The Shootist (1976)
“He’s got to face a gunfight once more to live up to his legend once more – TO WIN JUST ONE MORE TIME.”
The Shootist (1976)
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard
Synopsis: A dying gunfighter spends his last days looking for a way to die with a minimum of pain and a maximum of dignity.
There can’t be a more fitting or poignant final film than The Shootist, in which an ailing John Wayne (The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Lobo) plays a gunman trying to die with his dignity intact after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was to be Wayne’s last film: he too would succumb to cancer in 1979, and although he wasn’t ill when The Shootist was filmed, his health wasn’t good, and you get the sense that maybe he felt that if The Shootist was to be his last film, it would at least provide a suitable farewell.
He’s John Bernard Books, an ageing gunfighter who travels to Carson City to receive a second opinion on that terminal diagnosis from Doc Hostetler (James Stewart – Rope, Rear Window), the man who nursed him back to health once before. If he’s hoping the doc might able to pull off another miracle, he’s disappointed. Hostetler confirms that there’s nothing to be done for him: it’s terminal and he has maybe two months of life left. Books takes a room at the home of Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall – The Big Sleep), a still-attractive widow who lives with her impressionable teenage son, Gillom (Ron Howard). He hopes that he can see out his final days there in peace, but word of his presence – and of his condition – soon gets around town, leaving Books with no option but to go out with all guns blazing.
Wayne’s understated performance in The Shootist is easily one of the best of his lengthy film career, clips from which are shown in an opening sequence to illustrate the kind of life he’s led. After a certain point in his career, Wayne became such an institution that he stopped playing different characters and simply played himself, but in The Shootist he is Books, a man with a dubious past and a set of principles to which he has always remained true. He’s surrounded by a remarkable cast, which adds to the impression that Wayne knew he was bidding farewell to his screen career. There’s fellow wig-wearer Jimmy Stewart (You Can’t Take it With You, Mr Smith Goes to Washington), who worked with Wayne on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as the Doc. Richard Boone (A Thunder of Drums, The Kremlin Letter), who appeared in The Alamo, plays one of three men who have a reason to want to speed Books’ demise, while Hugh O’Brian (Ambush Bay), who plays a sharp-shooting Faro dealer, offered to play the part for nothing simply to appear on screen with The Duke. Wayne himself requested that Bacall, with whom he starred in Blood Alley, play the part of the landlady with whom his character would have conceivably enjoyed an autumn romance had things been different.
The very real end of an era marked by Wayne’s last screen presence is echoed by the events on-screen not only by the death of Books, but by the era he represents. The film takes place in early 1901, shortly after the death of Queen Victoria whose reign as Britain’s monarch coincided with the era of the Wild West. Books is an outdated relic from that age, already passing into legend, and having no place in the newly civilised West which is looking eagerly forward to widespread electricity, telephones and concrete sidewalks. Ironically, Books is one of the few characters that realises this, and his self-awareness, together with his inherent understanding of the changes heralded by the new millennium, bestows upon him a dignity that his mercenary rivals could never hope to possess.
(Reviewed 19th November 2014)