The Shootist [DVD]
Screenplay : Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale (based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1976
Stars : John Wayne (John Bernard Books), Lauren Bacall (Bond Rogers), Ron Howard (Gillom Rogers), James Stewart (Doc Hostetler), Richard Boone (Mike Sweeney), Hugh O'Brian (Jack Pulford), Bill McKinney (Jay Cobb), Harry Morgan (Walter Thibido)
When, at the age of 69, the legendary John Wayne starred in The Shootist as John Bernard Books, an aging gunslinger dying of cancer at the turn of the 20th century, he himself was dying of cancer. Having already had half a lung removed to stop the spread of what he referred to as "the Big C," Wayne was in poor physical health during the shooting of the movie, constantly sick with gout, flu, and allergies, at one point having to leave the production for more than two weeks. It is a sad truth that his real-life condition contributed to what would turn out to be his best performance on-screen.
Wayne died a scant three years after The Shootist was completed, and, although he would never admit it in public lest he shake the foundation of the rock-solid public persona he had built over 50 years, deep inside he knew there wasn't much time left. In playing Books, Wayne delivered one of the great Method performances, even if it was out of unavoidable necessity. Wayne understood Books' dilemma in a way few actors could.
Because of that, there is a sense of gravity to Wayne's presence on-screen that you won't find in any of his other movies. It's a less guarded performance, more raw and real and natural, which is all the better considering that it followed his failed attempts to morph into a Clint Eastwood character in embarrassing misfires like McQ (1974). Wayne is the center of the movie, yet he is often silent and contemplative. You sense a vulnerability that is usually not associated with Wayne's larger-than-life presence. If anything, this is a move where life and its limitations finally caught up with him.
The story takes place in 1901 in Carson City, Nevada. A brief prologue made up of clips from Wayne's early black-and-white Westerns establish his character, an infamous shootist who over the years killed more than 30 men. Books arrives in Carson City to see Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), who had tended to him many years earlier after a gunfight. Hostetler delivers the news that Books has cancer. When he asks how long, Hostetler says, "Two months, six weeks, who knows?" But, the simple fact is clear that Books is going to die very soon.
The rest of the movie details Books' last week of life as he tries to come to peace with himself before dying. His hopes of passing away in relative obscurity are ruptured right away, as word in town spread that the infamous John Bernard Books is in town and he is dying. One of the movie's most salient themes is the inescapability of the past--nobody can see Books without first seeing a killer; never can they just see a dying old man.
Books takes up residence in a boarding house run by a widow, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), and her teenage son, Gillom (Ron Howard). Bond, being a reserved Christian woman, doesn't like the idea of having a notorious assassin under her roof, but Gillom is exhilarated. On the verge of manhood, Gillom is without a father and without any positive male guidance, so naturally Books fills in as a surrogate father-figure, dispelling many of Gillom's mythical notions of what Books is while surprising him on a few other levels.
For those who have read Glendon Swarthout's source novel, it will be readily apparent that the movie version of The Shootist is something of a whitewash. Scripted by Swarthout's son, Miles Hood Swarthout, and Scott Hall, the screenplay includes several crucial changes to Books' character to make him more noble in the great John Wayne tradition. While the character in the novel was an unrepentant outlaw who thoroughly enjoyed killing people, a voice-over narration in the movie assures us that Wayne's Books has worked much of his life as a marshal. Thus, although he's a killer, his killing was always on the side of right--or at least in self-defense. Books may be a bit bossy and brash, but he's essentially a decent man who is just misunderstood.
This causes a tension in the movie's narrative, as it becomes more difficult to account for why people are so afraid of Books. After all, if he used to be a marshal, why would he be considered such a notorious figure? The movie attempts to fill in this gap by emphasizing the encroachment of modernism. It's not so much that people fear Books for being a killer, but they fear him for being a relic of a violent past that they are trying to put behind them. Like the outlaws in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), Books has simply outlived his time; there is no place for him in the 20th-century world of electricity, motor cars, and running water. His code of conduct and his views on killing are out of step with modernity and its cleanliness, order, and convenience.
The Shootist is by no means a conventional Western. It is more of a character study, broken up into individual days as it traces Books' coming to terms with his own death, which at the same time symbolically represents the final death of the era in which his kind flourished. Books wants to die with dignity, but it seems that the deck is stacked against him, and he eventually goes to his death by challenging three notorious men in town to a duel. The final shootout--one of the few moments of violence in the movie--is well-handled visually; it is the one moment when prolific genre director Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry) gets to shine. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well narratively because Books' opponents (played by Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, and Bill McKinney) are virtually unknown to us. We have seen each of them in only one other scene, which is just enough to let us know that they are "bad" and thus deserving of death, a unfortunate narrative simplicity.
It is in this final scene that the movie softens the book's focus the most, as it takes the typical movie tact of having its cake and eating it too by allowing Gillom to step momentarily into Books' shoes as a gunfighter to save Books' honor, but then throw away the gun, symbolically rejecting violence as an answer and embracing a different path in life. This is a complete change from the end of the novel, in which Gillom becomes a gunslinger himself, taking up where Books left off. The movie's message is a more peaceful one, to be sure, but it's an uncomfortable mix because the movie posits that violence is the answer (Gillom does take up the gun, after all, if only for a moment), then rejects it out of hand. That way it can satisfy the audience's desire to see blood spilled while simultaneously satisfying the pacifist streak that was so dominate throughout the late 1960s and '70s.
Yet, when it is over, despite the narrative weaknesses, what we remember most in The Shootist is Wayne himself and how he so fully embodied the character of John Bernard Books. His broad, well-worn face and ambling walk are those of a man with a long life behind him. And, when Books poignantly says as one point, "I'm an old man afraid of the dark," the line rings so true because we know Wayne felt the very same way.
|The Shootist DVD|
|Audio||Dolby 2.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| The Shootist: The Legend Lives On 15-minute retrospective featurette|
Original theatrical trailer
|The Shootist is presented in a solid anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer. The image is sharp throughout, with good detail and a nice presentation of the film's muted, auburn color scheme. The print used for the transfer was clean and in good shape, as there are rarely any artifacts or signs of age and wear. The darker scenes tend to be somewhat problematic, as they can be somewhat murky and grainy.|
|The Dolby monaural soundtrack sounds good throughout. It isn't particularly showy and its range is somewhat restricted, but it is pleasantly clear.|
| The Shootist: The Legend Lives On is a 15-minute featurette that looks back on the movie's production. It suffers from not featuring interviews with any of the major stars involved--Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, most notably. It does feature interviews with screenwriter Miles Hood Swarthout, coproducer William Self, Peter Frankovich (son of coproducer M.J. Frankovich), and actor Hugh O'Brian, who played the small role of Jack Pulford. They have some interesting anecdotes about the production, including stories about Wayne's ill health and how, even at that point in his life, he was thoroughly insistent on how he could be portrayed on-screen (one story, also relayed by Don Siegel in his book Siegel on Siegel, involves Wayne insisting that a scene in which he shoots a man in the back be reshot). The most interesting revelation is that the first choice to play Books was not Wayne (because the producers didn't think he wanted to work anymore), but rather George C. Scott. |
Also included on the disc is the original theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick