The Shootist is one of the greatest Westerns ever made, although it is rarely named as such. It is John Wayne’s final film, and possibly his best performance. Wayne, of course, essentially invented the on-screen American cowboy: swaggering, gritty, terse, self-contained, charming, relentless, invincible. Under the direction of John Ford, he became an icon in short order, a masculine ideal across several generations, and came to define the mythology of the American frontier, rooted as it is in the puritanical doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The Shootist, in a way, contains the entire genre within itself: in the opening montage, which uses footage of Wayne throughout his 50-year career, we learn of the famously violent deeds of aging gunfighter John Bernard “J.B.” Books, who voices his credo: “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.
” The year is 1901, and Books has come to a modernizing Carson City to confirm what he already knows: that he is dying.
After getting the painful details from his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart, who starred with Wayne in 1962’s canonical The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Books seeks a comfortable place to spend his final days. He finds it, kind of, in a boarding house run by widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son, Gillom (Ron Howard). Proper, God-fearing Bond is more than a match for Books’ prickliness, and the two eventually develop a mutual understanding. Gillom, himself a hothead and aspiring gunslinger, soon finds out that his idol is staying in his house. Others sniff out the news in short order: the opportunistic Marshal (Harry Morgan) who can’t wait for Books to die and tells him so; a shifty reporter (Richard Lenz) who proposes to write a series of articles embellishing Books’ life; an ex-girlfriend (Sheree North) who wants to marry Books and get rich off his name; the undertaker (John Carradine) who tries to sell him a burial and grave “befitting [his] status”; and, of course, young guns shooting for the title, and old enemies with a score to settle.
The only stranger who doesn’t take advantage of Books is the blacksmith, Moses (Scatman Crothers): the scene in which the two seasoned men haggle for the price of Books’ horse is a highlight of the film.
As Westerns go, The Shootist is terribly, deliberately quiet—at one point, I heard Bond smile. The shots that are fired, when they arrive, become that much more jarring and gruesome. Wayne was 69 at time of filming, and Bacall was 51. The two had previously starred together in the sea adventure Blood Alley (1955), and they are mesmerizing here. There is no kissing or wooing or nonsense, only two withdrawn adults who have lived hard, tragic lives, and who recognize in each other the will to survive, though they have little else in common. “I don’t believe I ever killed a man that [sic] didn’t deserve it,” Books tells her while out on their lone buggy ride. “Surely only the Lord can judge that,” Bond coolly replies. Every movement made by Books is a movement of pain. His only respite is a bottle of laudanum, which he swigs from liberally and openly as his suffering becomes increasingly unendurable. We hear his labored breathing continuously, his grunts as he lowers himself down onto a special pillow. (Books has prostate cancer; Wayne himself had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, and his left lung was removed. He died in 1979 of stomach cancer.) Although Wayne was obsessive about maintaining his virile and larger-than-life image—he made changes to the script of The Shootist in this regard—he is as vulnerable as he would ever be in this picture. “I’m a dying man scared of the dark,” he tells Bond, after killing a trio of would-be assassins in his room. There is none of this in 1969’s True Grit, the film that overshadows The Shootist as the peak of Wayne’s late career, and for which Wayne won his only Academy Award.
The Western as a eulogy on the passing of both the Old West and the Western itself was already an established subgenre at this point, and The Shootist, adapted from the 1975 novel by Glendon Swarthout, certainly belongs in this camp. What makes the film different, and special, is that it seems to rebuke the kind of brash, violent man Wayne spent his career playing. When Books decides that he is not going to let the cancer kill him, he arranges for three of his nemeses to meet him at the local saloon. Books is alive at the end of the shootout, but badly wounded. The sneaking bartender shoots him in the back, and Gillom, who has just arrived on the scene, picks up Books’ gun and kills the bartender. Books had told Gillom during a shooting lesson that “will,” above all else, is what it takes to be a great gunfighter, and we find out that Gillom has exactly that. But the young man is disgusted by what he’s done, and throws the gun across the room, rejecting the life that brought Books to such an inglorious end. Books smiles, finding peace in the broken cycle of violence, and dies. The cowboy-vigilante character, however, was just getting started in American cinema: The Shootist‘s director, Don Siegel, had trotted out a new breed in 1971 with his Dirty Harry, trading the Wild West setting for the disintegrating American inner city. (Clint Eastwood’s role was initially offered to Frank Sinatra, who turned it down because of a broken arm; John Wayne was the second choice, and he rejected the offer for that reason.) The rogue genre blossomed in the ’80s, a deliberate throwback to the Western.
The seemingly coincidental details surrounding The Shootist—that Wayne was having a hard time finding parts at the time because of his age, that he had had cancer, that he was obviously ailing, that it ended up being his final film, that in almost every way he was the American Western, that the 1960s had swept away so many of the “traditional values” he represented—make it a somewhat mythic experience, as befits a genre that is really a mythic stage upon which morality plays are endlessly waged, where rough-hewn men and women struggle to survive in the “wild country,” long before our every move was measured and dictated by the bureaucratic minutia of technocratic civilization.
The problem with John Wayne, and by extension the cinematic representation of the Old West, is that many of the “old ways” they enshrine are evil. Wayne was an avowed white supremacist, and white supremacy lurks at the heart of many a Western—perhaps most. What is Manifest Destiny but cover for and vindication of the continued dislocation, subjugation, and extermination of people deemed too dark and too savage—too inhuman—to deserve liberty. And while the Western as an art form is flexible enough to confront and at times subvert these evils, Wayne was not. Like Books, he could not satisfy the requirements of the credo he claimed to live by: both men quite brazenly wronged, insulted, and laid hands on people who had done them no harm, and both men got what they deserved: for Books, a violent death at the point of a gun; for Wayne.