The Shootist: John Wayne rides off into the sunset in a blaze of glory

The Shootist (1976), Directed by Don Siegel from Glendon Swarthout’s eponymous 1975 novel, is John Wayne’s final film in which he co-stars with Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and James Stewart. The film has John Wayne playing a legendary gunfighter who’s dying of cancer.

“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same of them.”

John ‘Duke’ Wayne and Clint Eastwood may have never done a film together (they should have, that would’ve been the ultimate Western), but Clint’s favorite director and frequent collaborator Don Siegel (most famous for the first ‘Dirty Harry‘) did get to work with the great Duke, and that too in the latter’s final film, which also is one of Duke’s best films (characters & performances). Very few Hollywood stars can claim to have had as illustrious a career as Duke: his career stretching for almost half a century; starting with silent films and ending in the New-Hollywood era; from Black & White to color; and for most part of it, he remained not just a number one box office star, but also a symbol of the American nation. And few legendary movie stars get to end their career with such a good film like “The Shootist”: a film that somehow becomes the summation of Duke’s career as well as a summation of the genre of ‘Western’ that he is most closely identified with. The film, set in 1901, Carson City, tells the story of a legendary gunfighter John Bernard ‘J.B.’ Books who is forced to live out his last days under the shadow of cancer. Not wanting to go through a long, painful and ignominious death, the legendary Shootist instigates a gunfight in town, so that he gets to go out in a blaze of glory. At the end of the film Books dies, but not before taking down all his opponents in the last great gunfight of his life. The fact that this was Duke’s last cinematic role, and he would die three years later from stomach cancer would turn this into one of the most poignant and great ‘meta’ movies of all time. This, mixed with the turn of the Nineteenth-century setting of the film – when the old-West had pretty much disappeared and the old-West heroes had all but become extinct – makes it a poignant farewell to the ‘Western’ genre itself. It’s rarely one come across a film that marks the end of a career, and an entire era in cinema. Apart from John Huston’s “The Misfits (1961)”- again an end-of-the-west Western which was the final film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe – I really cant think of another film that sums up so much film history.

“The Shootist” opens with a montage that establishes the legendary career of gunfighter J.B. Books; and for this purpose, various clips from previous John Wayne movies, like Red River (1948), Hondo (1954), Rio Bravo (1959), and El Dorado (1967), are used to show a young Books in action. Of course, this framing device has the added benefit of asserting the legend of John Wayne too. Now the film cuts to Books as an older man, Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada, in late January 1901. Almost immediately he gets into a potentially dangerous confrontation with local dairy creamer Jay Cobb, but his teenaged assistant Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) defuses the situation by scoffing that Books looks worn out. Books goes to Dr. E. W. “Doc” Hostetler (James Stewart), a country physician who knows Books from treating his gunshot wounds 15 years before. Books came to seek out Hostetler for a second opinion. Hostetler confirms that Books has terminal cancer and has only weeks to live. Books is prescribed laudanum, but told that eventually the pain will become unbearable. Hostetler obliquely suggests that Books consider suicide; Books is too stunned to react. Following the doctor’s advice, Books seeks accommodations at a boarding house owned by widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who is also Gillom’s mother. When Books orders the boy to take his horse to a livery, Gillom balks at the gunfighter’s tone, but complies when Books asks politely. Unloading his weapons, Books falsely introduces himself to Bond as the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, but the widow dislikes the man and expresses her hope that he leaves the boarding house soon. Meanwhile, the livery proprietor, Moses, and Gillom discover Books’ true identity, which is written underneath the gunfighter’s saddle. Gillom reports back to his mother, who confronts Books about his misrepresentation and demands that he leave. When Books refuses, Bond telephones Marshall Thibido, and the lawman orders Books to comply. Books confides to Thibido (Harry Morgan) that he is dying, and the Marshall is happy to hear of the gunfighter’s fate; however, Thibido promises to keep the illness a secret under the condition that Books die soon.

But despite Books secrecy, word soon spreads that Books is in town, causing him trouble from those seeking to profit off his name, or to kill him. Among those attempting to exploit him is reporter Dan Dobkins (Rick Lenz). Serepta (Sheree North), an old flame of Books’, shows up; she eventually admits that Dobkins approached her about writing a biography of Books’ life, one filled with fabricated, exaggerated details of his gunfights. Books later orders a headstone, but rejects the undertaker, Beckum’s(John Carradine) offer of a free funeral, suspecting he would charge the public admission to view his remains. Two strangers seeking notoriety try to ambush Books as he sleeps, but he kills them. Gillom is impressed, but his mother is losing boarders over the incident, and is angry, and also frightened for Books. She also grows concerned that the fatherless Gillom will try to follow in his footsteps. Books and Gillom have a dispute over Gillom procuring a buyer, the Carson City blacksmith, Moses (Scatman Crothers), for Books’ horse without his permission; later, Books himself sells his horse to Moses for a handsome price. Gillom and Books reconciles, and Books teaches Gillom to shoot. Gillom shows that he has a natural talent for it. In town, Books is confronted by Sweeney, who’s looking to avenge the death of his brother who was killed by Books- who insists that he only shoots people in self-defense. Books asks Gillom to convey a message to his adversaries: Sweeney, Jack Pulford (the Faro dealer at the local Metropole Saloon, known to be a deadly crack shot), and Gillom’s boss Jay Cobb, inviting them to meet him at the saloon at 11 a.m., Monday morning. Later, Gillom tells Books that the men have accepted the invitation, and Books announces that he bought back his horse as a gift for the boy. On the morning of 29 January 1901, Books places his money and gold watch in an envelope addressed to Bond. His headstone is delivered with a date of birth, 29 January 1843, but the death date remains unmarked. After consoling a tearful Bond, Books leaves the boarding house and enters the Saloon, where he finds his trigger-happy adversaries waiting there for him. In the end, Books gets what he wished for: to go out with his dignity intact and his guns blazing.

Don Siegel usually make lean, masculine, unsentimental action films, but this is an unabashedly sentimental film which is driven mainly by scenes of great tenderness rather than scenes of action, violence or tough-guy talk- that’s a hallmark of Siegel. This is a very melancholic film that mourns the passing of an era; we can see that imprinted in every aspect of the film; especially in Elmer Bernstein’s music: the ‘Western’ music maestro who usually supplies rousing scores for his films provides a moving, subdued score here; and in the casting of James Stewart, Lauren Bacall (whose husband, the great Humphrey Bogart had also died of cancer), Richard Boone and John Carradine- all of whom had been old collaborators of Duke. Stewart and Duke were lifelong friends, and they had acted together before on “The Man who shot Liberty Valance,” which was made approximately 15 years ago. The Wayne/Stewart relationship was handled touchingly and with great subtlety; Stewart, by then had retired from acting and was quite deaf, but agreed to return to the screen on his friend Duke’s request. Since Stewart couldn’t hear properly, he was not able to catch Duke’s cues, and their scenes together took a lot of time to shoot- much to director Siegel’s exasperation. But the film would not be what it is if Stewart was not present; especially the final scene: where Stewart’s Doctor comes to the saloon to observe the carnage and say goodbye to his departed friend is really moving.

Lauren Bacall and Duke were politically opposites, but they had worked well together in the 50s, in a film called “Blood Alley,” and Duke wanted her for this role. Bacall gives one of her best performances in this film, and her widow character’s platonic friendship with the dying gunfighter gives the film its sensitive core. Their relationship begins on an adversarial note, and then slowly each comes to understand the other. She hates everything that he represents, but she’s also the only one who fully understands the tragic nature of his life and legend; that’s why she’s adamant not to let her son follow in his footsteps; and at the end she’s the only one left to cry for him. Bacall, who never had an exactly artistically rich phase post her feisty ‘Hawksian Woman’ phase in the 1940s, finally gets a role that channels her feistiness appropriate to her age; and long after Humphrey Bogart, she once again gets to play opposite a very powerful masculine male figure and movie icon. The same goes for John Wayne too: after his most successful and popular pairing with Maureen O’Hara, and having avoided tangling with female co-stars for a long period of time, as he considered himself to be too old to be a romantic hero anymore, he finally gets to play against an equally strong and fiery star\actress. Bacall was at Bogart’s side all along, when the latter slowly succumbed to cancer, and i guess, she brought those real life experiences to this performance. Richard Boone, who was another lifelong friend of Duke’s, and has acted with him in many films (Including Duke’s directorial venture “The Alamo“), gets to play one of the antagonists- the only one who has a previous history with Duke’s Books. John Carradine too make his presence felt as ‘the undertaker.’ Also, the horse owned (and given away) by J.B. Books in the film is Duke’s favorite horse named Dollor that Duke had ridden in many of his Westerns.

Then there is the performance of Duke himself; it’s truly one of his greatest performances; maybe even his best performance since “The Searchers.” After playing (or parodying) the ‘John Wayne persona’ in almost all of his late-career films\Westerns, he finally gets to play a solid, well-defined character. It’s true that every aspect of this film is informed by Duke’s iconography, and the film would never have the gravitas it has if anybody else was starring in the film, but ultimately he’s playing a character; and in that regard it’s truly unique John Wayne film. At the beginning of the film we are still witnessing that iconic persona, when after numerous clips of his great Westerns, J.B. Books is introduced as he proudly announces his credo- that’s quoted at the beginning of this piece; that’s a typical John Wayne punchline, and it’s soon followed by a trademark John Wayne intro action scene where he shoots, disarms and kicks away a low time hood who tries to steal from him. But after Jimmy Stewart’s doctor informs him about his impending death, Duke’s body language undergoes a remarkable transformation. He’s shocked beyond words, they are no glib comebacks or anything; because he’s a gunfighter great enough to handle anything that’s thrown at him with a gun, but he doesn’t know how to fight cancer.

From then on there’s no swagger in his walk, he walks with a measured gait, as a man slowly walking towards his death. We see him suffering through pain as he gulps down bottles of laudanum. We see him fill up with self-loathing when someone whom he loved tries to use his death to make money. We see him trying desperately to bond with the widow Rogers; even going so far as to almost beg her not to throw him out. By the time of his last film, Duke has grown into such a larger-than-life figure that it’s truly a miracle that he manages to somehow wind the clock back and transport himself into such a modest\diminished state on screen; as if this is a film he’s doing in his pre-Icon phase. It’s a testament to what a great screen performer he is, and not just an Icon or a personality, that he can still do it. The Icon had taken over the actor for so much of the time in his career that it’s almost revelatory when the actor emerges out of the Iconic shell. Of course, Some of that ‘John Wayne’ swagger comes back in the climax: when he takes a horse-pulled trolley on his way to the final gunfight, and when he walks into the saloon to confront his adversaries- a very happy, confident and contended man. But that’s again in keeping with the character; because now Books knows exactly what to do, he’s walking into a gunfight, and there is no one better at it than him. He’s also going out to seek death and glory; but still, however prepared he (and the audiences are) when it finally happens it’s still a shock- for him and for us. And Ron Howard is a stand in for all of us viewers; his shocked & dazed state after seeing his hero treacherously gunned down replicates our emotional state on seeing our indestructible movie star icon being gunned down; his final throwing away of the gun – a gesture approved by Duke’s Books himself- is a gesture aimed at us audiences- not to follow in the footsteps, or replicate the violent actions of our favorite (screen) hero(es). It’s a great ‘meta’ moment that sums up a great ‘meta’ movie.

It’s very easy to say that Duke knew that he was dying, and this was going to be his last movie; and hence the film and the performance works so well. But that’s not the case, because he was not diagnosed with cancer until 1979. Duke had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, and underwent surgical removal of his left lung and several ribs. He continued to work at an amazing pace- churning out an average of two films a year- even after he had licked the ‘Big C.’ Though he has been battling repeated respiratory illnesses from 1974, which led to him being hospitalized during the “The Shootist” shoot for two weeks, he remained clinically cancer-free until early 1979, when metastases were discovered in his stomach, intestines, and spine. Duke was actually planning another film called “Beau John”, once again to costar Ron Howard, when the discovery of cancer was made. So it’s clear that he never intended this to be his last film. Also, the role of J. B. Books was offered to actors Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. However, they reportedly declined because the main character was dying of prostate cancer. Only then Duke was cast in the film. Duke ensured that the script was changed to suit his image: he does not swear and he does not shoot anybody in the back. When Don Siegel told Duke that his favorite star, Clint Eastwood has no objections to shooting his screen rivals in the back, an enraged Duke fired back that ‘He’s not like that new kid.’ Duke did not have a happy working relationship with director Don Siegel, whom he felt was wrong for the film. Duke wanted an epic treatment of the material, while Siegel stuck to his lean, minimalist style. I too wish that the film had more grandeur and more natural splendor; sometimes the film does look too much like a ‘T.V. movie.’ But what the scaled-down look and feel of the film does is to draw our gaze more towards the characters and the actors. It make the film more intense and intimate. Eventually, it did turn out to be Duke’s perfect swansong.

Duke died of stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Center. He was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach. Before his death, Duke wanted a simple epitaph carved on his headstone, “Feo, Fuerte y Formal“. Translated it means “He was Ugly, Strong, and had Dignity“. Sadly, his wishes were never carried out. Duke’s grave remained unmarked for 20 years. Finally, in 1999 Duke’s burial site was given a headstone. The headstone is a bronze plaque featuring an image of Duke astride a horse, near ‘the Alamo’. The inscription on it reads: Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learnt something from yesterday.

One thought on “The Shootist: John Wayne rides off into the sunset in a blaze of glory

  1. This film had one of the better supporting cast. Harry Morgan does a fine job, as the self promoting and sleazy marshal of Carson City. This may be John Wayne’s most serious film, next to The Searchers. The casting crew, deserves credit, for putting Lauren Bacall as the female lead.

    Liked by 1 person

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