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All of the credit in the world goes to John Wayne for making this film. Here you have the biggest star in Hollywood history, making a film that symbolizes his life. You have an aging actor, whose best days were past him, portraying an aging gunfighter, whose best days were behind him. You have a character trying to fit into a world that had changed too much. Much like Wayne was trying to fit into a changing America. Lastly, you had a character, dying of cancer, trying to accomplish one last thing. Wayne, who was also dying of cancer, like the character, was trying to accomplish one last thing, a great film. To me, this film is special, because you are seeing in real life, a dying icon make his farewell. Like the character JB Books, Wayne was trying to put a brave face on his final days. He was vulnerable and uncertain about what awaited him, but he sought to accomplish one last goal. I don't care if you like Wayne or not, but how someone could not be emotionally effected by seeing this legend on screen for his last time, well, I feel sorry for you. This film is very special to me.
In his last movie, John Wayne plays J B Books, an ageing former gunfighter
who arrives in Carson City. Books has in the past killed thirty men in
gunfights and has become a legend of the West, but this hard-won status
brought him unwelcome attention from would-be gunslingers hoping to gain
their own place in history as `the man who shot J B Books'. Early on,
is told by his old friend Dr Hostetler that he is dying of terminal
and the film chronicles the last week of his life, from 22nd to 29th
1901, his search for a dignified death in accordance with his own code of
The film is about both endings and new beginnings, so it is significant that the action takes place in the first month of a new century. January 1901 marked not only the beginning of a century, but also the end of an era, because it was the month in which Queen Victoria died; this event is referred to several times in the film. The days of the `Old West' were also coming to an end; under the influence of new inventions such as the motor car and the telephone (both of which appear in the film) it was becoming a quieter and less lawless place.
The time of year is significant in another way. A film which is about both the end of a man's life and the end of an era will inevitably be elegiac in tone, and the standard way of making it would be to film it in autumn, with plenty of shots of falling leaves and grey, misty skies. Don Siegel, however, takes an alternative approach, setting the film during a brief period of brilliant winter sunshine and mild weather known as a `false spring'. This not only provides some strikingly beautiful images, but also has a double symbolic meaning. For Books and for the Old West it is winter; but for the younger generation, spring is coming. One of the most touching features of the film is the relationship between Books and Gillom, the son of his landlady. Gillom idolises Books and treats him as a hero; Books, in the last days of his life, treats the young man as the son he never had and tries to teach him that there is a better way than that of the gun. The Old West may be passing into history, but there are indications that the New West, although it may be less picturesque, will be a better place in which to live. If winter comes, can spring be far behind?
The film itself also turned out to mark the end of an era in more ways than one. Although there is some doubt whether Wayne actually knew in 1976 that his cancer had returned, we now of course know that it was to be his last film and that he was to die about three years later, and this knowledge makes the film all the more poignant. It was also one of the last of the great Westerns. Although the genre had seemed in reasonable health in the early seventies, it was to suffer, for various reasons, a sharp decline in the second half of the decade and throughout the eighties. Perhaps the standard conventions of the genre had become so familiar that they seemed like clichés; perhaps the post-Vietnam generation had no time for films which often had as their themes honour, glory and courage. (It is notable that the patriotic war film underwent a similar decline at the same time). Certainly, the financial failure of `Heaven's Gate' made investors wary of backing westerns. Even Clint Eastwood, who had seemed to be the heir-apparent to Wayne's crown as King (or should that be Duke?) of the West, abandoned the genre for a time, although he was to return to it triumphantly with `Unforgiven' in the early nineties.
Wayne's great strength as an actor was his ability to convey the tough but honourable man of action. Both these qualities are present in `The Shootist', but he was able to add further qualities, pathos and as sense of a less honourable past. Although Books is hard-bitten and irascible, he is also fundamentally decent, resorting to force only in self-defence. He can show pity- early in the film he spares the life of a villain who tries to rob him at gunpoint, even though he has the man at his mercy. Nevertheless, we are always well aware that he did not gain his fearsome reputation by a scrupulous observance of the Ten Commandments; although this is not an overtly religious film, the story of his last days can be seen as the story of his search for atonement as well as for dignity. In his last film, Wayne achieves one of his greatest performances; it is remarkable that he was not even nominated for an Oscar.
The other performance that stands out is that of Ron Howard as Gillom. Howard, of course, is now best known as a director; if his acting career is remembered it is for his role that bland TV series `Happy Days'. Nevertheless, he was also capable of giving good contributions in films (`American Graffiti' is another example), and here he brings a touching youthful innocence to the part. There are also good contributions from James Stewart as the gentle, dignified doctor and from Lauren Bacall as Gillom's mother. (She has the unusual Christian name Bond, possibly symbolic of the close ties that grow between her and Books at the end of his life).
`The Shootist' is a marvellous film, sombre and elegiac, and yet at the same time with a message of hope. A fitting end to Wayne's career. 9/10.
This was John Wayne's last film, and it sees the Duke as an aging, ailing
but still tough as steel gunslinger named John Bernard Books. Wayne's
character rides into town at the start of the film and visits James
Stewart's pleasant Doc Hostetler, who tells him that he has terminal cancer
and will die within two months. After this, Wayne goes and rents a room with
widow Lauren Bacall, and begins to reflect on his situation, trying to
figure a way to die retaining the dignity he has fought all his life to keep
The film is a particularly appropriate one for Wayne's last picture. The protagonist he plays is a man at the top of his profession with nowhere left to go. Any opponent who has ever fought him has died at the end of Books' barrel; but now, he is fighting an enemy he cannot hope to face and beat like a man. Whatever he does to fight the cancer, it will just take him anyway. And so, Books searches for a way to go down fighting and to die with dignity, not dying a slow crippling death in his bed.
Books is a character that has many faults. He is a man who has killed thirty men and shows no remorse. As he puts it himself, `I never killed a man who didn't deserve it'. However, despite all his faults, he shows himself to a gentleman of the old school. He is like a knight in armour transplanted to the last days of the Wild West, trying hard to keep all the old values of a dignity and honour alive. He is a man who lives by a code which he believes in, and which he applies to others: `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.'
There is no real villain in this film. Books, with all his flaws, is not a bad man. The real villains here are the ordinary people who are all around him in the city, willing to exploit him and use his fame, illness and even his death to further their own wealth. The whole town, from reporters to undertakers, are only too eager to exploit him, with only a few good people being an exception to this tragic rule.
There is no mistaking that this is the Duke's final picture, and not anybody else's film. It is his persona and his charisma that carries and controls the film. The character of Books a rough, tough, but by no means bad, man is very much similar to that of Wayne's own and this film is essentially a vehicle allowing him to have a dramatic swansong befitting a star of his magnitude.
That isn't to say, however, that the others involved with this don't pull their weight. Lauren Bacall delivers well up to her usual standard of acting, presenting a character both strong-spirited and tenderly gentle at once, something which she does extremely well. Ron Howard also acquits himself admirably as her son, turning in a performance which has the same strength and heart as that of his screen-mother Bacall. James Stewart turns in a powerful cameo, adding to the overall poignancy of the whole affair, and Harry Morgan turns in a repellent performance as the contemptible Marshal Thibado. Dirty Harry director Don Seigel directs with skill and ensures that the film remains poignant, but never sentimental. For a western, this film does not have a great deal of action, but such is the quality of acting, direction and scriptwriting, that this doesn't really matter. When the violence does erupt, however, it is occasionally graphic but always exciting. The film's climactic gunfight is a particular highlight and is one of the Duke's best shoot-outs.
This is a powerful, entertaining and enjoyable film, regardless; however, it is further ennobled by it being the Duke's final performance. There is something curiously heart-warming about the whole affair, not least the fact that he is enabled to go out in such great style. This is a must for fans of the western genre, for fans of the Duke, or for anyone who just wants to see a well made, poignant film. Highly recommended. 
"The Shootist" begins with clips from Wayne's previous pictures:
"Hondo," "Rio Bravo," "El Dorado" etc...
Wayne portrays J. B. Books, the most famous lawman in the West who killed thirty men in his life... Books arrives to Carson City in 1901, the day Queen Victoria died in England...
Wayne went first to get a medical diagnosis known to everyone as cancer.
Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) was too practical... He gives Book the most potent pain-killer he gets, and tells him where to stay in town...
The film is build to one and only purpose: To let Wayne die with dignity, without physical pain, at the Metropole gambling saloon, in a showdown with three heavies: Richard Boone, a bad-tempered ugly man who wants to avenge his brother's death; Hugh O'Brien, a skilled dealer and a presumptuous gunfighter; and Bill McKinney, an unpleasant provoking gunman just released from prison...
Ron Howard plays the crude graceless adolescent, the first to meet Wayne in the street: 'The old man ain't worth a bullet,' he says, 'he looks all tuckered out.' In this particular scene, it comes to my mind the insolent young punk, Skip Homeir, who tries to prove something when he confronts Gregory Peck in the psychological Western "The Gunfighter."
Wayne seems surprised by the visit of Serepta (Sheree North), an unscrupulous aging lady-love who tries to take advantage of him, asking him to marry her simply for a marriage certificate, and a famous name... She surely was not the woman of quality, the good prostitute (Claire Trevor) in "Stagecoach."
John Carradine, who plays the mysterious passenger, also in "Stagecoach," makes a brief appearance as the undertaker...
Tying to overcome his bloody past, John Wayne shows, in the film, the other side of the 'Shootist,' his human side... We find him pleasantly amusing when he reveals to Stewart the truth about the red fancy cushion he carries in the film...
Filmed in Carson City, Nevada, and with a fine supporting cast, this untraditional motion picture is a lyrical elegiac Western of the highest quality, a moving tribute to a legendary actor and a tender farewell to a Super Star...
"The Shootist" was John Wayne's swan song as a film legend and, to put it
mildly, he hit a home run. It is a terrific end to a legendary
After a brief prologue made up of film clips of Wayne in his career prime, we meet his cinematic alter ego, John Bernard Books, an aging gunfighter who rides into Carson City, Nevada in the early 1900's looking for Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), the old sawbones who once saved his life and apparently the only man he trusts. It seems the old guy has prostate cancer and only a few weeks to live, and as Hostetler tells him, it will not be a pleasant death. Books, with no where else to go, checks into Bond Rogers' (Lauren Bacall) boarding house to live out his final days in peace under the alias "William Hickok." When Bond's delinquent son Gillom (Ron Howard, in a nice change-of-pace performance and his last major film appearance before becoming a director) informs her of his true identity, she tries to throw him out but relents when she finds out his condition and agrees to help him die in peace.
Unfortunately, things don't go as planned as everyone from the town mortician (John Carradine) to an old girlfriend (Sheree North) to a newspaper editor (Richard Lenz) try to take advantage of his situation and turn a fast buck. And then there are several lowlifes (Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brien, Bill McKinney, etc.) who want to seal their reputations by taking him out. Since it's obvious that no one will leave him alone in his final days, and since he grows fond (to put it mildly) of both Bond and Gillom and wishes them no harm, Books decides to go out in style and on his own terms, and to take a few scumbags along with him.
"The Shootist" is one of those rare films that seems to have gotten better with age. It wasn't particularly successful with critics or audiences at the time, as they were apparently put off by its leisurely pace and relative lack of action. Typical of the reaction was a TV guide critic (who shall remain nameless), who once derided it and its stars as coming across as "relics of the old West." (Wasn't that the point?) However, it is now pretty much considered a classic, and rightfully so, especially when viewed next to some of the lesser films of Wayne's 1970's period ("Cahill," "Rooster Cogburn," "The Cowboys"). In fact, it is now hard to believe that Wayne was not nominated for an Oscar here, as Books is clearly one of the best performances of his career and definitely eclipses his extravagantly praised, Oscar-winning mugging in "True Grit." Indeed, "The Shootist" deserves to stand alongside Clint Eastwood's "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" as the last three great Westerns in cinema history. Everything about it is immaculate--the sets, the costumes, the supporting cast (including Harry Morgan in a terrific cameo as an unsympathetic sheriff who tells Books, "What I put on your grave won't pass for roses."), the script, and the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, teaming up for the first time since "Blood Alley." And everything is held together by old pro director Donald Siegel who, aside from the late Hal Ashby, may very well be the most underappreciated director in cinema history.
But "The Shootist" is John Wayne's film all the way. He is simply sensational, and BRAVE, since he apparently knew at the time his cancer was back and that this would probably be his last film. It's not every film legend who gets to end his/her career on a high note, but Wayne did just that. I just hope he knew it before his death barely three years later. ****1/2 (out of *****)
John Wayne is an icon, and so many viewers seem to use his work as a referendum on the larger geo-political issues of our time. I find that distasteful, as this isn't a political movie, and one that doesn't even have an oppressed indigenous person in it. This is a personal story of a man who "has outlived his time", who is dying of cancer, and yet is determined to die with dignity. John Wayne really was dying of cancer when he made this movie... he gathered old friends around him--the widow of Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, John Carradine, and addressed the topic of how legends die. (Selling the rights for his corpse to be displayed by the undertaker for $50 cash in advance was a particularly interesting idea.) I am viewing this film 27 years after it was made, and there is 'something' it had which is absent from movies today. It is a film addressing mature themes for one thing, but it had a pacing, and made time for it's dialouge--it was never dull, never slow, but proceeded towards it's climax with the sort of gravitas you very rarely see in today's cinematic roller coaster rides, which have become little more than special effects vehicles. There is another reason to see this film--it looks back at 1901 with a loving vision. I was impressed with the historical accuracy in which it was filmed--it was impressive to see the town, from the horsedrawn street car and the Stanley Steamer, to little things like the flour dispenser in the kitchen. (Wondered where it was filmed--perhaps the old Old Tucson Studio before it burned down and was rebuilt to be a tourist attraction?) Anyway, this was a lovingly crafted film--I don't know if Hollywood could still pull this off "as real" in 2003. So, for big reasons and small, "The Shootist" is worth your time. It is deeper than it looks.
I've never had much use for the swaggering, tough-as-nails `heroic' John
Wayne. Perhaps that style of heroism was all one needed to get by in the
old west', but even then, death was not an easy thing to face (I bet most
gunslingers and sheriffs' boots were filled with liquid just moments before
they bit the dust). Finally, here is a film that looks at what courage is
really made up of: the ability to accept limitations, to accept change, to
have humility, and to be able to say, `I'm afraid'. The Duke is dying of
cancer, in reality and within the plot of this film. He is also a living
myth in reality and within the plot of this film. That he chose to play out
his swan song as a human legend instead of as a mythic one, must have taken
a lot of courage. Imagine the Duke propped on a dainty red pillow upon his
saddle! Imagine him showing all the physical signs of the wear and tear
that illness and age have bestowed on him. Imagine him allowing us to hear
the weakness of his infirm body slipping in the bathtub. Imagine his groans
of agony. `Death is a very private thing', his character John Books says,
but he is man enough to show us how to do it and do it with dignity, despite
the fear. Just imagine The Duke admitting that he's afraid of the
At the period in which this film is set, gunslingers or `shootists' were soon to go the way of the horse and buggy. The queen (Victoria) had just died. Electricity, modern plumbing, modern commerce, modern transportation, and creature comforts were beginning to take over (check out the electric ceiling fans and mosaic tiles in the saloon!). Forward to real life'. It is 1976. One by one, the mythic legends created by dime novels and Hollywood movies are being demystified. From Billy The Kid to Buffalo Bill, to Bonnie and Clyde, audiences have been shown for over decade how legends have always been manufactured. There are some who may see this demystification as a negative thing, but when people start adoring soldiers, celebrities and gangsters as something more than human, it's time to set the record straight. That's what all the best films of the seventies did. They broke the myths but they did not break the spirit, for what they did was let US, not the supermen on the screen, become the heroes. We could be afraid, old, young, ill, or weak, and we could feel pain and humiliation. In the process of confronting our limitations we become stronger. To be a stronger human being is to become civilized. Like this film shows us, we CAN reject the gun and join civilization. This film is John Wayne's gift to us. He is enabling us to grow up, to look at the past with respect, but to face the future with responsibility. His John Books is worth more to us than all his superheroes put together. We're all gonna die, we're all afraid, and pain is very, very real. It is in the process of surrendering to this fact with dignity and humility that we in a sense become immortal. To try to live as a superman is to die a fool. Only cowards (and very dangerous people) embrace myths over reality. That dainty red pillow has made The Duke sit very tall in his saddle indeed!
The legendary John Wayne gives a fantastic understated performance as J.B. Books an aging gunfighter suffering from stomach cancer and looking to live out the final days of his life in peace. Of course, the entire existence of the gunfighter is predicated on the inevitability that once you reach top there is always going to be someone looking to knock you off your pedestal. Here that means J.B.'s retirement won't be so peaceful. Besides this plot point, there is the mature twilight romance between J.B. and Bond (Lauren Bacall) and his mentor relationship with Gillom (Ron Howard). James Stewart (who co-starred with Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) puts in a cameo as J.B.'s physician. Recommended.
I have always admired John Wayne, the man the actor, his politics,
films and the rest. However I did not know about this film ! I
discovered it on a DVD recently and bought it straight off. I was
certainly not disappointed. Sound and vision had been restored and the
picture quality was awesome, as though it had been made yesterday. The
theme music was both haunting and catching ! But above all the ACTING
in this film was really FIRST RATE ! One of his best performances but
also an EXCELLENT performance from Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard.
Although I knew JW was taken off to heaven by cancer, I read that he actually was in its throes when the film was made. Whether this is true or just legendary, I don't know but it's pretty ironic all the same !! The film is sad, funny, tender, witty, beautiful all in one go. Some of the dialogues are just out of this world. I was so happy to have discovered it. It's less a typical western than a man's reflection upon the end of his life.
To me, John Wayne will always represent what true American values are all about, and this film, on all levels is the most fitting end to his career that anyone could have dreamed of.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A remarkable movie. Why? Mainly because it is John Wayne's last, and it
is packaged and delivered with that thought in mind. John Wayne was
clearly anticipating his own real-life demise here, and on a very
fundamental level that's what the movie is all about.
But don't go in thinking that this is merely some kind of schmaltzy gimmick, a movie made just for the purpose of paying corny homage to John Wayne. It stands as a fine movie in its own right, well-written and well-acted. In fact, it may be John Wayne's overall finest performance (and you can put me down as one who considers the man to have been a talented actor), especially given that he was in considerable real-life discomfort and pain throughout filming. The story is chock-full of pearls of wisdom and memorable lines. It is also chock-full of symbolism on many levels, about history and the final days of the settling of the west, about movies and the end of the western genre in Hollywood, and, of course, about John Wayne personally, facing death, and of how he would be remembered --and exploited-- in death. All that and more is finely woven into the story, and few tricks were missed. As I said, well written.
One striking piece of symbolism was the exact manner of death of Wayne's character, the notorious gunslinger J.B. Books. In a prearranged a face-to-face simultaneous meeting with three of his worst enemies, a dying Books intended to fight them all at once to the death. Advised by his doctor that he was going to die a suffering death from the cancer that was eating his insides, Books presupposed that not even he could face down three these formidable foes at once and prevail. Books's own personal death with dignity. But then, against all odds, Books proceeds to out-duel and kill each, the message seeming to be that the even most difficult of life's tasks can be faced and conquered if done forthrightly and in earnest. Meanwhile, it was the sneaky bartender, symbolic of life's vices, that got him, shooting him in the back when he wasn't looking and not expecting it. And when you think about it, that's what took down John Wayne too. His vices. And while maybe he should have been expecting it, maybe he wasn't. Just like many of us aren't thinking about our mortality while we partake in the enjoyment of our vices.
Another compelling aspect of the film is the stellar cast that was assembled. It reads like a veritable who's who. Lauren Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brien, Harry Morgan, Scatman Crothers, John Carradine, along with several cameos, and others that weren't credited. The inclusion of Ron Howard for his pivotal role was a stroke of prophetic genius, intended or not. All of this talent sublimates itself neatly into the recesses of the story, where the real texture lies.
This is a movie that I've seen at least a dozen times, and I never get tired of watching it. Every time I view it I see some little subtlety that I never noticed in previous viewings. Suffice it to say that it's a good film. I recommend it.
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