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Film International

By Jeremy Carr.

Just as crucial to The Shootist is what Books leaves behind, which, prior to the beginning of the film, was nothing more than his dubious exploits and the tales that followed. By the end of the film, though, there is something more.”

It obviously isn’t necessary to know an actor’s life story in order to assess their performance in a given film. Nor is it a requirement to have seen every one of the actor’s prior films. However, there is a distinct satisfaction and appreciation that comes from watching a performance while equipped with the biographical and professional context of what an actor was like before and at the time of production, and how the present picture connects with—or diverts from—previous roles. Such is the case with John Wayne and his final feature, The Shootist (now in a new limited edition Blu-ray from Arrow Video). Though based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, with a screenplay by his son Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, and directed by the inimitable Don Siegel, and featuring a number of famous faces and two other legendary stars, this elegiac 1976 Western is, above all, a platform for Wayne.

The Shootist Limited Edition Blu-rayThe Shootist Limited Edition Blu-ray

Here he plays John Bernard “J.B.” Books, an aging gunfighter who is slowly but surely dying of cancer. He ambles into Carson City, Nevada, in January of 1901, first and foremost to seek the medical opinion of Dr. E.W. “Doc” Hostetler (James Stewart), who had treated Books for a gunshot wound years prior. Hostetler confirms an earlier diagnosis and presents Books with an honest appraisal of his health, explaining what he should expect from the duration of his arduous life. Books aims to settle down, settle in, and peaceably pass his time before he passes away, lodging at a boarding house run by the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall). Although he has been functioning under an assumed name, Books’s true identity is soon found out—much to the dismay of Rogers, who doesn’t want his type in her establishment, and much to the delight of her son, Gillom (Ron Howard), who revels in the presence of the man who slay some 30 individuals. Marshal Walter Thibido (Harry Morgan) isn’t keen on Books loitering about either, lest he stir up trouble in the town, and potential foes grow eager to slay the senior shootist and establish their own reputation. Tension mounts as word spreads, while Books simply hopes to make the most of what little time he has left.

The opening of The Shootist sets the scene well, paying homage to Wayne’s on-screen persona with black and white clips from Red River (1948), Hondo (1953), Rio Bravo (1959), and El Dorado (1966). It’s a nostalgic nod to the iconic star’s decades of Western distinction, but it also serves the film’s narrative by suggesting these earlier appearances are, in fact, “J.B.” Books in his younger, more vigorous years. Complimented by Gillom’s reflective voiceover, it’s an effective, expressive portrait of a young man growing old, which is exactly what Wayne/Books has done. It’s also an exemplary and illustrative instance of the entwined, two-fold depiction of a star’s actual being and their screen identity.

Because of his failing health and concerns over his endurance, Wayne was not the first choice to play Books; Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman, and Clint Eastwood were among those who apparently turned down the role. As accomplished as they all were at the time, though, it’s hard to imagine any of these actors imbuing Books with the same qualities of aged prominence as Wayne, who embraces the terminal Books in a way these other performers never could; not for lack of ability, but for lack of popular perception. Their opening clip shows wouldn’t have carried the same weight as Wayne’s instantly identifiable images, for there’s something especially potent about seeing John Wayne, the stalwart emblem of toughness and durability, now playing a character in the final stages of his life.

Wayne did indeed struggle when filming on location. Though cancer-free until 1979, the year he died, he had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and his left lung and several ribs had been removed. He had difficulty breathing and moving as freely as he once had—and Wayne moved like none other, which also makes his restricted role in The Shootist more pronounced. Nevertheless, when Books first enters the film he is as assured as ever, easily dispatching a would-be thief in the wild. Slick, skilled, and tough-talking, Books’s grizzled, no-nonsense demeanor is soon counterbalanced by an equally operative sense of fatal self-awareness. He is harassed when arriving in town and Gillom, who doesn’t yet know who he really is, tells a shady associate to move on: “The old man ain’t worth it,” says the boy. “He looks all tuckered out.” Mostly to himself, Books laments, “You’re right there, son.” Books knows how he looks, because he knows how he feels, and reminders of impending death are pervasive: he now requires a cushion to sit on (stolen from a whorehouse); newspaper headlines about the passing of Queen Victoria are repeatedly mentioned as a more sophisticated and prominent parallel; and, later in the film, the buggy rented for a day’s outing is, Books is told, usually reserved for funerals. Hostetler gives it to him straight, and though Books does his best to contest his physical frailty and its psychological impact, putting on a strong front, the doctor reminds him, “even an ox dies.” Here and throughout The Shootist, Wayne’s rendering of frustration, pain, and grace is touching and, again because it’s John Wayne, has a profound influence.

Books isn’t the only one growing old. The blacksmith Moses (Scatman Crothers) needs to put on his spectacles to read, and though she still looks as radiant as ever, even Bacall has traded in her spirited allure for a more matronly conservativeness. But not entirely. Some of the best scenes in The Shootist are those between Bacall and Wayne, as lively as they are with their brusqueness, sharp banter, abrasive assertions and accusations, and, finally, their mutually, delicately expressed acceptance. Siegel is exceptional in his handling of these scenes, doing so with a hard-edged intimacy that captures the casual warmth of his illustrious stars. In striving for a final existence of dignity and peace, Books forms an unlikely alliance with the widow Rogers, who tells him her husband had died suddenly from a stroke; not a bad way to go asserts Books, until Rogers mentions he was just 41. She, too, knows death and suffering. So, Books is apologetic and, in time, Rogers comes around as well.

It’s rare to see a film like this, where the primary players are unashamed to appear as old as they really were, with all the shortcomings that plague their actual age. For all his previous posturing, Wayne proves just as adept at laying himself bare….”

The gray-haired Stewart (still very much acting and sounding like a younger Stewart) was by this point extremely hard of hearing and likewise plays his age, though he doesn’t play it enough. His screen time is limited, yet, due to his own star stature, he still makes a lasting impression. A comparison between The Shootist and Stewart and Wayne’s appearance in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is noteworthy. A film about myths and mythmaking, epitomized by the well-known line, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” this earlier picture is echoed in The Shootist—through Books—as it likewise confronts the classic conundrum of reality versus fiction in Western lore. The Shootist plays on this recurring theme by incorporating reporter Dan Dobkins (Rick Lenz), who hopes to exploit the Books legend for the purposes of selling himself and his paper; John Carradine’s overzealous undertaker, who also hopes to capitalize on his notorious potential client; and Serepta (Sheree North), Books’s old flame who, once he gets wise to her conniving ways, is quickly extinguished. More innocently, even Gillom is consumed by his personal proximity to such a celebrated gunslinger.

Subtle hints of encroaching modernity add further substance to the portrait of a man who, as Marshal Thibido says, has “outlived his time.” None of this concerns Books, of course, who prefers his rationed life to be a private one. But nobody, it seems, can simply let an old man be, especially not the trio of rivals who conspire to take down this fabled figure. Played by Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brian, and Bill McKinney, these three confront Books on what will become the last day of his life, ironically, and perhaps purposefully, his birthday. But Books will not go down without a fight—would he know any other way? Donning his “Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes,” Books enters the barroom arena and waits for his opponents to make their move. The film ends as it began, showcasing Books’s prowess with a gun. Only now, his flair for killing has a final and tragic poignancy.

In his review of The Shootist, Roger Ebert argued, “It’s here that the movie doesn’t quite work. We hardly know the three enemies. We don’t know why they’d oblige the Shootist’s wish to die in a gunfight. We understand his reasoning, but not theirs.” But this isn’t really a problem, and it doesn’t really matter. We don’t need to know the three enemies because we know Books, and that’s what is important. These three are figureheads, emblems of Books’s chosen life of violence, just as Books represents a particular type of Western figure, albeit one who is here carried along to his senior days, which wasn’t often the norm but, when those other films were over, was understood and inevitable. They are, then, corresponding stand-ins for the kind of men who live and die by the gun, and they are simply vessels for one last bout of consummate action.

The Shootist Blu-rayThe Shootist Blu-ray

Just as crucial to The Shootist is what Books leaves behind, which, prior to the beginning of the film, was nothing more than his dubious exploits and the tales that followed. By the end of the film, though, there is something more. Granted, his arrival causes instant consternation and chaos (by no immediate fault of his own), but Books is determined to go about his closing days imparting wisdom and giving—and eliciting—compassion, almost without trying. A day of shooting instruction with Gillom yields life lessons and the reiteration of his credo: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” And, more significantly, he and Rogers form a stirring, if fleeting, rapport, pushing past their early antagonism to arrive at a solemn, serene deference. He can’t seem to avoid trouble, and she still pushes church and rectification—to which Books rebuts, “My soul is what I’ve already made of it”—but they both possess a reciprocally pragmatic perspective that sweeps aside the superficial differences. Emboldened by steady doses of laudanum, Books’s spirits are lifted and, despite her best efforts to resist, Rogers returns the good humor with her own inherent, long-buried affability. Wayne and Bacall are masterful together, as one would expect; both dig deep into their storied careers and personal trials to provoke, match, and meet the other.

Easily getting lost in The Shootist’s emphasis on Wayne is the remarkable Don Siegel. Since 1964’s The Killers, Siegel had directed a string of excellent films, including Coogan’s Bluff (1968), Dirty Harry (1971), and Charley Varrick (1973). But aside from some surprising bloodletting, these films seem to stand in stark contrast to The Shootist. They’re down and dirty, shrewdly stylized, and occasionally crass, while The Shootist has its rugged edges polished by a genuine tenderness. There’s still Siegel’s penchant for masculine bravado, but even here it’s to a lesser degree and is tempered by the weaknesses of old age. But if Siegel is often secondary in discussions of The Shootist, those featured on the Arrow Video Blu-ray of the film do their level best to cast his contributions—and career generally—into the spotlight. Howard S. Berger’s commentary is roundly informative and acknowledges the quarrels Siegel had with a belligerent and controlling Wayne, while David Cairns’ video essay, “The Last Day,” provides an interesting backstory to the film, pointing out, for example, that Swarthout’s novel was inspired by stories he had read about truck drivers, prone to long periods of sitting, getting prostate cancer, a concept he transposed to those long in the saddle. “A Man-Making Moment,” an interview with author C. Courtney Joyner, situates the film as the unique genre offering that it is, and film historian and composer Neil Brand rightly sings the praises of composer Elmer Bernstein, whose work on The Shootist is, predictably enough, quite good. And finally, Scout Tafoya, with his visual essay, “Contemplating John Wayne: The Death of a Cowboy,” balances the undeniable virtues of Wayne and his work with what he calls the “murky waters” of Wayne’s legacy.

This latter point can (and certainly does for some) taint John Wayne’s place in film history, as well as his enduring filmography. But it’s hard to think of his real-life failings when watching The Shootist. Today, older actors—particularly older male actors—fight tooth and nail to perform past their age. Which is fine; they can still be entertaining and their films can, like The Shootist, evoke an enjoyable nostalgia. But it’s rare to see a film like this, where the primary players are unashamed to appear as old as they really were, with all the shortcomings that plague their actual age. For all his previous posturing, Wayne proves just as adept at laying himself bare and acknowledging his personal tribulations—physical, obviously, and emotionally just barely beneath the surface. Wayne was by no means an infallible person, but what makes The Shootist so special is that he doesn’t pretend to be, not even in the movies. Rather, he is, just as Books says in the film, “a dying man, scared of the dark.”

Jeremy Carr is a Contributing Editor at Film International and teaches film studies at Arizona State University. He writes for the publications Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and Kubrick and Control from Liverpool University Press a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.