I’ve never been a big fan of John Wayne. Yes, I know that’s heresy in looking at a giant in the pantheon of American cinema, but I’ve just never been excited or enjoyed his roles. Sigh. I’m just not a fan of Westerns. One exception is that while I had to laugh at the politics and its frequent inaccuracies, I enjoyed watching his Vietnam saga “The Green Berets” (unlike Westerns, I like war movies). However, there’s one Wayne film that’s the best of “The Duke” in my mind: “The Shootist.” It was his final turn on the big screen 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). And, it’s a Western.
(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
(NOTE: I reorganized and updated this review with more opinion, some more trivia and the updating of links on Jan. 11, 2018.)
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 the gentrified life in cities and with such innovative things as electricity and cars. Wayne was in the last film of his career of six decades and is pitch-perfect in the role and I doubt any other American actor could have done the job he did here.
“The Shootist” is the story of aging gunfighter 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 as any Western: A 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 against him.
Here are your headliners – yes, Lauren Bacall deserves co-star status:
- The aging Wayne in his final film does the perfect job as “John Bernard ‘J.B.’ Brooks:” 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 his exceptional turn in “True Grit” and has also been in the World War II classic “The Longest Day” as well as “Brannigan” and “Rooster Cogburn.” His nominations were earned for “best picture” but not his acting in “The Alamo” and as “best actor” in 1949’s “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
- Lauren Bacall, an Oscar nominee and Hollywood legend 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). She was nominated for “The Mirror has Two Faces” (too bad Barbara Streisand ruined that one with her lack of talent) and Bacall was bestowed with an honorary Oscar in 2010 for her “central place” in the golden age of cinema. Bacall died at 89 in 2014 of a stroke in New York City.
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.
Now, let’s take a look at the rest …
- 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.” Best yet are his efforts behind the camera. I’m sure you remember “Apollo 13,” the little-remembered but wonderful fantasy flick “Willow” and the dysfunctional family saga “Parenthood” (click here for my review). He won both Oscars for the “I’ll forgot to show you the horrid parts of John Nash” in the truly overrated “A Beautiful Mind” (one for directing, the other as part of the “best picture” team) and was nominated for the same awards for “Frost/Nixon.” However, Ron isn’t always good. Just check out the wickedly boring Formula One racing movie “Rush” (click here for my look at it as a bad film).
- Oscar winner and four-time nominee (not for this one) James Stewart plays “Dr. E.W. Hostetler” and is the man who confirms to Wayne that he’s dying of cancer. The duo works very well together and it’s uncommon today to see three major actors with the pedigrees of Wayne, Bacall and Stewart to work in the same film. Stewart won for “The Philadelphia Story” and was nominated for the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “ Smith Goes to Washington,” “Harvey” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” He was also in the classic “Vertigo.” He died at 89 in 1997 of a heart attack.
- The supporting actor I was expecting better from is Primetime Emmy winner and 10-time nominee Harry Morgan, who plays “Carson City Marshal Walter J. Thibido” and is the lawman anxiously awaiting for Wayne to take a dirt nap. 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. Although his stiff, somewhat forced style isn’t classic acting, in this one 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 uptight sidekick to the even more rigid Jack Webb on TV’s “Dragnet.” Morgan won his Emmy for “M*A*S*H” and had nine of his 10 other nominations for it, too. His lone other nomination was for the 1950s TV series “December Bride” and he died at 96 in 2011 of pneumonia.
- Hollywood stalwart John Carradine plays “Hezekiah 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.” He died at 82 in 1988.
The three men who face Wayne in the film’s climactic shootout at the saloon are:
- Golden Globe winner Hugh O’Brien plays “Jack 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 (click here for my review). He won his Globe as “best newcomer” in 1954 for “The Man from the Alamo” and did a variety of TV shows even late into his career such as an episode of “A. Law.” He died at 91 in 2016.
- Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Richard Boone plays “Mike 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 co-starred with Wayne in “Big Jake” and was in “Hombre” with Paul Newman. His nomination came as the title character in his own TV show in the early 1960s. Boone died at 63 in1981 of throat cancer.
- Bill McKinney plays “Jay 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 since he doesn’t get the chance to project the hate that drives him to the showdown. Some of his other films include “The Outlaw Josey Wales” also in 1976 (click here for my review), “The Green Mile” and “Deliverance.” He was also in “Back to the Future: Part III” and “First Blood” (you know it as the first “Rambo” flick).
Anyone can be critical of “The Shootist.” Its production is more TV than big-screen and while the story is interesting, it’s not great. And, you won’t find an f-bomb in the whole thing (how did cinema get by when f-bombs couldn’t be dropped every five seconds or so?). Still, “The Shootist” is great because of the sum of its parts. Without the supporting cast, Wayne and Bacall would be lost and without them, the film wouldn’t have the juice it carries to this day.
Although I’ve written that I’m not a fan of Westerns, I do like some others than “The Shootist.” My favorite Western is, of course, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” with Clint Eastwood. Right up there, too, are “Silverado” (click here for my review) and “The Long Riders” (click here for my review). I guess that “The Long Riders” and “The Shootist” are less Western and more story, but that’s a review for another day.
“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 the instant-classic “Rocky” with $117.2 million. Here are the films from that year that I’ve reviewed for my blog:
- “All the President’s Men” (classic Redford-Hoffman) – click here for my review
- “The Enforcer” (tepid ‘Dirty Harry’) – click here for my review
- “The Gumball Rally” (outstanding car flick) – click here for my review
- “Midway” (classic WWII flick) – click here for my review
- “The Omen” (excellent horror) – click here for my review
- “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (Clint’s best western) – click here for my review
- “The Shootist” (John Wayne’s last film) – click here for my review
- “Silver Streak” (good comedy-drama) – click here for my review
- “Two-Minute Warning” (so-so thriller) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Morgan is a native of Detroit while O’Brien was born in Rochester, N.Y.; Stewart hailed from Indiana, Penn.; Howard from Duncan, Okla.; and The Duke in Winterset, Iowa. Both Bacall and Carradine were natives of New York City.
- Directly from IMDb.com: “When viewing footage of the final gunfight in the bar, John Wayne saw that it was edited to show him shooting a guy in the back. He said, ‘I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.’ They did. However, Wayne had shot men in the back in several of his movies, including The Searchers (1956).”
- Stewart did the film only because of a specific request by Wayne to be in the movie.
- Bacall, too, was asked to be in the movie by Wayne. The two had worked together first in 1955 on “Blood Alley.”
- In a big “thank you” to the casting gods, George C. Scott accepted an offer to play the “J.B. Brooks” role with the understanding the script as written couldn’t be changed. He lost is when Wayne expressed an interest and said he wanted to be in it. Good choice by the filmmakers. I cannot see Scott here at all.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “When J.B. Books (John Wayne) arrives at Dr. E.W. Hostetler’s (James Stewart) office, Hostetler mentions that it has been 15 years since they last saw each other. The inside joke is that Wayne and Stewart last worked together on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), 15 years before.”
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