Wayne was seemingly the natural, but not first, choice for the part. Surprisingly, the role had been first offered to Paul Newman, who reportedly pulled out for personal reasons. The part was then offered to George Scott, who demanded too many changes in the script. Both Newman (“The Sting”) and Scott (“Patton”) were very popular in the 1970s.
However, in retrospect, producer Mike Frankovich was delighted with the casting, claiming, “Nobody could have been better for the part than the Duke. He’s perfect.”
There were many advantages in casting Wayne as John Bernard Books, as director Don Siegel wanted to show the progression of the protagonist gunfighter from his early heroic and glorious days to his very tragic death. What better strategy to use than actually borrowing old clips from Wayne’s own great Westerns, Stagecoach, Red River, and Hondo, all cult films.
The movie thus became a self-conscious invocation of the Wayne screen, and an unintentional tribute to his lengthy career, as, among other things, the most significant screen image in Hollywood history. For some, who knew the actor was ill, it looked as if The Shootist had been consciously designed as an epitaph, though Wayne was planning at the time to continue making movies.
There were many parallels between the fictional narrative and Wayne’s personal life. John Bernard Books is dying of cancer, a theme that was unpalatable and unmentionable to many actors, but not to Wayne. “Hell, no. It means nothing to me,” he told an interviewer, “I’m a member of the club, after all.” However, Wayne refused to make cancer the film’s major concern and, accommodating his request, the subject was mentioned in the text just twice.
Moreover, the conversation between Wayne and the physician (played by Republican peer and Wayne pal Jimmy Stewart), confirming his fear of having cancer, was in harmony with his image. Stewart has the burden to inform Brooks the grim truth about cancer. Ahead of its time, the conversation even hints and suggests the possibility of suicide as a way of avoiding the growing and excruciating pain. Indeed, upon being told the bad news, an upset Wayne protests, “You told me I was strong as an ox,” to which Stewart’s doctor replies, “Even oxen die.”
At the center of the yarn is Wayne’s relationship with a widowed landlady, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), and her son, Gillom (Ron Howard). At first, Howard resents Wayne, but gradually he learns to respect him, admiring him for being “the most celebrated” shootist in the West. Howard, like other children in his films, learns how to behave properly by observing and emulating Wayne’s behavior.
For example, spying on Wayne from the window, he gets his first lesson, “If you want to see me, knock on the door, like a man.” Later, Wayne sums up his philosophy of life to Howard, deeming it useful to the younger generation: “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 others, and I require the same of them.”
When Howard asks for a shooting lesson, Wayne agrees but instructs him: “A man should know how to handle a gun–with discretion.” The film’s assumption, like Hondo,” is that every child, let alone an orphan, needs a sociological father in order to become a man. And, in similar manner to The Cowboys, Howard adopts his master’s style and philosophy. In the last scene, he avenges Wayne’s death in the saloon by using the latter’s gun, then throws it away.
With all my praise for its artistic and acting qualities, ideologically speaking, The Shootist also was one of Wayne’s most self-righteous and self-aggrandizing movies. At various scenes, he’s described as, “the most celebrated shootist in the West,” and as a gunslinger “who never killed a man who didn’t deserve it.”
As in the earlier and far inferior film, Big Jake, Wayne shows a self-conscious concern with his increasing age and the coming of modernization to the West–the movie takes place in Carson City circa 1901.
A man of the past, Wayne’s hero is out of place, an outsider not in tune with his times. When he first rides into town and obstructs the traffic, Brooks is told, not too gracefully, “Get out of the way, old man!”
In another scene, he is greeted as “Hey, Methuselah!” We also learn that the old, famous Queen Victoria is also and already dead. The Queen like Wayne the actor and Brooks the character, is a symbol of the past. Wayne says he likes the Queen, because she had dignity: “She’s the kind of gal I’d like to meet.”
Moreover, when Serpeta (Sherre North), a woman of his past, unexpectedly comes to visit him and suggests they get married so that she can gain some money from writing a book about him after his death, Brooks calls her bluff, claiming, “I won’t be remembered for a pack of lies.” However, as real and old-fashioned gentleman, Brooks gives her money for her travel and sends her back home.
In the course of the film, Wayne even gets an opportunity to sum up his life, “All in all, I’ve had a helluva good life,” which he states with utmost conviction.
The closing scene is also most congruent with Wayne’s way of thinking and established public persona: Brooks dies on his birthday, wearing his best clothes, and he dies with his boots on, at the saloon, after a shootout.