The Shootist (1976) begins like so many other westerns: the main character, a mysterious lone figure emerging from the wilderness, reluctantly on his way into civilisation. In this case the wilderness is the snow-covered mountains and foothills outside of Carson City and the lone figure, wrapped and hunched against the cold, is John Bernard Books. This was John Wayne’s final film role before his death and its success, its depth and its place in film history is due as much to the legend surrounding Wayne as it is to the legend created for the character of J.B. Books. The film’s opening sequence creates that legend – narrated at various points by Wayne and Ron Howard (who plays the young man Gillom Rogers) Books slow approach to Carson alongside an endless barbed wire fence is intercut with footage from some of Wayne’s earlier movies: Red River (1948), Hondo (1953), Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966). This is to give context and history to the legendary Books by borrowing context and history from the legendary actor’s earlier gunfighter roles. Before the opening credits are complete, Wayne’s own gruff voice interjects:
“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.”
We are left in no doubt as to who this man is, neither the character nor the actor playing him. The music softens as Books approaches the camera to reveal an older, white haired Wayne looking longingly at the horizon. But before we can relax a highwayman appears holding a shotgun to Books and demanding his money. Without hesitation Books blasts the highwayman to the ground with a hidden pistol and the credits pop up with: ‘a film by Don Siegel.
To place The Shootist in context: Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood had made Dirty Harry (1971) five years earlier. Three years before that the two had collaborated on Coogan’s Bluff (1968). The popularity of the western hero was waning in favour of hard-bitten police detectives in a contemporary setting. Siegel and Eastwood were literally transposing ‘The Man With No Name’ to 1970s San Francisco and putting him up against drug dealers, serial killers, hippies and eventually Sondra Locke. Following their success, Wayne briefly attempted the same transition with McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975). Brannigan is tonally all over the place, at one point being comic, the next sleazy and the next action. It is a film which never really gets itself together. McQ on the other hand is a well-constructed neo-noir film with music subtly provided by Elmer Bernstein and editing expertly done by William H. Ziegler and John Sturges. The action echoes Bullitt (1968) while upping the ante. However, despite the films’ qualities Wayne feels out of place walking the dank streets of 70s Seattle when he could be dispensing frontier justice. His next film, Rooster Cogburn (1975), would return him to familiar territory, being a sequel to the Oscar winning True Grit (1969). Nobody says, “Fill your hand you son-of-a-bitch!” quite like John Wayne. But even by 1969 the studio system which had given Wayne his very name was failing and being replaced by the new-age likes of Easy Rider (1969), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976). In the year before The Shootist, Steven Spielberg invented the summer blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and in the year that followed, Star Wars (1977) would change movies forever. Wayne’s kind of cinema was on the way out.
Wayne himself, at the time of making The Shootist, was in his late 60s. By this point he had appeared in more than 170 motion pictures in a career covering five decades. ‘The Duke’ was a figure as iconic as Bogart, Monroe or the Hollywood sign itself. In the cinematic landscape of today, only someone like Tom Cruise or Arnold Schwarzenegger comes close and neither of those men has been hailed as an icon of American ideals. It is important to remember that for most of those fifty years Wayne’s biggest role had been John Wayne, a name given to him by Raoul Walsh and Winfield Sheehan without the man himself (his birth name is Marion Robert Morrison) being present for the decision. The resulting epic The Big Trail (1930) was cutting edge, big production cinema for its time. The term ‘revisionist western’ is used to refer to films usually made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which seek to demythologize the clichéd notions around which the classic Hollywood western was built. However, if you want to stretch the definition just a little – Wayne was making ‘revisionist westerns’ from very early in his career. His breakthrough role in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) sees Wayne as the Ringo Kid, who along with a group of mismatched others travel by stage from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Red River (1948) is among the best westerns ever made, as it tells the complex story of a man driven to succeed in the most unforgiving of environments. These films and many others, including several war films, cemented Wayne’s persona as a tough, reliable, no-nonsense frontiersman.
The reality was that for most of his adult life he was an outspoken right-wing Republican. He was fervently anti-communist and supported the House of Un-American Activities Committee and their investigations of communist sympathisers in Hollywood. Wayne even went so far as to make Big Jim McLain (1952), casting himself in the role of a contemporary investigator tracking down communists in Hawaii. He vocally supported the Vietnam War too. He co-directed The Green Berets (1968) which was a pure propaganda film that transplanted the ethos, style and story structure of a western movie to the jungles of Vietnam. The movie is politically simplistic to the point of insulting, and when seen in comparison to the anti-war films that followed, it is quite difficult to watch. Needless to say it was critically panned. Wayne refused to run for office himself but supported Ronald Regan for governor of California and actively campaigned in support of Richard Nixon. One particular focus of controversy surrounding Wayne’s political views was a Playboy interview released in 1971 in which he expressed opinions regarding the equality of African Americans and Native Americans that were misguided and racist. He also spoke out against social programs supporting people who did not work. There is no doubt that despite his screen persona as the archetypal everyman John Wayne was a very controversial figure. Now, from this point on there will be significant spoilers regarding the plot of The Shootist, so if you haven’t seen the movie or if you’d like to see it fresh then watch it now, before you read on…
In 1964 Wayne had his left lung and several of his ribs removed as a treatment for cancer. He was then declared cancer-free. He believed his cancer had been a result of a six-packs-a-day cigarette habit. However, there is an unpleasant coincidence that 91 members of the cast and crew of the movie The Conqueror (1956) developed some form of cancer. The Conqueror is a poorly cast, poorly executed biopic of Genghis Khan and was filmed close to the site of post-war US Government nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. In The Shootist, Books is also sick. He is arriving in Carson City to consult the one doctor he trusts, Dr E.W. Hostetler (played by James Stewart). Stewart and Wayne had collaborated 15 years earlier on the great The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), a fact that is alluded to in the movie. Hostetler tells Books, in no uncertain terms, that he’s dying of cancer and that he has only weeks to live. Faced with this and the further knowledge that his death is likely to be agonising, Books finds lodgings in the city to await his end with as much dignity as possible. It is often believed that Wayne knew he was actually dying while filming. This is in fact not the case. Wayne had been found to have stomach cancer in 1975 but it had gone into remission before filming began. However, in 1979 the disease returned and he died on June 11 of that year at the age of 72 at the UCLA Medical Centre. His grave now includes a quote from the controversial Playboy interview:
“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 learned something from yesterday.”
Having begun with the myth of John Bernard Books, the story of The Shootist is how that myth breaks down as Books faces the reality of his impending death. He meets a series of characters each of whom represents an aspect of his past life or his present situation, and it is through these interactions that we come to understand the complexity of the man. His most significant interaction is with Lauren Bacall as Mrs Bond Rogers, who runs the boarding house where he resides, and her son Gillom (Howard). Mrs Rogers first despises Books for his violent past, his abrupt manners and the threat he has brought into her house. When it is revealed that he is dying she is angry rather than sympathetic and it is his consideration and kindness which eventually wins her over. We are left with an unspoken feeling of what might have been. In one scene Wayne almost pleads for her help with the line, “I’m a dying man, scared of the dark.” Books meets other characters who attack different aspects of his self-image. One is an ex-love who is so consumed by her own failures that she wants to use Books’ name to ensure her own prosperity. Another is a writer who wants to write sensationalist fiction based on Books’ life. Yet another is the cowardly and talkative City Marshal Walter Thibido (played by Harry Morgan). He sees Books as nothing more than another passing criminal threatening the peace of his town. When he finds out that Books is dying he expresses nothing but glee, saying: “The day they lay you away, what I’ll do on your grave won’t pass for flowers.” In one small scene two unnamed gunmen try to break into Books’ room and kill him while he is sleeping. Although he defends himself, the encounter leaves him exhausted and for the first time we see how the cancer is weakening him.
One key scene in The Shootist which is echoed in many other westerns (before and after) is the shooting lesson scene: the aging gunfighter Books teaches the impressionable young Gillom about the realities of shooting. In Shane (1953) when Alan Ladd teaches young Brandon deWilde how to use a gun, the emphasis is on the gun as “just a tool…no bad or worse than the man using it.” The morality comes from within, from the motivations of the man and there is little discussion about the cost of killing. In El Dorado when Wayne gives a shooting lesson to a young James Caan, the emphasis is on the practical necessity of being fast and accurate:
“You’ve got to draw and fire and you’d better be faster than someone else who’s trying to do the same thing.”
Here, it is ‘kill or be killed’ – be faster than the other man. The shooting lesson in The Shootist is a little more subtle than this because it is also a lesson in how to kill. When Books and Gillom find themselves almost matched in accuracy, Books reveals that his success in gunfights comes from his willingness to kill without hesitation. He also reveals that the biggest threat comes from the “dumbass amateur” who is prepared to shoot you in the back without warning. Strikingly similar dialogue would be chillingly delivered by Gene Hackman sixteen years later in Unforgiven (1992) when he explains the brutal reality of the western gunfight to Saul Rubinek.
Increasingly, Books is faced with an opponent who cannot be bested and so, encouraged by his friend Dr. Hostetler, he seeks another and better way out. His intentions are revealed mainly through the handling of familiar props. The horse and saddle upon which Books rides into Carson City actually belonged to Wayne himself. It is the discovery of his name inscribed on the bottom of his saddle which thwarts his initial attempt to hide his identity. And in a final bartering scene, Books sells his horse to Moses Brown (played by Scatman Crothers), as part of his preparation to meet his end. Dr Hostetler gives Books a bottle of laudanum to ease the pain. He begins by taking it from a spoon, starts swilling it and eventually tosses it away empty. He carries a red velvet pillow which he gifts to a tram driver before the climactic scene. Of particular significance here are the two engraved single action Colt Peacemakers which are introduced along with Books character in the opening narration. These guns too belonged to Wayne and were actually a gift, custom-made by Colt Firearms.
The Shootist builds to the final gunfight. Books, faced with the prospect of an agonising and undignified death, arranges for three of the ‘bad men’ in the town to meet him in a local saloon early in the morning of his birthday. He is trying to die as he lived, on his feet and fighting. This is perhaps the least developed part of the story simply because the ‘bad men’ are given so little background. We are thus forced to understand them as stereotypes of the genre. One is someone from Books’ past seeking revenge, another is a local thug trying to make a name for himself and the last is a killer who has so far been just on the right side of the law. They are the Christmas ghosts of the old West. In several other ways, however, the climactic fight diverges from type. For example, only the setting is glamorised. The saloon is cathedral-like, shot from low angles, imposing to the audience and full of shining reflective surfaces. A far cry from the spit and sawdust saloons of Rio Bravo and El Dorado. This saloon hints at what Carson City is becoming. Books stands tall and alone at the bar while his three antagonists sit behind him showing varying degrees of nervous tension. When the violence happens, it is abrupt, brutal and cruel. Books prevails, not by superior skill but by a little experience and a stubborn refusal to die. He meets his death as it was foreshadowed earlier in the film and his final contact will Gillom expresses only the futility of all the killing. It is a strangely small and personal end to a career built on the glamour of the western gunfighter.
It is difficult to imagine another movie where the character, the actor, the legend and the story are so intertwined. It is almost impossible to separate the character of Books from the actor playing him. It is a common observation to say that John Wayne always just turned up and played John Wayne. That combined with his unpopular political views makes it easy to dismiss his back catalogue with the exception of a few of the great John Ford films. This is a mistake. Even a selective look comes up with enough must-see classics to pack a long weekend. There are numerous collaborations with Howard Hawks which alone chart the evolution of the Western genre across three decades. There are some great war films too, such as The Fighting Seabees (1944), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Flying Leathernecks (1951). Big epics like The Alamo (1960) and The Longest Day (1962) and small comedies like The Quiet Man (1952) and North to Alaska (1960). And then there are the weird off-the-beaten track films like The Sea Chase (1955) where Wayne plays a German ship captain trying to get home from Australia during the Second World War. Or Blood Alley (1955) where Wayne rescues Lauren Bacall and a whole Chinese village out of ‘Red’ China. Or Hellfighters (1968) where Wayne plays a specialist putting out oilfield fires. Add to this list a bizarre turn as a Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and an uncredited voice appearance in Star Wars. To put it in a nutshell, if you were to understand the films of John Wayne, The Shootist is as good a place to start as it was to end. But as Wayne/Books said:
“Put it in a nutshell? You couldn’t put it in a barrel without a bottom. You’re the longest winded bastard I’ve ever known.”