It is so rare when a film legend’s final screen performance is exceptional and shows him or her at their best. Just think of the many who couldn’t say that before they retired. Cary Grant’s last film had him playing the doddering old Sir William Rutland in the goofy comedy “Walk, Don’t Run” (1966). Bette Davis played the creepy Miranda Pierpont in the 1989 horror film “Wicked Stepmother.” Joan Crawford’s last part, Dr. Brockton, was in a 1970 horror film “Trog.” And two-time Oscar winner Gary Cooper left the screen, as George Radcliffe in the 1961 crime melodrama “The Naked Edge.”
But John Wayne’s final performance as gunslinger J.B. Book in Don Siegel’s 1976 Western “The Shootist” was a magnificent big-screen curtain call. Its screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, adapting Glendon Swarthout’s 1975 novel, “The Shootist” is packed with action and solid acting like so many of Siegel’s films.
A shootist is a term of the Old West for a specialist with firearms an expert gunfighter. This tale concerns the last several days of J. B.’s life in 1901. Mr. Book is a dying gunfighter with terminal cancer, who returns to Carson City to seek advice from his old pal Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) and hopefully, peacefully spend his remaining days at a boarding house run by the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). As the opening credit sequence tells us J. B. was a former lawman who lived by a creed: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on!”
Yet, within several days several local bad guys and a saloon owner, played by Richard Boone, Bill McKinney, and Hugh O’Brien learn of his return and plan to make these days less than pleasant. These tensions all lead to a somewhat conventional shootout climax.
Book is Wayne’s most complete performance since his Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1958). As Book he nicely balances all of the tough “badass” moments with his usual robust flare; yet almost like a method actor, shows distinct vulnerability to the pains of his illness. Dr. Hostetler warns J. B. that he’ll experience “unbearable pain, in the hips, the lower spine and the groin.” He prescribes a bottle of laudanum (a combination of alcohol and opium) for the pain. Wayne himself would succumb to his own cancer in June of 1979, after previously losing a lung from cancer in the 1960s.
In my original Daily Illini review of this film which was published on September 28, 1976, I praised Wayne’s role as Book as one of his best all-around performances. And, “the conflicts between J. B. and the widow Rogers show some of Wayne’s most heartwarming acting.” At first, upon learning of Books’ true identity Rogers wants J.B. to leave—to keep trouble away from her home. Slowly Book charms her by taking her out on a country carriage ride and through long discussions they develop an understanding and affection. Their chemistry is most effective.
According to Scott Eyman’s 2014 biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend Wayne had difficulties with Siegel on the set. Siegel said early in the shooting, “Wayne is supposed to eat directors for breakfast. But if he tries to eat me, he’ll get indigestion.” Still, Wayne reportedly became frustrated by what he called “the television director” and gave Siegel advice on more effective camera angles and recalled to him lessons he learned from the legendary director John Ford.
While two rather irritating performances by Harry Morgan, as the local sheriff Thibido and Ron Howard’s Gillom, nearly add some tarnish to otherwise effective film, it is a joy to see John Carradine, Wayne’s co-star in “Stagecoach,” appear as a local undertaker and Scatman Crothers as Moses, the local stableman. The film is shot by veteran cameraman, a favorite of Siegel and Clint Eastwood’s, Bruce Surtees and contains a most effective Elmer Berstein musical score. “The Shootist” was an outstanding tribute to John Wayne’s legacy as one of Hollywood’s most entertaining film stars.