The Shootist Cover If you had the choice, how would you like to see yourself die? (1) Whilst sleeping in bed. (2) Shot through the heart. (3) Wasting away from some strange illness. Or (4) On film. Huh? What's that? 'You don't know?'. Then you best ask the Director: Don Siegel; or the Actors: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, and James Stewart. But only in 1976 and for 100-minutes.

The Shootist : The Film - The Book

Cancer patient? Lodger? Shootist? Or Pest? What exactly is the elderly gunman, J.B. Books (John Wayne), to those people who are around him?

Well, if truth be told, J.B. is all of these things really. To his old friend, Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart), he is a very sick man that's just been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and someone he tries his to best to advise during this time of need. To his landlady, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), he's sparring-partner who's residing in her own home, getting to know more and more as the days dwindle by. As to Bonds son, Gillom (Ron Howard), on the other hand, he is legendary gunslinger from the Old Wild West, and a pinnacle of all things stoic and bold. And finally to Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan), he is an outlaw who spells trouble for the town that he protects, Carson City, and just can't wait until the day he takes his final breath.

Moreover, J.B. is a lot of other things to a lot of other people as well. For example, he is a figurehead to make into a fictionalised novel. He is a feeble target to glean a reputation out of. He is a prospective client for the grave. Plus on top of all that, he is an ex-lover who shows some promise for a viable future.

However, J.B. is a man that does not give a damn about what people think of him or his ways. He just wants his final week on this planet to be a holistic and evolving experience, where he can help those in need, and try to make his life that little bit more poignant before he finally shakes hands with the Grim Reaper.    

Still. I suppose that's why what next transpires ends in a gunfight between J.B and three gunmen within a sanguine saloon. As Cobb (Bill McKinney) is quick to the draw - Sweeney (Richard Boone) falls to the floor - Pulford (Hugh O'Brian) is way out of luck - and a one man legend is finally struck.

For me, watching 'The Shootist' was a very emotional experience indeed. You see, my Nan -- may God bless her soul -- just loved John Wayne movies. I remember watching them with her back in the day, where she would just get so involved with his chronicles, on one particular occasion, when John died on screen, she actually said to me "Well, it's not surprising he's dead. Did you see how many times people have tried to kill him in the past".

Listen. You have to understand that my Nan did come from a very small humble village in the Mediterranean, and that her English wasn't very good either. Also, she used to give John Wayne her own name too. 'Johnny Miles' she called him. Because she could not get her tongue around the name 'John Wayne'.

John and Jim in The Shootist

The Shootist Film Poster
Here, while I am in the mood for factual little tit-bits, have a look at some of these filmic-facts: (1) This film was based on a novel of the same name written by Glendon Swarthout. His son, Miles Hood Swarthout, plus Scott Hale, wrote this screenplay from his project. (2) This was the last film starring John Wayne, James Stewart, and Buzz Barton. Although James did lend his voice to the cartoon 'An American Tail: Feivel Goes West'. (3) The producers were very reluctant to cast John in this film because he was 68 years of age at the time and had contracted cancer. But he didn't have the big C.  No. He had influenza instead. (4) In the original screenplay Gillom shots Books at the end of this movie. But because this act was perceived as being so harrowing to the actor who played Gillom -- Ron Howard -- John Wayne had the ending slightly altered. (5) The John Wayne archive seen at the start of this film came from 'Red River', 'Hondo', 'El Dorado', and 'Rio Bravo'. (6) Lauren Bacall was cast in this film because John liked working with her in 'Blood Alley'. (7) There was a scene where John Wayne's character, Books, is seen shooting someone in the back. John did not like this idea at all, and had it changed accordingly. Despite the director, Don Siegel, not liking this fact. (8) Ironically enough, John Wayne's character says to James Stewart's character that they've not seen each other in fifteen years. This is very true in film-time. Because the last time John and James worked together was in 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' fifteen years previously. (9) John Wayne gave Ron Howard some advice whilst making this film "If you want to look menacing - close your mouth". And (10) George C Scott was offered the role of Books first, and accepted it too if the script could be changed. John Wayne beat him to the punch and accepted this role without any clause.

John and Ron in The Shootist

OK, so now that I have given you some of my own past experiences with 'The Shootist', plus some facts as well, do you think I liked it or not?

Answer. I damn well did pilgrim. You can bet your bottom dollar on that one. Ha!

The Shootist DVD Cover
Well, this western is a classic piece of filmmaking. Not only does it symbolically mark the changing of the guard in movie terms. But it's also a great story, with a great all star-cast. To explain: (1) John Wayne does his best John Wayne in this film. He's rugged. Earnest. Hounded. Plus has that statue and jaded quality to his character, which can only come with age and experience. In my opinion this is his 'Unforgiven' (click here for the review). (2) Although this story is about an old Outlaw who's about to die, on a certain level it is also about life, and how you have to accept people for what they are, and not what you wanted them to be. That's the underlining message I got from this story anyway. (3) On occasion there is an invisible character that haunts this film called death. You see him in a glace here, or a movement there, always ready and primed to jump into action before the end credits roll. Better yet -- he's free. (4) Structurally, the story reads like a chapter of a diary, as denoted by the 'day by day' captions displayed on the screen. Now this is a very clever thing for the filmmakers to do, because not only does it signify that this is a 'day in the life' type of a film, but it also allows it to become fractured or flowing when need be. (5) The whole cast is full of legendary icons. John Wayne. James Stewart. Lauren Bacall. And that chap who directed the 'The Da Vinci Code' and played Richie Cunningham in 'Happy Days'. All of them are just brilliant in this movie. Case closed.

Overall 'The Shootist' is just a marvellous film. The story is a moving one. The actors are great. The style is pastel in tone. And the message is a very poignant one to take on board. Agreed Duke?

Ha! Bless him. Bless them all.