Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Shootist (1976) [PG] ****+

It’s January, 1901 and John Bernard "J.B." Books (John Wayne), a 57-year-old gunslinger, rides into Carson City, Nevada to get a second opinion from an old friend, Doctor Hostetler (James Stewart). Hostetler soon confirms Books’ worst fears… he has advanced colorectal cancer and has only weeks to live. Hostetler gives Books a bottle of laudanum (alcohol and opium) as a pain killer, and suggests he asks Mrs. Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) if he can rent a room in her boarding house.

As Books is settling in at the Rogers boarding house, he receives an unwelcome visit from Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) who knows Books’ reputation and justly fears him. Books is the most notorious gunslinger, or shootist, still alive, having gunned down well over 30 men during his life. When Thibido learns that Books is dying of cancer, the callous, talkative marshal is relieved that he won’t have to risk his life trying to get Books to leave town. Mrs. Rogers, a widow with a teenage son, wants Books out of her house, but her fatherless son Gillom (Ron Howard) idolizes Books, and as his mother begins to comprehend the situation, she withdraws her objection to Books, out of Christian sympathy and compassion.

Books is prepared to die in his boarding house bed, until the film’s pivotal scene in which Doc Hostetler describes how inglorious, and how excruciatingly painful the end of his life will be. The doctor observes that he, himself, is not a brave man, but that Books must surely be, and that a brave man would not choose such an end for himself.

It is at this point that Books decides to end his life the way he has lived it, bravely, proudly, on his own terms, in a gunfight. Books instructs young Gillom to individually invite three local men to meet him at the Metropole, a local saloon. Books knows that each man has his own, strong motive for wanting to kill him, so they should be well motivated; they include a well-known local gambler (played by Hugh O’Brian) and the brother (played by Richard Boone) of one of Books’ earlier gunfight victims.

The film’s underlying theme is that the American Wild West is closing; that Books is an anachronism, a man who has outlived his era, and that there is no place for him in the modern era of motorcars, electric lights and indoor plumbing. The Shootist accomplishes on a smaller stage and in a much more intimate way, the same thing that the epic The Wild Bunch accomplished.

The Shootist is forty years old in 2016, and while this period western has worn well, and the performances are far more believable than those in, say, the epic The Magnificent Seven (1960), the film seems poignant and understated by today’s standards of film making. Nevertheless, we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy several Hollywood legends, in the twilight of their film careers as well as their lives. 

The Shootist was John Wayne’s last film; he passed away in 1979 at age 72. Richard Boone, best known for his role as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel (1957-63), worked until he passed away in 1981 at age 63. James Stewart continued to make films and TV productions for another fifteen years, until 1991; he passed away in 1997 at age 89. Harry Morgan, best known for his role as Col. Sherman T. Potter on the two TV series M*A*S*H and After MASH (1973-84) worked until 1999, and passed away in 2001 at age 96. Hugh O’Brian, born in 1925 and best known for his role as Marshal Wyatt Earp in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61) worked up to 2000, and passed away in 2016 at age 91. Lauren Bacall, best known for films she made with her late husband Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Key Largo), passed away in 2014. And Ron Howard who was born in 1954 and has been working in the film industry since he was five years of age has a filmography that includes 85 actor credits, 89 producer credits, 40 director credits and 5 writer credits.

Even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of John Wayne films, if you enjoy a good western drama like, for example, the modern westerns of Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, Wyatt Earp, Open Range) you will probably enjoy The Shootist.

Labels: drama, western

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