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An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Shootist (1976)

PUBLISHED: 08:46 22 October 2017

John Wayne, in his final film role, as dying gunslinger JB Books in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: Paramount

John Wayne, in his final film role, as dying gunslinger JB Books in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: Paramount

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Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

John Wayne with Lauren Bacall in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: ParamountJohn Wayne with Lauren Bacall in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: Paramount

The Shootist; dir: Don Siegel; John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Henry Morgan, Ron Howard, John Carradine; Cert: PG: (1976)

Throughout his career John Wayne had always been accused of just playing himself. Anyone who has seen his performances in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Stagecoach or his final film The Shootist, knows how wrong that accusation is.

Although, there are many touching echoes of Wayne, the man, portrayed in The Shootist, this is not an autobiography, this is a film which marks the passing of an era. It is film as a thoughtful commemoration of a bygone film-making era and who better to star in this farewell to the Old West than John Wayne.

After the release of this film, the western has never re-appeared as a mainstream Hollywood genre. The cowboy, the conscience of the nation, personified by Wayne, has been replaced by renegade cops, patrolling a cityscape every bit as hostile as the Badlands raided by the Apaches.

John Wayne, in his final film role, as dying gunslinger JB Books with James Stewart as the town doctor in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: ParamountJohn Wayne, in his final film role, as dying gunslinger JB Books with James Stewart as the town doctor in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: Paramount

The irony is that Dirty Harry, the prototype loner cop, was given life on screen by Don Siegel and played by Clint Eastwood, the man who had started his career as Rowdy Yates in the TV western Rawhide and found fame in Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

These Spaghetti Westerns presented an alternative view of frontier life. The world had moved on and there was no longer room for the romance of the Old West. This is what The Shootist is all about.

It’s 1901, the dawn of a new century. The wild frontier has been tamed, the prairies have been fenced in and no longer do wagon trains head west. JB Books, played by Wayne, is a gunslinger, a relic of a bygone age, and he rides into town and takes a room at boarding house run by Lauren Bacall. Each morning they do battle at the breakfast table but Books informs her he’s not here to cause trouble but rather meet up with his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart).

Books is an old man surrounded by the trappings of a new age. Although horses are still a common sight, the streets of Carson City are also populated by the automobile and the trolley bus. Electric lights illuminate the houses and the streets at night. This isn’t the world he knew.

John Wayne and Ron Howard in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: ParamountJohn Wayne and Ron Howard in Don Siegel's The Shootist. Photo: Paramount

Doc Hostetler confirms Books worst fears, he has cancer. He has six weeks to make his peace with his past and with the world at large. It is a towering performance from Wayne. It is genuinely moving. The scene in the kitchen with Bacall the day after his diagnosis is brilliantly played by both of them. She berates him for his life of killing. “I suppose you’d call yourself a shootist,” she mocks dismissively. Wayne eyes her unhurriedly before answering: “I’m just a lonely man afraid of the dark.” It’s a killer line delivered with just the right timing to completely take the wind out of her sails.

For a movie ostensibly dealing with cancer it’s surprisingly unsentimental. Books wants to be left to die with dignity but his past has a habit of catching up with him. Bacall’s son, played by Happy Days actor and future director Ron Howard, looks up to Books as a God-like figure. Books may teach him to shoot because it’s a useful skill but he doesn’t want to be hero-worshipped. He’s not that comfortable with himself or his past.

As the word spreads that the legendary gunslinger is in town and there’s something wrong with him, all the people with a grudge start to show up, waiting for an opportunity to get even. It gradually becomes clear that Books quiet end to his life at the boarding house isn’t to be. In order to keep this newly civilised town safe he has to go out, one last time, to kill or be killed.

Don Siegel directs with film with a real feel for character. You do get a feeling that he approached this film as a way to show people that they had completely misjudged Wayne. The Duke, as he was known for years, delivers a gentle and nuanced performance aided by Bacall, Howard, Stewart and MASH’s Harry Morgan as the town sheriff.

Siegel also manages to weave Wayne the actor with Wayne the icon and uses flashbacks from Wayne’s previous movies to illustrate past episodes in his life. It is also fitting that John Carradine who was with Wayne in Stagecoach, his first big hit, is also in his final film as The Undertaker.

It really was the end of an era but it was played out with great depth and great style.

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