By John H. Foote

“I’m a dying man…. afraid of the dark.”

– JB Books (John Wayne)

Ironically the last time John Wayne was on screen he portrayed a gunfighter dying of cancer while he himself was being ravaged by the disease. Co-stars Ron Howard and James Stewart watched as Wayne gulped oxygen between takes, struggled with any physical scenes, and argued in the early stages with director Don Siegel, his mood fouled with the medication he was taking and the sleep he so needed.  Angry and cranky by what the disease was doing to him until the director stood up to him, refusing to be bullied by the older star. At that moment, Wayne was won over, respecting the director for the rest of the shoot. He apologized to his director in front of the cast and crew and the rest of the shoot was smooth sailing for all. Those who worked on the film have stated it was a sometimes very sad set, given the impact of the disease on the actor, all championing the courage Wayne displayed in making the film.

Yet the tone of the film would be perfect, an autumnal feel to it as audiences watched the legendary Duke give his last and one of his very best performances. By all accounts, the shoot took a lot out of the actor, a doctor, and oxygen tank waiting close by when he was finished his take. As Books was struggling on-screen to die with some dignity, so was Wayne struggling to give what he must have known was his last performance. The irony, and sense of grand tragedy that he portrayed a man dying of cancer when he too was lost on no one.

How good was he in this film? Oscar good, as good as he had ever been with the exception of The Searchers (1956), his finest performance. There was something haunting, deeply melancholy about the performance and the film, even in the work of Lauren Bacall, a straight-laced widow running a boarding house, who comes to like the old gunfighter very much.

Well-cast as John Bernard Books, a legendary gunfighter, he comes to town to see a doctor he trusts portrayed by James Stewart, who announces to him what he already knows, he has advanced cancer in his rectum and prostate.  The old doctor explains what is coming to Books, how the disease will ravage his body and leave him blind with pain. The good doctor can take the edge off the pain with laudanum, but the time will come when Books will scream for death, the drug useless against formidable cancer.  Books decides he will die in this town, and takes a room in a local boarding house owned by a lonely widow, portrayed by Lauren Bacall. Only her son Gillom (Ron Howard) knows who he is, and surprisingly tells only the old stable hand. Yet word spreads through the town that a legend is among them, bringing out the local amateurs, hoping for a shot at Books, and the history books before he dies. The old man, even in his state is still fast with a gun and shoots dead two men who come to his room late one night with the intent to kill him.

As the disease progresses quickly, Books begins to realize he does not wish to die a death the good doctor described, and moves to set up a gunfight in the town.

“I am a dying man…. afraid of the dark” he says to Mrs. Rogers with regret, his eyes filled with pain, and sadness of what is coming. Having spent his life taking care of himself he now relies on her help to get out of the bathtub, a fate humiliating to him, helping to make him aware much worse is coming. Cancer at this time in history was a death sentence, with only laudanum as a painkiller and eventually, it would become useless as the magnitude of the pain increased to inhuman levels.

Being with the widow tells Books what he missed in life, not having a family, someone to spend quality time with, a son to teach.

Taking charge of his own destiny seems to give the gunfighter some peace of mind and the days countdown to the final day, where he will do battle with three other gunmen in the saloon, hoping one of them manages to put a bullet in him and end his suffering. At least two of them need killing, each an angry man far too quick to kill anyone who protests anything they might do.

Through the course of his extraordinary career, Wayne was nominated for just two Academy Awards for Best Actor, winning in 1969 for True Grit (1969) and nominated twenty years before for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). He should have won much earlier, for his seething Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) with further nominations in Red River (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), Rio Bravo (1959) and for this often-heartbreaking saga. He does some of the finest, most intimate and vulnerable work of his career as Books, showing courage but also muted fear for what lies ahead for him. Unafraid when facing men with a gun, cancer presents him with an invisible for much more powerful than any man with a weapon.

Paramount Pictures dropped the ball entirely on the release of the picture, tossing it out in the summer against the blockbusters and giving it virtually no major promotion. Despite rave reviews for Wayne and the film, it did not find the audience it so deserved. In many major cities and towns, the only place it could be seen was at a local drive in. Home entertainment allowed the film to be re-discovered and appreciated for the work of art it remains, one of the greatest westerns ever made.

1976 represented the last year that westerns would be made in abundance by the studios. In addition to The Shootist (1976), we had Clint Eastwood’s breakthrough as a director in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), the pairing of Marlon Brando with Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks (1976), and the strange Robert Altman film Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). In four years, Michael Cimino would make Heaven’s Gate (1980) a box office and critical disaster and end the production of the genre for many years.

Reach back to The Shootist (1976) one of the best westerns ever made, containing one of John Wayne’s best performances, and one for which he should have been nominated for the Academy Award. It is to the eternal shame of the Academy that they snubbed Wayne for this, one of his greatest performances. He died three years later.

Leave a comment