The Shootist (Paramount Pictures, 1976)

 

Watching John Wayne's last film, The Shootist, is an emotional experience. While it is definitely one of Wayne's finest performances (as well as a showcase for Lauren Bacall and Happy Days-era Ron Howard), the parallels between the lives and deaths of the main character and this actor are many.

Wayne plays John Bernard Books, outlaw and legend. Books comes to see his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart -- another legend of this genre and Wayne's costar in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) to get a second opinion. Hostetler confirms another doctor's diagnosis. Books asks him to tell it straight. Hostetler proclaims "You have a cancer." and "two months, maybe six weeks," is all Books is given. The poignancy of this moment lies in Stewart's delivery, the pain visible in his eyes. Wayne had already lost a lung to cancer and would die of it three years later.

Books decides to stay in town--to die there--and asks Doc where he can get a room. He recommends Bond Rogers (Bacall), a recent widow and owner of a boarding house. Fearing his notoriety will preclude his getting a room, Books tells her his name is "William Hickok." Mrs. Rogers' son, Gillom (Howard), discovers Books' true identity from his saddle, then explains, "'Wild Bill' Hickok was shot before I was born." Books is a hero to young Gillom, who yearns to be a gunfighter. After a shooting lesson in which Gillom's shooting equals Books', the older man tries to teach the younger that his life is not for everyone:

"It's not 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--and I won't."

Meanwhile, news has spread about the town's newest resident, and it seems that everyone wants to be the one to do him in -- including the town's sheriff (Harry Morgan), who puts gives out the film's most darkly humorous lines when expressing his death wish for Books. Two men sneak into Books' bedroom at night and receive a few bullets for their trouble. After this shootout, several tenants leave the boarding house, and Mrs. Rogers threatens eviction. He tells her his story and she eventually softens. They become friends.

As time draws short, Books gets closer to a decision. If he is going to die, he is going to do it as he lived--his way. He sends word to three men offering to settle an outstanding score, and they meet in an empty saloon. I won't say how it ends... but two things happen: the scores are evened, and Gillom learns a lesson through action that he could not learn through words. It moved me.

I've never been a fan of John Wayne's films, but I am in awe of his naturalness. Every word sounds real, as if from his thoughts. Other actors yearn to reach the level of realism that was Wayne's primary talent. Bacall matches his pace, seeming like a true resident of the West. Howard in particular, though, shows real ability -- holding his own with two screen legends, often stealing the scenes in which he appears. His final scene in the saloon is awe-inspiring because of the expressions of his eyes. Director Don Siegel has assembled a classic cast for a classic statement about the state of Western movies in general, and about Wayne's career in particular. John Books is a man at the end of his career, and so was John Wayne.

The setting is 1901, and the automobile is slowly taking the place of the horse -- just as, in 1976, Westerns would shortly outlive their usefulness as cinematic moneymakers (Star Wars was released the following year). Books is a man known--and hated--more for his past than his present. All he wants is to die peacefully, but the townsfolk will not let him. His past has come back to haunt him at the most inopportune time.

The Shootist is a fine cap for the long and lasting career of an actor who was lucky enough to have his talents displayed by fine directors with his particular type of story to tell... and fortunate enough to live in a time when those stories wanted to be heard.

This film illustrates many aspects of the Old West mythology, primarily the archetype of the Lone Gunfighter. J.B. Books is clearly a man who lives by his own rules, illustrated most prominently in this line,

"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."

For many viewers, Wayne embodies that archetype, and his story is the primordial Western.

[Craig Clarke]