jack’s review published on Letterboxd:
Throughout John Wayne’s career, the word “vulnerable” never really comes to mind when talking about his performances; the first that may come to mind are those from his collaboration with John Ford: the heartbreaking discussion with his dead wife in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or accidently killing a man in The Quiet Man but even then, Wayne had never really made himself, the actor, feel exposed: he was an American Icon, a beloved figure and artist, a hero to some, and to perceive him as anything less than a true American and a tough as nails persona (like the characters he portrays in film) would perhaps ruin the magic.
But something happens to our heroes in film: they die. They're not immortal – although their Cinema would lend a different claim to that theory – and they will pass on. And as much as John Wayne is as beloved as a star and perceived, by some, as a titan of the form, he’s human and his time came. And through The Shootist , we see Wayne strip the persona we’ve seen for half a century to reveal something miraculous: Wayne himself. His character, an aging gunslinger, is dying of Cancer, the disease that will take his own life merely three-years after this film. His character is dying with every day passing by, but what’s even more emotional is that Wayne is dying, too: the once beefy and charming young man is now a frail and grey individual, withering away as the film progresses – this is Wayne’s chance to allow his vulnerability to shine and create a cathartic experience for himself: there has never been a John Wayne performance as brutal as the one on-screen because there is no façade, only an honest realization.
The film’s backdrop mirrors the legacy of the Western and Wayne is inarguably the face of the genre, the genre he controlled for several decades: gone is the myth of gunslingers and urban legends told at campfires about Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, because modernity has taken control and begun its way into creating a lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily need gunslingers and cowboys but capitalistic men longing for cash – dreams aren’t Westbound, they’re within the cities that produce dreams through coinage and fear. Several times in The Shootist do we get the notion that Wayne’s Books feels like an artifact, something that’ll be preserved because he’s the last remaining living thing of a past so gone, yet not that far from us: he stares at the cars that people drive and back at his little carriage of horses, stares at the clothing people wear compared to his classic getup – he's the odd man out. In making this the backdrop of the film, Siegel and Wayne are able to create the perfect bookend for Wayne’s West: he was there stopping the stagecoach in Apache territory in Stagecoach and now he’s witnessing land that was once free populated with buildings and lives in The Shootist . Without Wayne, the Western wouldn’t be as important as it is today, it wouldn’t have progressed into modernity as well because there’d be no face establishing the past.
Through the eyes of a dying gunslinger (actor), we’re able to see the progression of modernity (the Western) and how he helped create it – this is a major work, a wonderful Western with incredible imagery and a melancholic bitterness to it, but the reason it’s major is because it’s Wayne’s final ride, his greatest performance simply because it’s the one that, at least for me, feels so unlike anything he’s ever given. And through that performance, I'm reminded of my own grandfather who’s battling Cancer currently: Wayne is his favorite actor, his favorite film is a Wayne vehicle: The Quiet Man . The vulnerability my grandfather is showing now is one who simply wants to fight to see his grandchildren continue to grow and fight to give his family one more hug; the film impacted me more than I initially thought it would because of that connection. In a way, it’s cathartic to me because through whatever happens during this tough time for my family, the memory of my grandfather lives through me – and through The Duke. And watching him in movies lately has been comforting to no end.