Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Swan Song: The Shootist, John Wayne's last picture show

The Shootist was John Wayne's last movie.  Released in 1976 and directed Don Siegel, the film was one version of how art imitates life.  Wayne, who died of cancer in June 1978, plays J.B. Books, an aging, notorious gunfighter who is diagnosed with a tumor.  He travels to Carson City, Nevada, an up and coming town in the 1901, to meet with Doc Hostetler, an old acquaintance, played by James Stewart.  Hostetler confirms the diagnosis, and assures Books his end is inevitable and will be agonizing. 
Wayne as gunfighter J.B. Books. "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 from them."
With a bottle of  laudenum in hand, Books looks for a place to live out his last days in peace and dignity.  He settles in at Bond Rogers' (Lauren Bacall) boarding house, trying to keep his identity a secret.  However word gets out that J.B. Books is in town, and visits by the local yellow press and the town marshall (Harry Morgan) are followed with exits by Rogers' boarders. Books strikes up a friendship with Rogers and her teenage son Gillom (Ron Howard.)  Gillom is starstruck by Books' past, the men he's killed and his skill with guns.  While Books is slow to warm up to the young man, they form a friendship that only deepens when Books drives off attackers in his room one night. 
Wayne and Stewart
When Hostetler stops by to examine Books again, he assures the shootist of his end, and the assured pain he will suffer:
"You know, Books; I'm not an especially brave man. But, if I were you and had lived my entire life the way you have, I don't think that the death I just described to you is not the one I would choose."

Knowing what lies ahead, Books plans for one more gunfight, and rides off into the sunset, in a metaphorical sense. 

John Wayne is great in this movie as a proud man, having led a life carefully bound by rules of pride.  "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 from them." Forced to confront his imminent mortality, Books must make connections with Hostetler, Bond and Gillom Rogers.  He earns their respect, then their friendship, before taking the streetcar to meet his destiny.

The supporting cast is also excellent.  Bacall was nominated for a BAFTA award as best actress, and Howard received a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor.  Stewart's Hostetler is honest and forthright as a man who does not flinch at Books' condition. 

If there is something missing from the movie, its the development of those Books will battle in the climactic gunfight at the Metropole.  Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brien, and Billy McKinney are just cutout characters, lured to the excitement of dispatching a legend of the Old West.  We don't really understand their motivation for wanting to shoot it out with Books, but they do anyway. 

The Shootist is John Wayne's last movie.  It was a fitting and touching memorial to a man that bestrode Hollywood for so many years.  For a man whose career was filled with good, not so good and godawful movies, this is definitely one of the better ones

1 comment:

Ray Rousell said...

It's a good film, not his best, but it's John Wayne!!