Directed By: Don Siegel
Screenplay By: Scott Hale, Miles Hood Swarthout
Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout
Produced By: William Self, M.J. Frankovich
Cast: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Harry Morgan, James Stewart
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 100 minutes
Review Date: September 10, 2010
The Shootist is a spectacular film. It’s a film made with such quiet, assured grace that it transcends the film medium and becomes something else entirely. It tells a simple yet beautiful story at a pace so methodical and confident you can’t help but be drawn in. It’s rare to find a film so in love with its titular center without coming off as forced or preachy. As a threnody to John Wayne, the film works on so many levels its difficult to even begin.
The story is extremely sensitive and honest in its telling: J.B. Books (John Wayne), a legendary gunfighter, ventures into town in search of the local doctor he trusts, as played by the seminal James Stewart. The doctor tells him he has but a month to live due to the malignant cancer at the base of his spine. Books doesn’t look so much saddened by the news, but is rather sobered by it. It’s as if he understands he has met his match in life, a gunslinger so fast and dangerous there’s no escaping its sights. This is a special moment, as we see that he’s been defeated but never at the expense of his dignity. Wayne captures the moment brilliantly, and maintains the composed momentum throughout the picture.
After his visit to the doctor, Books rents a room from Bond Rogers (A meticulous Lauren Bacall) who keeps the home with her son, Gillom (Ron Howard, also fantastic). Books offers sparse words, but promises to be little trouble throughout his stay. Bond can’t wrap her head around Books, and doesn’t like his presence within her home. Gillom doesn’t like him either, as Books orders him around like a servant. These scenes play a delightful dance along the proverbial “fourth wall”, as Wayne plays his bold and satisfied persona for the audience, which comes at the expense of the home-keepers. Only later after Bond and Gillom discover his ailment do things begin to change.
Word spreads fast that Books is in town. The local sheriff (Harry Morgan) comes to exile him for he fears the violence that has always followed him. Upon Books’s confession of his cancer, the sheriff dances around and cheers. Books just looks up at him with the same confidence he’s shown throughout the film, but his eyes speak otherwise. Behind those remarkable eyes of his is truly genuine sadness. It comes not from the character of John Bernard Books, but from Wayne’s personal life. Not only is he aware that he’s nearing the end of his career, but he’s dying as well. At the time this film was shot, there was a real cancer eating away at him inside. We are not only witnessing an important, heartfelt picture but also the dirge of a Hollywood legend who reveals himself to be a vulnerable man.
It’s this vulnerability that makes the film so human. The longer the story plays out, the more emotional the man becomes. He never overtly shows it, but his growing connections with Gillom and Bond speak for themselves. These scenes are poignant in their patience, played out masterfully by the trio. There is real affection between the three, and not in the sense of lust and desire. Rather, it’s as if Books sparked a hollow well of oil within the souls of the two, and they did the same for him. The loneliness has all but washed away from Books at the film’s close. He’s completely accepted his fate. All loose ends tied, no gimmicks, and no pulled punches. It’s seriously perfect.
The hardest thing for any storyteller is to end their tale with a powerful punch. Now, compound that with the fact that director Don Siegel had to not only end a great story, but also a legendary life and career. He completely knocks it out of the park. This film is magnificent.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.