March 8, 2024

THE SHOOTIST: The Duke's Swan Song

1976 / 100 min
Review by Mr. Paws😼

It’s probably prudent to point out I’ve never been a massive John Wayne fan. He starred in some great classic films, to be sure, but they weren’t necessarily great because of him. Wayne’s career was similar to Ozzy Osbourne’s…marginal inherent talent, but surround yourself with the right people and you become a legend. 

For some reading this…them’s probably fightin’ words.

That being said, 1976’s The Shootist is arguably the one John Wayne film  where his character could not have been played by anyone else. J.B. Books is an aging legendary gunfighter diagnosed with terminal cancer who plans to quietly die peacefully in Carson City. However, his reputation makes that impossible. Word quickly spreads that not only is Books in town, but he’s vulnerable. 

Taking place in 1901, Carson City itself reflects American progress since Book’s glory days…telephones, buildings with running water, horseless carriages and most importantly, changing attitudes regarding his particular skill set, as represented by boarding house owner Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall). She vehemently disapproves of the way he’s lived, though ultimately empathizes with him. The narrative suggests that, even if Book weren’t dying, the world has already written him off. Still, that doesn’t stop some locals from trying to kill him…either for glory or revenge.

"Back off. Those are my pillows."
Because of Book’s illness and the film’s themes of obsolescence, it is difficult - if not impossible - to separate Wayne from his character. At the time The Shootist was being made, Wayne himself had already endured both cancer and cultural irrelevance. To watch Book come to terms with his place in the world is to watch Wayne, which I suppose adds a level of poignancy the film wouldn’t have achieved otherwise, exacerbated by the fact this was indeed his last performance before succumbing to cancer a few years later (contrary to popular belief, Wayne wasn’t in the best of health, but did not have cancer while making this).

Setting sentiment aside, The Shootist remains a watchable western, but fairly light on action and ultimately not among Wayne’s best films. Don Siegel’s direction is serviceable as always, but he’s certainly no John Ford or Howard Hawks. A few nifty scenes notwithstanding, the whole thing kind of plays like a TV movie of the era. Wayne is his stoic self, of course, either unable or unwilling to convincingly convey the despair of being diagnosed with cancer. But hey, at least he's acknowledging his age. He's also surrounded by a great supporting cast, including Bacall, Ron Howard and old buddy James Stewart.

I suspect I’m in the minority on all this, as there are many fans of The Duke who view The Shootist as a glorious swan song to a legendary career. For them, this Blu-ray debut from Arrow Video is indispensable. The disc boasts a solid video transfer and plenty of insightful, revealing bonus features, as well as a few physical goodies.


NOTE: Free Kittens Movie Guide was provided with a promo disc for review purposes. Physical supplemental material included with the final product (booklets, artwork, inserts, etc) were not available for review.

THE LAST DAY - Video essay by David Cairns.

CONTEMPLATING JOHN WAYNE - Another video essay, this time by Scout Tafora, who tries to reconcile his appreciation for Wayne's influence on American cinema and the man’s repellent world views.

A MAN MAKING MOMENT - This is an excellent 40 minute feature with C. Courtney Joyner, who also discusses director Don Siegel’s career history in considerable detail.

LAMENTS OF THE WEST - Neil Brand discusses Elmer Bernstein’s score.

AUDIO COMMENTARY - By Howard S. Berger.

THE SHOOTIST: THE LEGEND LIVES ON - Archival featurette.




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