Thoughts on Mortality: Upon watching “The Shootist” 40 years later | Street Jazz

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Thoughts on Mortality: Upon watching “The Shootist” 40 years later

Posted By on Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 11:29 AM

“I'm a dying man, scared of the dark.” - The Shootist (1976)

When I first went to the theater to see John Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist,” for me it was just a really good movie. Sure, I knew that Wayne had had cancer while making it, but that was as far as it connected to me. Watching it again last night, I found that I am unable not to relate to the film with new (never old) eyes, and see layers which eluded me the first time I sat in the dark and watched it.

On the one hand, yes, it is a great western, and probably Wayne’s finest acting role. But on a deeper level, it is the story of a man seeking to find some meaning at the end of a violent life - a man perhaps repulsed a little at how others have come to view him over the years.

The line quoted above - “I'm a dying man, scared of the dark” - makes one sit up, especially someone who has lived a good, rich life, to see to see the universality at that statement.

I’m an older man now, and a little wiser than the young man who first saw the film in a Fayetteville movie theater, and I am not yet afraid of the dark, but I can relate to that stark sentiment. Cancer has touched my life - leaving me as the outside spectator (and in one case caregiver) - and while far too many I have loved and cared for in my life who have been attacked by cancer, and survived . . .

. . . far too many of those I loved have been murdered by the bastard.

Watching Wayne’s portrayal of dying shootist John Bernard Books, I saw a real man with cancer giving screen life to a man who had even less time left than he did, though his own end wasn’t long in coming.

There is an emotional rawness, honesty and even tenderness in this, his last ever role, his last real connection with a film audience - it is an emotionally true performance. Last night, I understood his pain and fear of the future in a way unimaginable to me in my 20s.

I am at that stage in a man’s life when he reads the obituaries every day, if only to affirm that folks who shared even a small part of their lives with me are still among the breathing.

That affirmation occurs less often than I can appreciate.

Though “The Shootist” remains one of my favorite films, after last night, I think it may be some time before I can watch it again.


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