The Shootist is a 1976 Western film directed by Don Siegel and starring John Wayne in his final film role, about a dying gunfighter who spends his last days looking for a way to die with the least pain and the most dignity.
The film is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout with a screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout (the son of the author) and Scott Hale, and featuring Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Harry Morgan, and James Stewart.
In 1977, The Shootist received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction (Robert F. Boyle, Arthur Jeph Parker), a BAFTA Film Award nomination for Best Actress (Lauren Bacall), and a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Ron Howard), as well as the National Board of Review Award as one of the Top Ten Films of 1976.
The story begins with a clip montage of some of John Wayne's earlier western films, depicting the life of the legendary "shootist" (gunfighter) John Bernard "J. B." Books.
The aging Books and the Old West are dying. Arriving in Carson City, Nevada on January 22, 1901, reading reports of the death of Great Britain's Queen Victoria in the newspaper, Books is insulted by a stranger who calls him an "old man" and barks at him to get out of the way.
Books seeks a medical opinion from someone he trusts, E. W. "Doc" Hostetler (James Stewart). Hostetler confirms a Colorado doctor's prognosis of a painful and undignified death from cancer, so Books rents a room from the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her teenage son Gillom (Ron Howard) to contemplate his fate.
A distinctly nervous Marshal Walter Thibido (Harry Morgan) visits the house to order the notorious gunfighter to leave town. Books tells him about his terminal illness. The lawman is both relieved and elated, telling him, "Don't take too long to die."
Books' presence in town becomes known. Old enemies and glory seekers are drawn to him. A newspaperman (Rick Lenz) wants to exaggerate and glorify the violence in Books' life. Others seek fame by killing the gunfighter, Books is forced to shoot two strangers who try to ambush him in his sleep. Gillom is impressed, but his mother loses boarders and is upset with Books, blaming him for the violence in her home.
Old flame Serepta (Sheree North) shows up to ask Books to marry her. He is touched until he learns that she wants to use his notoriety to make money from the sensationalized ghost-written "memoirs" of his widow. After Doc Hostetler prescribes laudanum to ease Books' pain and advises him not to die a death like he has described, Books bargains with someone who plans to profit from his death, the undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine), from whom he orders a headstone with specific writings on it.
Bond goes for a buggy ride with Books at his request. She is concerned about Gillom, who has grown up without a father's influence and is acquiring a taste for drink and violence. They encounter Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), who carries a grudge against Books for having killed his brother.
Gillom tries to sell Books' horse to Moses (Scatman Crothers), the blacksmith, to make up for his mother's loss of boarders. Books negotiates a better deal, confronts Gillom, and they work out their differences. Gillom asks for a lesson on how to shoot a gun, but it turns out that he is already fairly accurate with one. Books advises him to have a "third eye", and to beware of the unexpected.
Books sets himself up to die on his birthday rather than die of cancer. He sends Gillom to three specific men: Mike Sweeney; Jack Pulford (Hugh O'Brian), a professional gambler and pistol marksman, and Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney), Gillom's ill-mannered employer. (Each is unaware that Gillom told the others.) Gillom lets them know Books will be at the Metropole saloon on January 29, his 58th birthday.
On the final morning, the headstone Books ordered arrives and shows 1843 as the year of his birth. Making a gift of his horse, which he bought back, to Gillom, having grown fond of him, Books says goodbye to Bond, whose original harsh opinion of him has softened. He departs to meet his fate.
In a changing frontier, Books arrives at the saloon by trolley and Sweeney in an Oldsmobile Curved Dash (which debuted in 1901). It is early in the day, so there are no other customers for the bartender besides the four men. Books orders a drink from the bartender, then lifts his glass to each of the three men who are there at his invitation.
Suddenly, one by one, the men draw their guns and open fire. Books easily gets the better of Cobb. He is wounded by Sweeney, but shoots him through a table Sweeney tries to use as a shield. Pulford, who has patiently waited, now fires and Books is hit again. He takes cover behind the bar. Pulford works his way closer, but Books sees his reflection and shoots him dead.
Gillom arrives after the gunfight to find Books seriously injured but still alive. Then, the unexpected â" the bartender sneaks up on Books and empties a shotgun into his back. While the bartender tries to reload, Gillom picks up Books' gun and kills him. Gillom looks at Books' gun in horror, then tosses it away. Books nods his head in approval and dies. A saddened Gillom covers Books' corpse with his coat and takes off his cap in respect for the dead. As Hostetler arrives, Gillom departs from the bar, meeting his mother. They share a meaningful gaze before walking home.
- John Wayne as John Bernard "J.B." Books
- Lauren Bacall as Bond Rogers
- Ron Howard as Gillom Rogers
- James Stewart as Dr. E.W. Hostetler
- Richard Boone as Mike Sweeney
- Hugh O'Brian as Jack Pulford
- Harry Morgan as Carson City Marshal Walter J. Thibido
- John Carradine as Hezekiah Beckum, the undertaker
- Sheree North as Serepta
- Scatman Crothers as Moses Brown
- Bill McKinney as Jay Cobb, owner of Cobb's Creamery
- Rick Lenz as Dan Dobkins, reporter for the Morning Appeal
- Gregg Palmer as Burly Man
- Melody Thomas as Girl on Streetcar
- Charles G. Martin as Murray the Bartender
The character of J. B. Books foreshadows the final days of John Wayne, who had already lost a lung and several ribs to lung cancer and would ultimately die from stomach cancer three years after production ended. The Shootist would be his final film role, concluding a legendary career that began during the silent film era in 1926. Lauren Bacall had suffered through the 1957 death of her husband Humphrey Bogart, who died of throat cancer, adding further shading to the film's parallels.
At the time that the movie rights were purchased, John Wayne was not seriously considered for the role due to questions about his health and his ability to complete the filming. The producers had wanted George C. Scott, but Wayne actively campaigned for the role and made completion of the film a personal mission.
Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne was not facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer when the film was made. Following his previous diagnosis of lung cancer in 1964, his entire left lung and several ribs had been surgically removed, and in 1969 he was declared to be "cured" (an overly-optimistic prognosis for lung cancer that today would likely be called a temporary remission instead). It was not until a decade later that the cancer was found to have returned for good--in 1979, almost three years after this movie had been filmed. This time the disease has spread to his stomach, intestines, and spine.
The film was shot on location in Carson City, Nevada and at the Warner Brothers Burbank Studios in California. In Carson City, the Krebs-Peterson House at 500 Mountain Street was used for the widow Bond Rogers rooming house, where J. B. Books stayed. The house is located three doors south of the Nevada governor's mansion. The only change to the house was a portico added on the southern side. Scenes were also shot at Washoe Lake State Park at 4855 Eastlake Boulevard in Carson City.
John Wayne was responsible for a number of changes in the final film. He changed the location from El Paso to Carson City, and also had his horse Dollar written in. More significantly, Wayne also changed the ending of the screenplay. Books was supposed to shoot Jack Pulford in the back, and then Gillom Rogers was to shoot Books. Wayne said, "Mister, I've made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it." He also did not want the young Gillom killing him; this would have made the movie go in a different direction and Gillom's tossing away of the gun, thus rejecting the life of a gunman, gained Wayne's approval.
Wayne was also responsible for much of the film's casting: friends and past co-stars Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Richard Boone, and John Carradine were all cast at Wayne's request.
Despite Wayne's influence on the film, Don Siegel denied claims that he and Wayne clashed, saying that "He had plenty of his own ideas... and some I liked which gave me inspirations, and some I didn't like. But we didn't fight over any of it. We liked each other and respected each other."
The horse that J. B. Books rides in the film and gives to Gillom-- Dollar (Ol' Dollar)-- had been Wayne's favorite horse for ten years, through several Westerns. The horse shown during the final scene of True Grit was Dollar, a two-year-old in 1969. Wayne had Dollar, a chestnut quarter horse gelding, written into the script (although there is no mention in the book of a specific horse) because of his love for the horse; it was a condition for him working on the project. Wayne would not let anyone else ride the horse. Robert Wagner rode the horse in a segment of the Hart to Hart television show, but this was after Wayne's death.
Upon its theatrical release in June 1976, The Shootist was a minor success, grossing $13,406,138 domestically, $6 million was earned as US theatrical rentals. It received fair-to-excellent reviews, with enormous praise given to Wayne by many critics. It was named one of the Ten Best Films of 1976 by the National Board of Review, along with Rocky, All the President's Men, and Network. Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times ranked The Shootist #10 on his list of the 10 best films of 1976. The film was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA film award, and a Writers Guild of America award. The film currently has a 93% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.
- Western Writers of America, Spur Award Winner - "Best Western Novel" - 1975 (as: "one of the best western novels ever written." and as: "one of the 10 Greatest Western novels written in the 20th century.")
- Writers Guild, nomination: "Best Adaptation of a Screenplay" - Scott Hale and Miles Hood Swarthout
- Academy Awards, nomination: "Best Art Direction-Set Decoration" - Robert F. Boyle and Arthur Jeph Parker
- Golden Globes, nomination: "Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role" - Ron Howard
- BAFTA Film Award, nomination: "Best Actress" - Lauren Bacall
- John Wayne filmography
- The Shootist at the Internet Movie Database
- The Shootist at the TCM Movie Database
- The Shootist at AllMovie
- The Shootist at Rotten Tomatoes
- Glendon Swarthout website