When I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2013, I was scared.
It’s hard to describe what that really means. I have the usual apprehensions most people have – How are we ever going to afford that thing we need? Am I going to get in trouble with my boss for that mistake? Should I go to that thing or stay home? But this was different. This was, literally, a matter of life or death, and it was overwhelming.
I should tell you now, this isn’t about cancer, at least not really. It’s about John Wayne.
Once I went through the whole process of diagnosis, confirmation, and surgery, the final step was getting radiation treatments (I was very lucky – a combination of early detection and quick responses from my doctors meant I got to avoid chemo). When Sandy and I were taken to one of the doctor’s exam rooms, we were surrounded. Staring laconically out at us from nearly every wall space and flat surface was The Duke.
Posters, studio stills, and memorabilia wrapped us up in a virtual John Wayne blanket (which I would not have been surprised to find). Along with my doctor’s laid back, hippy, Hefner-meets-David Wooderson vibe, it was the first time in the whole process that I allowed myself to feel that everything was going to be OK. John Wayne – and anyone who obviously found so much inspiration in him – wasn’t going to let me down.
Before this, I most closely associated Wayne with my mom. She’s a big fan, and back when I was younger we would spend a lot of weekend time watching his movies on cable. At the time cable was a new thing, a young and wiry version of what it is today, full of promise but frustratingly lacking in depth. We had maybe a dozen or so channels, about half of those being local. But we did get KTLA, a station out of Los Angeles that padded out its programming the same way a lot of channels did then – with lots and lots of old movies and serials.
And that’s how I got my education in John Wayne. Mom wasn’t as big on his war movies or the few noir and romancey films he made, but of course that still left plenty of the cowboy movies that made him a towering icon of popular culture. “Stagecoach.” “Rio Grande” (his first film with Maureen O’Hara). “The Searchers.” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” “True Grit” and “Rooster Cogburn.” All these and more made me a fan, too, and gave me an enduring love of westerns that I’ll always associate with Mom. I have a soft spot for all of them, but none occupy a space a big as the one reserved for “The Shootist.”
“The Shootist” is, without a doubt, my absolute favorite John Wayne movie, and probably one of my top 10 favorite movies, period. Wayne gives the best, most nuanced, and heartbreaking performance of his life in this movie, which co-stars a young Ron Howard, a still-captivating Lauren Bacall, and the quietly raging James Stewart. The cast alone is a powerhouse, but Wayne is the rock-steady center of a film on life fading away.
The movie is about an aging gunfighter (Wayne), who’s name alone still has the power to set people on edge; when J.B. Books is in the room, everyone else starts looking for the exit. For the most part, though, Books just wants some peace and quiet because, after surviving a lifetime of shoot-outs, cancer is killing him. He wants to drift into history without fuss like the Wild West itself, and finds a small town where he figures he can live out what’s left of his life. But Dr. Hostetler (Stewart) tells him his death will be as ugly as his past – Books can expect his body to painfully betray him, to the point that even laudanum won’t see him through anymore.
New to town, Books finds a room at a local boarding house, run by a widow and her son (Bacall and Howard). Bond Rogers knows who he is and doesn’t like having a killer under her roof one bit, but her son Gillom is fascinated by the gunfighter and wants to follow in his footsteps. Meanwhile, word has gotten around that Books is in town, and people have come gunning for the legendary shootist.
One of the things I like best about this movie is how low-key the whole thing is while also accomplishing an underlying tension that comes from knowing tragedy is inevitable. That tension becomes palpable when you find out this is John Wayne’s last movie, and that this was an undeniably personal film for Wayne. He had already lost a lung and some ribs to an earlier bout with lung cancer. Three years after this movie’s release in 1976 he would die from stomach cancer.
In the 70s, when I was growing up, that’s what cancer did – it killed you. Diagnoses would tend to come much later in the cancer’s growth, and treatment was almost medieval compared to today. Cancer was practically a death sentence, it seemed, and survival was at best a coin toss. It didn’t matter if it was his six-pack-a-day cigarette habit or his exposure to highly radioactive soil while on location for “The Conqueror;” cancer finally brought down the Duke.
The irony of seeing a couple of dozen images of a man who died of cancer while waiting to be treated for cancer wasn’t lost on me. Still, for whatever reason, I found comfort in it. And when, at the end of my radiation treatment, the doctor gave me a plaque with a John Wayne quote on it, I cried.
The quote is short and simple. It says:
Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.
I hung that plaque above my nightstand, and I see it every day. And every day, I saddle up.