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Film / The Shootist

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The Shootist is a 1976 Western film directed by Don Siegel and starring John Wayne in the title role.

J.B. Books, a famous gunfighter of The Wild West, has traveled to Carson City, Nevada to see an old doctor friend (James Stewart) about some health troubles. Said doctor tells him straight: it's cancer, and Books has only weeks to live. Told to rest in town, he makes his way to a boarding house run by widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and rents out a room there under a false name. The widow's son Gillom (Ron Howard) quickly finds out Books's real identity and word quickly spreads that the gunfighter is in town. Soon enough, Books's old enemies come looking to settle scores and a local gambler seeks to make a name for himself as the Man Who Shot John Wayne— er, J.B. Books...

The film was made at a time when two things were coming to an end: The traditional film Western and John Wayne's career. Of course, they could have been considered the same thing; Wayne's age was catching up to him, fewer Westerns were being made, and the ones that were being made messed with the traditional morality of the Westerns made in The Duke's heyday, and which he virtually embodied.

Note: The legend that Wayne was dying from cancer in real life while this was being made is just that, legend; his cancer was in remission at the time. The truth was that while The Shootist was Wayne's planned farewell to Westerns, he had hopes of starring in more films in other genres, such as the detective roles he started taking earlier in the decade. It was just that he suffered other illnesses that prevented him from making more movies, and it wasn't until three years later that the cancer came back and made The Duke ride off into the sunset for the final time.

Scatman Crothers plays Moses, who runs the stable. John Carradine has one scene as the undertaker who plans to make some money by exhibiting Books's corpse.

This film is associated with the following tropes:

  • Actor Allusion:
  • And This Is for...: When Mike Sweeney wounds Books during the final shoot-out:
    I'll tell you, that was for Albert!
    • It instantly becomes a Deconstruction; Books' wound isn't fatal, and Sweeney drops dead from his own wounds about two seconds after.
  • Assassin Outclassin': Two gunmen try to take kill Books in his room. He's awakened by noise and kills them, but set his room on fire in the process.
  • Badass Creed: "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same of them."
  • Bittersweet Ending: John Wayne, uh Books dies as he wanted to, in a blaze of glory defeating bad guys. It's accepted that this was a far better fate than the cancer that was killing him. The happier conclusion is that young Gillom, after shooting a man to defend the dying Books, throws the gun away in disgust and shows he will not take the path of being a gunfighter. Books is able to favor Gillom with a satisfied smile before expiring.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Books kills Jack Pulford and one of the men who attack him in his room this way.
  • Break the Haughty: It's ambiguous whether or not it's dignity or pride, but Books does take several blows to it as he is increasingly forced to accept help. In the book it's worse for him: Gillom, whom he failed to set right, physically overpowers him and he is brought to tears by an encounter with an ambitious reverend. However, on his way to the final fight, he recalls his small victories and contentedly decides that there's still a lot of him left to kill.
  • Celebrity Is Overrated: News of Books being in town stirs up a ton of interest with the citizens of Carson City. Finding out the famous gunfighter is dying in their town brings all the glory seekers and businessmen - including the undertaker - rushing to annoy Books to no end.
  • Concealment Equals Cover: In the climactic gunfight, Books kills Sweeney by shooting through the barroom table top which he's holding in front of himself.
  • Cool Guns: John Book uses a Smith and Wesson Model 3.
  • Death Seeker: Books know he's going to die soon, so he eagerly awaits the challenge of one last gunfight.
  • Deconstruction: It's pretty mild compared to other Westerns of the era but for a John Wayne film to end the way this does, it counts.
  • Died on Their Birthday: The finale occurs during the shootout that Books arranged for his birthday on January 29, 1901. Books is mortally wounded when he is shot in the back by the saloon's bartender carrying a shotgun.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the book, Jack Pulford was shot in the back by Books, and Books, in turn, was shot by Gillom. In the film, Books shoots him in the head before being shot in the back by the bartender, who is then shot by Gillon.
  • Dressing to Die: Books has his best suit dry-cleaned and wears it on his birthday when he goes to the saloon where his enemies are waiting for him.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: How Books would prefer going instead of waiting for the cancer to finish him. He does.
  • The Edwardian Era: The movie is set at the start of it with newspapers announcing the death of Queen Victoria.
  • End of an Age: both in the film as Carson City is entering the twentieth century with electric lights, automobiles, and dry cleaning signalling the end of the Wild West as we know it; and on a serious meta-level as being the last John Wayne Western EVER signalling an end to the clear morality of Right and Wrong that Wayne's Westerns created.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Books is eager to die with his boots on rather than waste away.
  • Foreshadowing: When Books meets Bond Roger for the first time, he tells her that his name is William Hickok. “Wild Bill” Hickok was a famous gunfighter of the Old West who ended up being murdered in a saloon by a nobody who shoot him in the back.
  • The Hero Dies: The film ends with John Book walking away from another gunfight, only for another assailant to take him down with a shotgun.
  • Hope Spot: Ironically subverted with the final shootout. Rather than dying in a blaze of glory, Books' instincts kick in and he kills his three opponents while receiving non-fatal wounds himself. And then just when it seems the cancer will be the thing killing him after all, the bartender comes in from behind...
  • I Resemble That Remark!:
    Books: Damn.
    Mrs. Rogers: John Bernard, you swear too much.
    Books: The hell I do.
  • In the Back: Courtesy of the bartender's double-barrel shotgun.
  • It's Personal: Mike Sweeney has a score to settle with Books, as he killed his brother.
  • Kensington Gore: Almost comically obvious in the final gun fight.
  • Last-Second Word Swap:
    Gillom Rogers: Bat Masterson told Cobb...
    John B. Books: [Interrupts] Bat Masterson?
    Gillom Rogers: Yeah, he said that a man has to have guts, deliberation and a proficiency with fire arms.
    John B. Books: Did he mention that third eye you better have?
    Gillom Rogers: Third eye?
    John B. Books: For that dumbass amateur. There's always some six-fingered bustard that couldn't hit a cow in the tit with a tin cup. That's the one who usually does you in. But Masterson always was full of... sheep-dip.
  • Last Stand: Books tries to engineer one of these. After a lifetime of gunslinging, he has two things: terminal cancer, and lots of enemies. He lets a few enemies know where he'll be drinking on his birthday. To his apparent disappointment, he wins the shootout. The bartender shoots him in the back.
  • Literal Ass-Kicking: Books does this to a journalist eager to fabricate his life story.
  • Meta Casting: John Wayne playing an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in a world where he realises he's an anachronism. What's more is that most everyone expected this to be his last film, and it was, as he was indeed fighting cancer and his brand of western (and war) film hero had become an anachronism.
    • Actually Wayne was in remission at the time and believed himself cured. He planned on making more films, although he did plan this to be his last Western. His cancer didn't return until two years later.
  • Mugging the Monster: The first scene has a man hold up Books and demand his wallet. It goes about as well as you'd expect.
  • No Doubt the Years Have Changed Me: Serepta, an old girlfriend, finds Books in his room. After they embrace she says "Have I changed so much?"
  • One-Book Author: This was the first and only theatrical film screenplay written by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, the latter best known as an actor who appeared in several films directed by Don Siegel, who also shot this movie. Here, Miles adapts the script from a novel written by his father Glendon Swarthout.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: Played with. Books is clearly a man's man and is brutally efficient as a gunfighter. But from his lessons with Gillom, the revelations about Books's violent and lonely life, and the disgust Gillom feels when he shoots the bartender for killing Books, it's clear that being a killer isn't all that glamorous a career choice.
  • Retired Gunfighter: Not really. If Books retired from gunfighting it took all for about five minutes before he realizes he has three enemies to put down before he dies.
  • Romancing the Widow: Books and the Widow Rogers seem to grow fond of each other... except that the widow doesn't like gunfighters that much and grows concerned about Gillom getting the wrong influences from their guest.
  • Schoolmarm: One of Ward Rogers' lodgers is one. She leaves the house following the attempt on Brooks' life.
  • Shout-Out: The name of Scatman Crothers' character, Moses Brown, is an allusion to the McCandles Ranch cook played by Bill Walker in Big Jake.
  • Sliding Scale of Law Enforcement: The town marshal is more interested in keeping his ass out of trouble than anything else. He's openly antagonistic towards Books, but also realizes that Books can clean out some of the problems (such as the town's crooked gambler) that he's reluctant to do himself.
    • Books himself worked at various points of his career as an officer of the law, although there's hints it wasn't as clean and honorable as the dime-store novels about him tell it.
  • Title Drop: The slimy reporter calls Books a "shootist", and Serepta says that the reporter wants to write a book with her called "The Shootist: The Life and Bloody Times of J.B. Books."
  • Tuckerization: Mrs. Rogers' first name is a reference to veteran western actor Ward Bond.
  • Twilight of the Old West: The movie takes place in 1901. The Carson City marshal says that times have passed Books by, that there's no place for him in a world with telephones and indoor plumbing and electric lights.
  • Two Shots from Behind the Bar: This is who finally kills Books. He invites three people with a grudge against him to a saloon, wanting to die quickly in battle rather than slowly from cancer. But he's so good he out-shoots his opponents, only to get shot In the Back by the bartender. Who then gets shot by Gillom who's just arrived on the scene.
  • You Are Already Dead: Mike Sweeney is able to shoot and wound Books, albeit not seriously. He then tries to charge, using a wooden table as a shield. Books fires round after round into the table. Finally, Sweeney drops the table.... and he is riddled with bullets; the table barely even slowed them down. He gives an impotent And This Is for... as mentioned above, then drops dead.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The film is about an aging gunfighter who discovers he's dying of cancer at the dawn of the 20th century and has only weeks to live. Eerily, after making the film Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died, making this his last picture.
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: When Ward tries to get Books to leave her house, he responds thusly:
    Mrs. Rogers, you have a fine color when you're on the scrap.
  • Worthy Opponent: It is implied that Books and Jack Pulford see each other as such. Cobb and Sweeney are shown as little more than two brutes and Books pointedly ignores them when he enters in the saloon at the end. Instead Pulford is shown to be a very good shot and he and Books exchange a respectful salute before the final showdown (Books raises the glass to him in a silent toast and Pulford waves to him).