iwo Jima), until 1976, Wayne dropped out of the top-10 list only three times.
And while it was generally fashionable to conclude that Wayne couldn’t act, even after he won his Oscar for True Grit in 1969, there has been evidence to the contrary, dating as far back as The Long Voyage Home in 1940 through Red River, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance right on up to The Shootist. Even Marxist French director Jean-Luc Godard would ask rhetorically how he could “hate John Wayne upholding Goldwater, and love him tenderly when abruptly he takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the next-to-last reel of The Searchers.”
Wayne did worse than support Goldwater. He went to the 1952 Republican convention to vote for Joseph McCarthy. He led, in no small way, the Hollywood witch-hunts of the late ’40s and early ’50s. He was the right-wing crazy’s right-wing crazy. But when Larry Parks (The Jolson Story) recanted his Communist affiliation, it was Duke Wayne who stood up for him. Duke Wayne alone.
That was his code, the Code of the West, crude and increasingly less realistic but Ms—and that of just about every character he ever played. “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t have a hand laid on me,” says John Bernard Books, aka John Wayne. “I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same of them.” And the real John Wayne didn’t die last week: he died with The Shootist’s J.B. Books and his code, on the floor of a saloon in Carson City, Nevada, on Jan. 29, 1901. He left three dead men who foolishly thought they could take a sick, tired, 70-year-old legend in a gunfight, but he never figured on the bartender shooting him in the back. He died with a smile on his face and a six-gun in his hand. Just the way it should have been.
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