John Wayne's last film is a respected Western that nonetheless hasn't much to offer in either originality or thrills... its virtues lie elsewhere. When it barely did respectable boxoffice in 1976 the industry chalked it up to the death of the Western genre. The film's main impression is mostly as a valentine to The Duke, in spite of a literate script, excellent performances, and strong direction from veteran action helmer Don Siegel.
Proof positive that Sam Peckinpah's elegiac Westerns closed the door on the genre (or at least its classic naive form), The Shootist begins by restaging Peckinpah's single most telling moment, a simple incident from Ride the High Country, with John Books shooed out of the road as an old man made obsolete by progress.
Wayne carries the film in high dignity, playing the dying gunslinger in his serious actor mode ( In Harm's Way) as opposed to his tired 'Duke' persona. Naturally he evoked the sympathy of his legions of fans, who were aware of his ill health. Many were also aware of his dignified bout with Cancer fifteen years earlier, a fight he had used to popularize Cancer research charities. The message is that, politics aside, the Duke both was a class act and still representative of American strength and character.
This is also one of Lauren Bacall's better roles. Although she's rarely been anything less than good, she's ill used or underused in many pictures. Her sober landlady here is a rigid Christian with merit and judgement (something Peckinpah stopped depicting early on) and she's the perfect foil for Wayne's last platonic fling of friendship. Anything would be an improvement over the previous year's embarassing Rooster Cogburn, which had attempted to graft True Grit into The African Queen and did little more than trash Wayne and co-icon Katherine Hepburn. Bacall is the glue that holds The Shootist together. The other star actors are really playing walk-ons of various sizes. James Stewart gives his small role just the right turn, perhaps playing a minor character for the first time in his career (yes, I remember Cheyenne Autumn, but he's definitely the 'star' of his segment). Richard Boone has less screen time than John Carradine's wonderful undertaker. Sheree North, a Don Siegel regular, seems to have been given her one-scene moment as a gift to play opposite Wayne, and she does a fine job.
Then there's Opie. Ron Howard is just not this reviewer's cup of tea, and it has nothing to do with envy of his directing career. Expert as he is, he's still a Hollywood youth actor, in this case blessed with the ability to look vaguely 15 at age 25 or so. Howard's a far sight better than the 'youthful' losers Wayne used to allow to scar his Duke movies (Fabian Forte horny in Nome, a dead racoon wearing Frankie Avalon in The Alamo). However, Savant can't think of any great alternatives and should be grateful that Weepy Walton Richard Thomas didn't get the part.
John Books is almost a character role ... in this film Wayne shoots a few varmints, but punches nobody out. He doesn't go on a drinking binge (well, unless you take into account his medicine) and doesn't drag Lauren Bacall around like Maureen O'Hara. Movies about people, even John Wayne, dying of Cancer are a tough sell. The best promo hype they could muster in 1976 was that it was only the third film in which a Wayne character dies.
And that's the weakness of the movie: its own reason for being. It's about Wayne's fading light more than it is anyone named John Books, real or unreal. The accompanying DVD docu says the book character was based strongly on John Wesley Hardin, but goes on to add that Wayne made some major changes in the ending of the movie. Apparently young Gillom Rogers is supposed to also be one of those who shoot Books at the end. Although the docu doesn't specify, Savant imagines Howard was meant to put Books out of his misery, rather than join the villains. The docu does say that Wayne forced Siegel to rework a moment where Books shoots Bill McKinney in the back (I just don't do that in movies!) and mandated a reshoot. Wayne was almost always the biggest force on any of his pictures, which resulted in many of his most obnoxious vehicles (Big Jim McClain, anyone?), and if The Shootist started out with any point at all besides ol' Duke cashing in his chips, Wayne seems to have eradicated it.
In the docu, the producers concerned bemoan the fact that their perfect film was not embraced by the nation as some kind of Bicentennial gift or something, but none of them care to admit that the movie is basically over when Wayne bids adieu to Bacall and heads for the Saloon. (I can see it now - Alain Resnais' The Shootist.) For a post-Peckinpah film, it seems strained that Wayne would arrange a four-way showdown just by sending out party invitations, a ploy which has a generic laziness equal to Marshall Dillon being called out into the street each week, every week for 12 years ... Wayne's foolish foes arrive at the saloon rendezvous at the same time and wait in alternating corners (accounting for Robert Boyle's gargantuan set?) without so much as a how-do-you-do or even proposing a cooperative plan of attack. The verminous Bill McKinney (the Hillbilly rapist from Deliverance) pays for his sins here alongside Richard Boone's more traditional villain. But all take turns trying to shoot Wayne instead of just blasting him in a free-for-all. The redeeming factor is the bartender, who at least conforms to Books' adage that the one who gets ya is the geek you ain't watching out for.
Paramount's DVD of The Shootist looks great, far better than the studio print Savant projected in Mike Frankovitch's rumpus room in 1976, for him and Dino de Laurentiis (the first time the Italo master-producer had seen it - during its release!). 1 16:9 enhancement can't make the redressed Burbank Studios streets look like Carson City, Nevada, but the colors and clarity are very pleasing to the eye. The sound is functional and Elmer Bernstein's uncharacteristically restrained score handsome. The black and white opening montage culled from Red River, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado is grainy and a bad idea - it seems to announce that this is a career accolade and not a real movie, an impression which Don Siegel and co. have to work very hard to overcome for the next 98 minutes.
The docu on board, unattributed to any producer, is informative, if a bit bland, and allows the producers of The Shootist to air their version of every issue. Frankovitch and Swarthout sons are there, protecting the nest egg: even while projecting for Frankovitch long ago, Savant was aware that his new regime at Columbia was the one that clobbered Major Dundee and initiated the career persecution of Sam Peckinpah (with Peckinpah's self-destructive help, of course). Producer William Self won't seem familiar to fantasy fans, but you'll remember him from an earlier age as an actor, playing the jokey radio guy in Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby's The Thing.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Frankovich, pleasantly tipsy, came to the booth to bawl me out
for my lousy projection skills. Dino came too. Although I'd heard him speaking plenty of
broken but coherent English, when I said I loved his Danger: Diabolik, he cooly pretended
to not understand and ignored me.