- Directed by Don Siegel
- August 20, 1976
Legendary gunman John Bernard “J.B.” Books, a lawman turned gunfighter, is dying of cancer. He seeks to spend his final days in a boarding house in Carson City, but his reputation and his past will not let that happen.
The Shootist was John Wayne’s swan song film. It has a fantastic cast and it is just such a well-acted piece of Western genre cinema. Wayne for his part acted the hell out of his part as Books and turns in one of his better performances. Here he put his character first and his screen persona/himself second. It was a rare instance you did not see John Wayne immediately on the screen.
I would put it up there with The Cowboys, Red River, or even True Grit. Wayne makes Books not only tired but afraid. Books is not only afraid of death, but he is also afraid of what he will become after death. The figurative buzzards are circling when news gets out about his terminal condition, something he seems to have anticipated, and Books is fearful of the legacy others will create for him.
I feel there were plenty of directors that helmed John Wayne movies that were willing to let him get by on his star power rather than force him to act. John Wayne alone was usually enough to make a film a success so they did not push the star to really perform. That was a disservice to him and others involved. The man had talent, but it had to be pushed out or coaxed. Don Siegel here pushed Wayne to act and create a character.
One moment in particular comes to mind. There is the scene at the end of the film when Books is dressed in his finest and claims to Mrs. Rogers (the legendary Lauren Bacall) that it is his birthday, and he is going to have a drink at the local saloon. Mrs. Rogers says that the weather is beautiful, and it is what they call a “false spring.” It is apparent she is not talking about the weather but rather stating that she knows his statement is a lie and she understands what he is planning to do.
A similar moment occurred between Mrs. Rogers son Gillom (Ron Howard) and Books earlier in the film when Books asked him to send a message to three individuals in town. Gillom, who looks up to Books and views him as a legend, quickly understands that this is not a friendly message but that Books is intending on going out in a blaze of glory.
In neither case nothing was explicitly stated but rather implied with dialogue and good acting at the hand of a director helming some very fine Hollywood talent of the time. They did not spoon-feed you everything and it made the film work so well. This is a story about a man seeking to go out on his own terms rather than on the terms of others. It is about facing death with a strong spirit even though you are afraid.
Wayne is softer here than his usual characters. Sure Brooks lives by a code but he is not all full of swagger and as much of a tough guy nature as Wayne’s characters usually were. Perhaps that is because he was saying goodbye in life and maybe even a little here despite reportedly planning more films. At this point, though weak, he was not terminal despite what one might assume with this being his last film.
The fine acting and good story along with knowing that this was his last film might get you a little misty eyed. There is plenty of emotion here. Especially so in the relationship between Books and Mrs. Rogers.
Books perhaps is also looking for a little joy in the sunset of his violent life. He begins a quiet romantic relationship with Mrs. Rogers who owns the boarding house where he has decided to stay for his final days. Rogers has been a widow for about a year yet clearly finds something attractive about this man who is her near complete opposite. I guess it is true that every girl likes a bad boy.
Bacall was a friend of Wayne in real life yet for some reason they only ever did two movies together-Blood Alley and this. They clearly had an affection for each other, and I am left wondering how much was acting in this film and how much was her genuine feelings for a friend. The chemistry between the two is great but there are moments when they dance around the fact of his impending death, and it comes off as a bit more genuine than just acting.
My Ron Howard experience when it comes to acting is Happy Days, Andy Griffith, and this as well as one appearance on Saturday Night Live. As Gillom he gives a great performance as a youthful gentleman starstruck by the dangerous celebrity under his roof. But as much as this is a story about a man going out on his own terms Gillom also gets an arc. Gillom matures from a starstruck kid to an adult as he realizes that there is no happy ending to the life Books lived and that he idolizes.
We have a great supporting cast. Many of whom were friends of John Wayne like Jimmy Stewart as country physician Doc Hostetler who knows Books from years earlier and is the one that confirms what Books already knows. During a scene in Hostetler’s office Stewart and Wayne kept screwing up their lines. Siegel asked them to try harder to which Wayne responded, “If you want the scene done better, you’d better get yourself a couple of better actors.” Stewart though at this point was hard of hearing and kept missing cues. I admire that Wayne covered for his friend. Loyalty and friendship like that is too rare.
Richard Boone plays Mike Sweeney. There is clear tension between Sweeney and books from the start as Books years earlier had killed Sweeney’s brother in self-defense. Sweeney is clearly looking to not only make a name for himself by killing Books but get revenge. And it is never outright said though. You can tell by the acting which is so good between the two. Boone is just threatening in his words and tone that you know what is NOT being said.
Hugh O’Brian is Jack Pulford. Pulford is Faro dealer at a local saloon and is known to be a skilled shooter and is itching to take someone like Books on before the days to do such things are gone forever. Bill McKinney is Jay Cobb who is the hotheaded owner of a local creamery.
Harry Morgan is Town Marshal Thibido. Thibido wants Books out of Carson City because he fears trouble and is overjoyed when this legendary gunfighter seeks none. John Carradine, who I think was only ever with Wayne in the classic Stagecoach before this, is Beckum the undertaker who is seeking to profit off of Books’s funeral. Sheree North plays an old flame of Books whom Books comes to realize is seeking to make a buck off of his death by co-authoring a book about Books with a reporter (Rick Lenz) that would be filled with inaccuracies to downright lies. Scatman Crothers is a local blacksmith that seeks to profit as well but does so in a way the Books can respect.
This is just a great and talented cast in parts of varying sizes turning in great performances. Some had worked with Wayne before. So much was accomplished with dialogue and performance. You were not always handed what was really going on but rather were able to infer the real meaning of things much as you would in life. That does not happen nearly often enough in film.
Many actors can only dream of having a final film as good as The Shootist. Too often the final film is a sad and poorly made final act. The Shootist however is a well-directed and well-acted and well written story. This is a must watch not only for Western fans or fans of John Wayne but for those that enjoy good movies.
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