Movie review: ‘The Shootist’

shootistI’ve never been a big fan of John Wayne. Yes, I know that’s heresy against an actor in the pantheon of American cinema, but I’ve just never been excited by or enjoyed his roles. One exception is his controversial Vietnam saga “The Green Berets” but even better in my mind is “The Shootist.” It was “The Duke’s” final film and was released three years before his death. It has an outstanding supporting cast and you should see it (especially for a young Ron Howard).

‘The Shootist’
(1976; 100 minutes; rated PG; directed by Don Siegel and starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and Harry Morgan)

A DYING GUNFIGHTER’S LAST DAYS

Westerns are not my favorite genre but “The Shootist” transcends traditional westerns. It deals with a gunfighter’s last days as he lives in-town at the time of transition from the Wild West to cities and with such innovative things as electricity and cars. As he was in the last film of his career of six decades, John Wayne is perfect in the role and I doubt any other American actor could have done the job he did here.

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The Shootist” is the story of aging gunfighter “J.B. Brooks,” who is diagnosed with cancer and who wants to spend his last days becoming at peace with himself. It would be interesting to say that Wayne used his own battle with the cancer that killed him three years after the release of “The Shootist,” but his illness had been in remission since the 1960s and was not diagnosed as having returned until the year he died (1979), according to IMDb.com.

The plot is direct: terminally ill gunfighter comes into town for a second opinion of his cancer diagnosis and finds out that’s where he’ll spend his last days. He makes peace with himself through newfound friends and everything comes to a climax in a gunfight at a saloon with three men who have their separate grudges with him.

The aging Wayne in his final film does the perfect job: deep, with emotion and never the one-dimensional cowboy that you might expect. Wayne is thoughtful here, straightforward (I would have said straight-shooter but the pun would have been terrible) and in possibly the biggest surprise to non-Wayne fans: introspective and human. Of course Wayne is an Oscar winner for “True Grit” and has also been in the World War II classic “The Longest Day” as well as “Brannigan” and “Rooster Cogburn.”

Lauren Bacall, a Hollywood legend and Oscar nominee in her own right, plays “Bond Rogers,” a widow who runs a boarding house where Wayne comes to die. She is prim, proper and the mother of a son played by Ron Howard. Bacall compliments Wayne perfectly in their scenes, holding her own through their verbal sparring from friendly to arguing to expressing their innermost emotions. Bacall, who was married to Humphrey Bogart until his death in 1957, is simply marvelous here. She has also been in “The Big Sleep” and “Key Largo” (both with Bogey).

I’m not sure why Wayne (or Bacall for that matter) didn’t receive any nominations for awards in this role since it was well-received by the critics of the day. It took depth and talent as an actor but, possibly, like Clint Eastwood after the first “Dirty Harry” film (click here for my review), an actor like Wayne wasn’t a darling of the Hollywood set. Too bad.

At the top of the supporting cast is Howard, who plays “Gillom Rogers” and is Bacall’s son here. Howard gets serious screen time with Wayne and doesn’t waste a moment of it. Howard does earnest well and is totally taken with the gunfighting past of Wayne. Howard, who won his two Oscars behind the camera, has acted in his own “Eat My Dust” as well as his most recognized works: “American Graffiti” and TV’s “Happy Days.”

James Stewart is yet another Oscar winner here and plays “Dr. Hostetler” and is the man who confirms to Wayne that he’s dying of cancer. The two work very well together and its uncommon today to see three major actors with the pedigrees of Wayne, Bacall and Stewart to work in the same film. Stewart was also in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Vertigo.”

The supporting actor I was expecting better from is Harry Morgan, who plays “Marshal Thibido” and is the lawman whom cannot wait for Wayne to die. Although he’s a lawman and wants Wayne out of town in any way, his cheerful glee and bouncing energy is puzzling in the frame and depth of this film. He’s certainly nowhere near the ability he would show as “Col. Sherman Potter” on TV’s “M*A*S*H” much less as the stiff sidekick to the even more rigid Jack Webb on TV’s “Dragnet.”

The three men who face Wayne in the film’s climactic shootout at the saloon are:

  • Golden Globe winner Hugh O’Brien plays “Pulford,” a card sharp with a fast gun. O’Brien doesn’t have much room to maneuver with this character, so it’s difficult to judge his ability from this alone. He did a much better job in another small role in “Twins” with Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • Richard Boone plays “Sweeny,” who is a man holding a grudge because Wayne once shot his brother. In the couple of scenes with Wayne, Boone holds his own and is OK in a very stiff way. He was also in “Big Jake” with Wayne and “Hombre” with Paul Newman.
  • Bill McKinney plays “Cobb” and is the final man who wants a piece of what Wayne is offering. Like the other two, his role is small and it’s difficult to judge his ability. Some of his other films speak volumes: “The Outlaw Josey Wales” also in 1976 (click here for my review), “The Green Mile” and “Deliverance.”

The Shootist” made $13.4 million at the U.S. box office, according to Wiki, and was far out of the top 10 films of 1976. The No. 1 film was “Rocky” with $117.2 million.

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Hollywood stalwart John Carradine plays “Beckum,” who is the town’s undertaker. He’s good at earnestly trying to get Wayne to let him handle his final arrangements (which means money in his pocket). Not only is he the father of the acting Carradine brothers (David, Keith and Robert) but had 138 roles from 1930 to 1990 (he died in 1988) and was in “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
  • In another “thank you” to the casting gods, George C. Scott accepted an offer to play the “J.B. Books” role with the understanding the script as written couldn’t be changed. He lost it when Wayne expressed an interest and said he wanted to be in it. Good choice by the filmmakers. I don’t have a problem with him as an actor, but cannot see Scott here at all. Wayne was just perfect.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014.
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