By John H. Foote

27. THE SHOOTIST (1976)

The last performance given by John Wayne was so filled with bitter irony, almost as though it had been pre-ordained. Cast as John Bernard Books in The Shootist, Wayne would portray an aging gunfighter dying of cancer. What the cast and crew realized as filming took place, was that Wayne too was very ill, himself dying of cancer. Wayne made countless films over the course of his time in Hollywood, most of them westerns, and he was the reigning box office star through the fifties and sixties, still placing on the list in the seventies. Audiences adored The Duke, but critics had not always been as kind, attacking his limitations as an actor.

Today there is revisionist thinking about Wayne, and his best work is now greatly appreciated, which it had never truly been before. His towering performance as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) was described by respected film historian John Milius as “the greatest performance in the history of the movies”. Today that performance is discussed as a stunning work of savagery, a superb portrait of a man coming to terms with his own humanity, something he thought had long been lost.

In The Shootist, the old gunfighter arrives at a quickly becoming modern town to see a doctor he trusts, Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart), who confirms what Books had been previously told – he has cancer in his prostate which has likely spread to his anus. Books decides to stay in the town and rents a room in a boarding house from Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall) who believes he is someone else, though her son Gillom (Ron Howard) knows exactly who he is. Books just wants to live out his remaining days in piece, but it becomes clear some men want to be the killer of him, earning their fame. At first Mrs. Rogers blames him, but seeing the men come after him, she changes her tune, and becomes Books’ caregiver as the cancer ravages. Helping him out his bath he says to her gently, “I’m a dying man, afraid of the dark.”

Eventually Books finds a way out that befits him and allows for a great story to be told in the town for a few years. He cuts deal with those who can help him and prepares for one last gunfight.

Wayne was superb in the film, capturing the fear within the man about an enemy he cannot see, but an enemy he knows he cannot defeat this time. This time it does not matter who blinks, who draws faster, who is cooler under the pressure, this foe will rot him on the inside and eventually stop his heart. For the first time in his life, Books knows fear.

There was a lovely autumnal chemistry in the scenes with Wayne and Lauren Bacall, perfect as a woman who could likely stand up to Books and keep him in line. She becomes attached to him and we know when he rides off for that last gunfight, she will mourn him a very long time.

Director Don Siegel gave the entire film a haunting feel, as though we were being a chance to explore the lives and deaths of people gone long before us. And when I say Bacall had an autumnal feel to her work, so did the entire cast. There was something oddly familiar in the scenes between Wayne and James Stewart, as though they had met years before and maintained a friendship through the years.

Wayne had great hopes of being an Oscar nominee for Best Actor for The Shootist, and that it did not happen was a terrible injustice. Paramount dropped the ball in releasing the film, dropping it into cinemas in the summer months when blockbusters were beginning to reign supreme. Fall would have better suited for The Shootist, and when the Oscar nominations were announced, Wayne had been snubbed, which hurt him terribly.

This was the great American western made before the death of the western with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), which bankrupted United Artists and ended the western for many years.

Watching Wayne in this is haunting, his finest work being Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Rio Bravo (1959), True Grit (1969), The Cowboys (1972) and it was all capped off with The Shootist (1976).

Wayne was utterly sublime.

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