The Shootist Review
"Finding out about cancer was like somebody hit me across the belly with a baseball bat... It's the helplessness. I couldn't see myself lying on a bed, not being able to do anything for myself, no damn good to anybody. I felt like a jerk!"
John Wayne, 1967, Chicago's American Magazine
"I'm a dyin man, scared of the dark."
J.B.Books, The Shootist
The Shootist is only an average Western but as a film about John Wayne it's a masterpiece. It traces with precision and subtle poignancy the last days of a gunfighter dying of cancer - a 'shootist' in 19th century parlance - while acting as a commentary on the audience's feelings about the man who was the greatest film star of the past 100 years. It's hard to imagine how Duke could have had a better swan song and even harder not to speculate that he knew while making it that it would be his last film.
Wayne plays John Bernard Books, an ex-lawman turned renowned gunfighter who has been diagnosed with cancer and returns to see his old friend, Doc Hostetler (Stewart) to have the news confirmed. The Doc tells him to rest as much as possible and directs him to the guesthouse run by the pious widow Rogers (Bacall) and her wayward son Gillom (Howard). The widow discovers that her guest is a gunfighter and wants rid of him, supported by the forward thinking Marshal (Morgan), until she finds out about his cancer and her compassion overcomes her distaste. Discovering the horrible truth about how his condition will deteriorate, Books decides to go out in a blaze of glory rather than waste away. Much to the widow's displeasure, he begins devising a scheme whereby he will be an irresistible target for the other local shootists, all of whom are keen to have a go at a living legend.
As a Western, The Shootist is clearly in the tradition of the "end of the trail" genre movies such as Peckinpah's Ride The High Country, Henry King's The Gunfighter and John Ford's peerless The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It has an elegaic tone - partly through the casting of Wayne and partly through the constant references to time moving on - and a pace which might best be described as stately. At the beginning we're informed of Queen Victoria's death, an event of great importance to Books who regarded her as a model of dignity, and minutes later he's almost knocked down by a car. 1901 is fairly late for a Western to be set, although Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch takes place thirteen years later (with explicit reference to German imperialism) and Cormac McCarthy's 'Border' trilogy of novels take place in the late 1940s. The late setting and the sense of things changing around Books is essential to the mood of the piece which explicitly links Books with the past and the callous, unfeeling Marshal - who laughs at the news that Books has cancer - with the future. What makes it interesting is that, like Peckinpah's work, it's deeply ambivalent about the past, seeing it in two ways; as a golden age when men were men and people with guns knew how and when to use them; but also as a brutal and violent place which actively hindered progress. The film wants to have it both ways of course, with our nostalgic affection for Wayne and the somewhat illusory glory of the past that he represents balanced by the final moments involving Gillom, suggesting how the future could be better than the past
In generic terms, the film is flawed. The final shootout between Books and the three gunfighters is certainly exciting and well staged but essentially played out in overly-chivalric terms which simply don't seem convincing. It also relies so heavily on the persona of John Wayne - right down to using clips from his old films at the beginning - that the character of Books doesn't really come alive as an individual within the context of the film. It's also unfortunate that the specific conditions mentioned in the book - prostate and rectal cancer, both frequently suffered by cowboys - are muted into something more general because Wayne found the specific cancers too distasteful. Don Siegel's direction is typically surefooted but lacks tension and is certainly not on a par with Peckinpah or Ford. A more serious problem is that every supporting character is a stereotype with one defining attribute which is played up to suit the favourite routines of the actor; Scatman Crothers does a lot of laughing and grinning, Lauren Bacall is an ice-maiden who melts drop by drop, Ron Howard is eager and full of energy, Richard Boone is sly and self-amused, James Stewart is avuncular and completely trustworthy, and so on.
Yet... it doesn't matter. Although neither John Wayne nor Don Siegel would thank me for saying this, The Shootist works beautifully as a self-reflexive comment on John Wayne. During the opening five minutes, we get a monologue from Gillom about Books' reputation and it's accompanied by clips of Wayne from Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo and El Dorado. This establishes that what we're watching is not really about J.B.Books at all but about Duke. By 1976, Wayne had been working in films since 1927, when John Ford hired him as a labourer / propman, and had been about as consistently popular as any screen star ever has been. Even his time as the favoured hate figure of the liberal Left - stretching roughly from his support of Barry Goldwater in 1964 to the end of the Vietnam War - didn't seriously affect his box office record. Indeed, 1975 was the first year since polling began that he had failed to appear in the Quigley list of the top 10 Box Office Stars in the USA. Even then he maintained a high public profile - frequently railing against violence and profanity in the movies, despite his own well-documented penchant for the word 'fuck'.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop him apart from one thing - the dreaded Big C. In 1964, Wayne had survived lung cancer with remarkable success having lost a lung without noticeably slowing his work rate once he was discharged from hospital. But the fear of cancer stayed with him, or more specifically the fear of being helpless and depending on his family and friends. Many of his friends died of some variant or other of the disease; Pedro Armendariz Jr, a close friend from Wayne's B-Movie days, committed suicide in 1963 rather than face the horror of deteriorating through stomach cancer and John Ford - or 'Pappy' as Wayne called him - died of stomach cancer in August 1973. The fear drove Wayne into a prodigious work rate which would have defied some younger actors but this workload took its toll. In January 1974. shortly after receiving an 'Brass Balls' award from the Harvard Lampoon, Wayne became seriously ill with, as he later discovered, the early stages of stomach cancer. It's hard to imagine the effect this had on a man who had just fought his way through public vilification over the issue of Vietnam and thought he had beaten cancer some years earlier. But during the remaining five years of his life, illness slowly got to him, as is obvious if you look at his films. Compare the way he looks in two Andrew V.MacLaglen films for example; Chisum from 1970 and Cahill:U.S.Marshal from 1974.
Wayne's illness nearly derailed The Shootist. His crankiness had come to be expected but towards the end of the shoot he became seriously unwell and left the set early. He didn't appear the next day and Siegel, having shot around his star as much as possible, was informed that the production was being shut-down and that he was suspended. Wayne recovered quickly and the film was finished but the irony was inescapable. In a way, he had become Books; defying illness, determined to go out in a blaze of glory. Except in Wayne's case, this was the late 1970s and apart from suicide, the glory of his last, great performance was followed by two years of terrible pain. Luckily, The Shootist is a monument to Duke; not only the man himself but our feelings about him as an audience. When Books goes out for a last afternoon drive with the Widow or when he goes to his last gunfight at the saloon, there's a real sense in which we're watching Wayne moving through the space of 90 minutes to the end of his glorious career. When Books admits to being scared or humiliated, it's moving because he's articulating the things Wayne, as a public man, so rarely felt able to say. Wayne's performance itself is the culmination of his work. He was great in many films, far more than most people would ever admit - Stagecoach, Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Horse Soldiers, Hatari!, True Grit, The Cowboys among others - but his grace and subtlety here is surprising and genuinely touching. The Oscar which he got for playing Rooster Cogburn would have been far more appropriately given for this elegant performance. The Shootist is a small film and not really a great one but it's deeply moving and worth seeing simply for the towering presence of Wayne. It suggests how good Duke could have been in a similar film made by the great Sam Peckinpah but that, sadly, never happened. As it is, The Shootist is just about good enough to pass muster.
Released by Paramount as one of three John Wayne movies - Hatari and Donovan's Reef are the others - The Shootist is the only disc of the three to feature any new content. It's not a fully fledged Special Edition but at least it comes with a documentary to place it in context.
The film is presented in 1.78:1, as is Paramount's wont, and this is close enough to 1.85:1 as to make no difference. There's certainly no visible cropping. The transfer is a mixed bag. As with the other two films in this series of Duke releases, it's the best I've ever seen the film look but is still not particularly impressive. The colours - lots of faded browns - come across beautifully and the picture is full of detail. But it looks very grainy throughout and there is quite a bit of artifacting. The print has some damage and the film is obviously in need of some restoration.
The soundtrack is the original mono track and sounds absolutely fine. The music sounds good and the dialogue is clear.
The main extra is a 17 minute documentary about the making of the film. It's quite interesting although most of the information is familiar to anyone who has read Don Siegel's book "A Siegel Film". The lack of archive interviews with Wayne or Siegel is disappointing but we do get new chats with the writer, the producers and Hugh O'Brien. No controversy or surprises, but pleasant to watch and with some nice archive photographs. We also get a theatrical trailer which suggests, hopefully, that the film "may be the greatest Western ever made".
There are 16 chapter stops. The film and retrospective documentary are subtitled in English.
The Shootist is essential viewing for fans of Westerns or John Wayne. It's not the best example of a Don Siegel movie - have a look at Dirty Harry or Riot On Cell Block 11 - but it's efficient and it maintains the interest well enough. John Wayne's performance is good enough to make it worth seeing even if you don't normally enjoy the genre. The DVD is adequate but nothing special and could have been a good deal better had the film been presented with more care.