Academic Book, Beast, Comics, Dafne Keen, Hugh Jackman, Jane Tompkins, Jimmy Stewart, John Bernard Books, John Wayne, John Wayne Westerns, Kelsy Grammar was a GREAT Beast, Lauren Bacall, Logan, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Mutants, Patrick Stewart, Rio Bravo, Ron Howard, science fiction, The Shootist, violence, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Westerns, Wolverine, X-Men, X-Men: The Last Stand
–Just Remember Fieval, One man’s Sunset is another man’s dawn
Wiley Burp, Fieval Goes West
John Wayne and Hugh Jackman don’t really seem to have much in common apart from the fact that both managed to end their characters in a blaze of bloody glory. The only difference between them, apart from the fact that John Wayne didn’t have adamantium claws, was that for whatever reason Jackman’s end made me cry far more than Wayne’s.
I’m a bad X-Men fan. I don’t have the names of every third mutant memorized. I haven’t watched Days of Future Past, First Class, or Apocalypse. I own at most maybe three X-men comic books and one of them I only own because it was the “first gay wedding” in a comic book. And, for the record, I actually like The Last Stand. That last admission officially makes me worst than Hitler and I will appear brutally memed on Reddit posts everywhere but Kelsey Grammar played Beast, my favorite X-men of all time, and he did a damn good job doing it so I’ll suffer the whips and arrows and scorn of the masses. But for all of my faults I do remember growing up Watching X-Men the animated series. At the time Gambit was my favorite, but over time I loved Beast because he was funny, intelligent, literate,and he looked bad-ass as hell while reading, all traits that I aspired to be one day.
He was also incredibly furry, something I aspired to be and actually managed to achieve.
But beneath all the Beast and Gambit fantasies I had I, like many young boys during the 90s, would on occasion stick three straws between my fingers, make the clinching metal sound, and growl hoping that my pre-pubescent vocal chords would resemble the man who wore the yellow tights.
Wolverine was the shit. He embodied what many young boys recognize as intense masculinity and, to quote Mr. Torgue from Borderlands 2, Badassitude. The only man that managed to have the same level of balls, at least in my world, was John Wayne. I’ve written before about how, growing up, I suffered from allergy problems that left me inside watching movies and playing video games rather than outside playing sports. As such I had to find a way to compensate for my lack of masculinity and the way I managed to do that was watching, and wanting to be, John Wayne. Mom and Dad had a great VHS collection (yes I’m that old, shut up) of films that ranged from Hatari, The Quiet Man, El Dorado, Rio Lobo, Rio Bravo, and Big Jake. Watching those movies John Wayne became a hero to me because, like Wolverine, nobody ever fucked with John Wayne. Or if they did, they tended not to live terribly long.
I suppose that’s why, when I checked out Logan from the library, and spent the last half hour of the film simultaneously crying and pounding my chest, I thought of John Wayne again as I watched a character I had grown up with die. Logan ends with the death of Wolverine much the way The Shootist, the last film John Wayne ever starred in before his death, ends with the death of John Wayne. The reader may wonder what my nostalgia has to do with either of these wonderful movies, but I promise that it’s only ever my long introduction to my actual observation which is that Logan manages to become of the greatest Non-Western Westerns in recent memory following the tradition of The Shootist.
If the reader’s never heard of the film The Shootist premiered in 1976 and as I noted before it was the last film John Wayne ever starred in. Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, the story relates the final days of a gunslinger named J.B. Books as he is beginning to die from cancer. He rents a room from a widow named Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall my teenage crush) and takes up with her son Gillom (played by a then young and pre-balding Ron Howard). Books finds a life with the Rogers’s, trying to recognize the end of his life, but figures from his past who want to kill him either out of revenge or notoriety force him to make one last final stand and prove his mettle as the great gunslinger. The film ends with a shootout in a saloon that sees Books overcome every one of his adversaries, and leave Gillom with a few lessons about being a man.
The film from afar has all the elements of a Western: the importance of talent with firearms, the lone figure who’s name manages to outshine his own ego and individuality, a female protagonist who is largely there to further the man’s character development, the young man eager to become a gunslinger, and of course Jimmy Stewart. But what’s different about The Shootist is the way all the laments of the Western are eventually forgotten because film is far more about the character of John Wayne dying than the end of the Western. In one notable scene Books is talking with a sheriff who is visibly terrified to be in the same room with him:
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: Now, I checked my bulletins before I come over and didn’t find nothing I can hold you for, but I want you out of town – directly, today.
John Bernard Books: Maybe I’m not so inclined.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: The, by God, I will incline you. I can badge as many men as I need. We’ll smoke you out or carry you out feet first, so you say which, Mr. Gunman. It’s your funeral.
John Bernard Books: Soon, yes.
John Bernard Books: I can’t go.
John Bernard Books: I’m going to die right here in this room.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: Heh! That’s too thin.
John Bernard Books: I wish you were right. Would you believe Doc Hostetler? That’s his verdict.
Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido: You don’t say? You don’t sa – goddamn! Whoo! Whooee! I tell you the damn truth, when I come through that door, I was scared. ‘Cause I know what a man like you is capable of. I wondered who’d get my job, if the council would give my wife a pension and if it would snow the day they put me under. Whooee! Excuse me if I don’t pull a long face. I can’t.
Books as a man, or really as an idea, is synonymous with death and death follows Brooks throughout the film, starting with his first visit to the doctor. Stewart gives him his diagnosis and then offers some parting advice:
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: There – there’s one more thing I’d say. Both of us have had a lot to do with death. I’m not a brave man, but you must be. Now, now, now, this is not advice. It’s not even a suggestion. It’s just something for you to reflect on while your mind’s still clear.
John Bernard Books: What?
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: I would not die a death like I just described.
John Bernard Books: No?
Dr. E.W. Hostetler: Not if I had your courage.
As a film The Shootist is often plagued by this dual nature, for while there are plenty of elements about the eventual death of the character of J.B. Books, the viewer watching the film will be caught constantly by the fact that the movie is largely about the death of the character of John Wayne and so almost every dramatic scene becomes a kind of nostalgic farewell to Wayne himself. If the reader has no background with Wayne it’s likely that they’ll be able to separate themselves from this nostalgia and just appreciate the film as a film. But it is this nostalgia that I want to focus on because nostalgia is partly what fuels the counterpart of this essay, Logan. Both movies rely on the reader’s previous knowledge of the characters and the events which lead them to that place.
Watching Logan I was struck by how similar it was to The Shootist. The film takes place on the Mexican border, which by that nature already sets it up as a pseudo-western. When the viewer finds Logan they no longer observe a virile, leather-clad young man, but an old and slowly dying Wolverine. The adamantium in his body is killing him and his healing factor is doing nothing to stop it. At the same time he’s dying, Professor Charles Xavier is revealed to still be alive and suffering from a kind of Alzheimer’s disease which causes massive mental episodes defined by seizures which affect the people around him. It’s been revealed that such an event killed several dozens of the students at the school and the man is continually plagued by the guilt. Both men are watching their lives steadily fester away until a young woman appears in their life who appears to be the first mutant born in close to several decades. She’s a young girl named Laura who’s been part of a secret government program designed to create mutant soldiers. The story follows the three of them as they try to escape the soldiers and scientists trying to capture Laura before ending with a large gunfight.
It’d be easy to go through and demonstrate point-by-point how Logan mirrors The Shootist, the most obvious being that Logan’s claws are essentially Wayne’s six shooter, but really the unifying element of these movies is the death of these characters and the relationships they form with the children in the film who become symbolic or actual children. It’s this dynamic that’s perhaps so powerful about both films because they manage to tell a story about the end of the “old guards” in a way that doesn’t feel obvious or fake.
J.B. Books and Gillom establish a pseudo father-son relationship and in the film Books has plenty of opportunities to show the young man what masculinity is and how one can attain it. In one scene Books has offered Gillom a shooting lesson and afterwards he offers some wisdom about integrity:
Gillom Rogers: [Books has just given Gillom a shooting lesson] But how could you get into so many fights and always come out on top? I nearly tied you shooting.
John Bernard Books: Friend, there’s nobody up there shooting back at you. It isn’t always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won’t.
Likewise Logan and Laura have similar exchange:
Laura: You had a nightmare.
Logan: Do you have nightmares?
Laura: Si. People hurt me.
Logan: Mine are different.
Laura: Por que?
Logan: I hurt people.
Laura: [holds up the adamantium bullet] Que es esto?
Logan: You know what it is. It’s made out of adamantium. That’s what they put inside of us. That’s why it can kill us. Probably what’s killing me now. That was a long time ago. I kept it as a reminder of what I am. Now I keep it to, uh… actually I, uh… I was thinking of shooting myself with it. Like Charles said.
Laura: I’ve hurt people too.
Logan: You’re gonna have to learn how to live with that.
Laura: They were bad people.
Logan: All the same…
Logan and the Shootist are both films about violent men, men who have made a life by surviving through regular violent acts and it’s important to note that both films address this matter and in their own way they manage to demonstrate the complicated nature of said violence. Specifically both films address the issue that violence will only ever spawn more violence.
When you’re a little boy, or a teenager dealing with the bullshit of puberty and hormones, you don’t think so much about the death that takes place because of your heroes. You don’t, or at least I didn’t, recognize the death of the endless series of cowboys and government agents, as tragedies. tHey weren’t even really people. They were nameless, soulless figures trying to stop my power icons from succeeding and taking care of “the good people,” which were usually family and friends of the hero. Boys tend, to borrow a memorable line from a friend of mine, gravitate to power icons, and the Western as a genre only further demonstrates that this tradition is timeless.
West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns by Jane Tompkins is a book that I have returned to over and over again because it consistently offers up a great insight into films and books that I have read and enjoyed. It also doesn’t hurt that, unlike most academic books I’ve read, Tompkins book is not readable, it’s actually fun to read. When I had finished Logan, and thought back to The Shootist, I thought of West of Everything, because a few of Tompkin’s quotes and pressed indelibly into my memory. The most obvious ones being about death.
Tompkins book is an examination of Westerns as a result of Sentimental novels which tended to be written by women. Arguing that men began writing Westerns as a reaction to women, she’s able to point out an important feature which is that Westerns tend to be, above all things, death.
In Westerns, facing death and doing something with your life become one and the same thing. For once you no longer believe you are eternal spirit, risking your life becomes the supreme form of heroism, the bravest thing a person can do. (31).
There was never any threat of Wolverine or John Wayne dying. Even when it seemed impossible that they would beat whoever the bad guy was, they always managed to overcome the villain and, using their phallic weapons (let’s be real here) destroy everyone in sight. That’s largely why The Shootist and Logan feel like real Westerns to me because by the end of the film their death is almost certain. Even if they hadn’t died their name or spirit would and the hero they had become would diminish significantly.
But Tompkins gets to the core of this idea in an earlier passage when she notes the real severity of death in Westerns:
Death brings dignity and meaning as well as horror, and its terrifying presence in the long runs comforts and reassures. For death is the great escape, as well as that from which one longs to be delivered. (27).
And just a page after Tompkins offers the ultimate summation:
For the Western is secular, materialist, and antifeminist; it focuses on conflict in the public space, is obsessed by death, and worships the phallus. Notably, this kind of explanation does not try to account for the most salient fact about the Western—that it is a narrative of Male Violence—for, having been formed by the Western, that is what such explanations already take for granted. (28).
It’s a depressing thought that violence is what attracts you boys and young developing men to characters like Wolverine and maybe John Wayne, but growing up there is often a sensation of powerlessness. Growing up I had little real agency: my parents picked my clothes, what school I went to, what my bed-time was, and teachers and administrators controlled every second of everyday of my life for twelve years. Characters like Wolverine and John Wayne were controlled by no-one and if anyone tried to tell them how to live their life they would be either sliced or shot. There was something appealing then in gravitating towards that character, or mimicking some aspects of their behavior.
What’s fascinating about growing up is that, while I haven’t completely dropped my love for these characters, I’m now able to appreciate the nuances of their characters. The violence isn’t what’s appealing anymore. What’s appealing is how real a character’s presentation is. What are their faults and how do they account for them. And do they try, as I do on a regular basis, try to understand their mortality.
Nostalgia is what will probably win so many over to films like The Shootist and Logan, and while there’s nothing wrong with this the reader should take the time to consider their appreciation for these films. While on the one hand Logan is a beautiful tribute to the Logan character that Hugh Jackman has spent over a decade playing, watching the film as an examination of male violence adds another dimension to the film. The character achieves a kind of catharsis for all of the violence he has committed over the course of his life. Likewise in The Shootist, Books/Wayne is able to have one last hurrah in a bloody gun fight that, while on the one hand is a goodbye to the Wayne character, is also a final goodbye to a life that was defined by its violence.
Violence will only ever beget more violence, and while these men offered me a power totem that I relished in my youth, I’ve gotten older and the concept of violence has become more and more repulsive. These characters still mean something to me, but rather than simply try for one last gun-fight for the sake of a gun-fight, Logan at least, far more than The Shootist I would argue, offers the reader something far more important: a chance for a man to do right by his daughter.
Part of growing up is not forgetting who you were, but improving from what you were. I still love watching John Wayne movies, and I do still, on occasion, grab three chop sticks and tuck them between my fingers to make the metallic click sound. And, I’ll be honest here, I can’t wait to show my kids the X-Men cartoons and Rio Bravo. But looking at both of these films, what most beautiful to me is that, rather than simply use nostalgia to make a few bucks, both films offer two characters who have meant a great deal to me reach the end of their paths in a way that honors the characters I spent so much time idolizing, while offering them a depth of the character that isn’t shallow.
The hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset, but a new dawn promises the next generation a hero that will be entirely their own.
All quotes taken from Logan and The Shootist were provided care of IMDb. All quotes from West of Everything: The Inner life of Westerns were taken from the Hardback Oxford edition.
I’ve provided a link below to another blogger who offers an interesting interpretation about the film Logan, noting specifically how the elements of race and feminist masculinity are largely unexplored within the film. Even if you don’t agree with the interpretation, it’s still a pretty solid argument. Enjoy: