The Shootist (1976) was the final film starring John Wayne. It was also the second and final film in which John Wayne and Lauren Bacall co-starred (the first was Blood Alley in 1955). Today there are those who consider The Shootist to be the best movie John Wayne ever made. Even many of those who do not agree that it was Mr. Wayne's best film would agree that it is one of his best.
The Shootist was based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, who had also written the novels upon which the films They Came to Cordura (1959), Where the Boys Are (1960), and Bless the Beasts & Children (1971) were based. The screenplay was written by Mr. Swarthout's son, Miles Hood Swarthout, for who it was his first screenplay. The Shootist was directed by Don Siegel. Perhaps best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Don Siegel had already directed several Westerns, starting with The Duel at Silver Creek in 1952. The Shootist would be both the first and last film Don Siegel made with John Wayne.
The Shootist starred John Wayne as ageing gunfighter J.B. Books, who is diagnosed with cancer from which he will die a slow and lingering death. He rents a room from widow Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall) to think about what his next course of action should be. Both Bond and her son Gillom (played by Ron Howard) befriend the ageing gunfighter as he contemplates what to do with what remains of his life.
As mentioned earlier, Lauren Bacall had previously worked with John Wayne on the film Blood Alley (1955). As an outspoken Liberal Democrat, Miss Bacall had been a bit nervous when she heard that she would be working with John Wayne, an outspoken Conservative Republican, on Blood Alley. As it turned out, not only did John Wayne not mention politics at all during the shooting of Blood Alley, but Miss Bacall and Mr. Wayne learned they liked each other a good deal. It was because John Wayne enjoyed working with Lauren Bacall so much on Blood Alley that he hand-picked her to play the role of Bond Rogers in The Shootist.
Much has been made of how The Shootist reflected John Wayne's real life. Here it must be pointed out that at the time John Wayne made The Shootist, he was not yet diagnosed wit the cancer that would ultimately kill him. That having been said, John Wayne had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, even having his left lung and four ribs removed. Five years later he would be declared free of cancer. While John Wayne had not been diagnosed with cancer during the making of The Shootist, however, his health was not particularly good at the time. While The Shootist was filming Mr. Wayne had a tear in the mitral valve of his heart that caused him to be dizzy at times. As might be expected of an older man who had one lung removed, at times Mr. Wayne had trouble breathing. Of course, The Shootist did foreshadow John Wayne's death from stomach cancer in 1979, a little over three years after the film's release.
Although not often acknowledged, The Shootist also reflected Lauren Bacall's own life. Lauren Bacall had been married to Humphrey Bogart for twelve years when he died of throat cancer. Diagnosed with cancer in January 1956, Mr. Bogart died nearly a year later in January 1957. Given Lauren Bacall's own experience with the death of her husband from cancer and the affection she felt for the Duke, it should come as no surprise that her presence was a comfort to him during the filming of The Shootist. Mr. Wayne would even hold Miss Bacall's hand.
While parallels in the plot of The Shootist could be drawn to both John Wayne and Lauren Bacall's lives, in many respects the film is about the end of the Old West. Indeed, the film is set in Carson City, Nevada in 1901, at a time when regular train service was available in most of the United States and automobiles were already being seen on the streets of American cities. Indeed, gunfighter Mike Sweeney (played by Richard Boone) drives an automobile. Trolley cars even travel the streets of Carson City where once there would only be horses and wagons. It is not simply gunfighter J. B. Books who is dying, but the Old West of folklore and legend as well.
Befitting a Western that is as much about the end of the West as the death of a gunfighter, the cast of The Shootist was filled by many who would be familiar to Western fans at the time. James Stewart, veteran of many a Western, has a cameo as Dr. Hostetler, the physician who gives Books his diagnosis of cancer. Richard Boone, best known as Paladin on the classic TV show Have Gun--Will Travel, played Mike Sweeney, the gunfighter with a grudge against Books. Hugh O'Brian, who had played Wyatt Earp on the very first adult Western on television (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp), played the faro dealer Pulford. Harry Morgan and John Carradine, both veterans of Western movies and TV shows, also had roles in the film.
Of course, there can be no doubt that John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, and Ron Howard were the stars of The Shootist. John Wayne delivered one of his best performances in the film, and one of his most poignant as well. Having already experienced cancer in his life and with his health failing, one has to suspect the Duke could easily identify with J. B. Books, the gunfighter whose time was at an end. Lauren Bacall also delivered one of her best performances as Bond Rogers, one of the few people who in Carson City who is not particularly eager for Books to die. Her approach to playing Mrs. Rogers was very natural, and her scenes with John Wayne are easily among the best in the film.
Sadly, The Shootist was only a modest success at the box office. It did receive overwhelmingly positive reviews. The National Board of Review included The Shootist in its list Ten Best Films of 1976. Roger Ebert included it among his ten best films as well. The review of the film in Variety referred to The Shootist as "one of John Wayne's towering achievements."
While The Shootist did not do particularly well at the box office, it may now be one of John Wayne and Lauren Bacall's best known films. In fact, it is considered by many to be one of John Wayne's best films. At the time The Shootist was made no one realised it would be the Duke's last film. Fortunately it turned out to be a very good film on which to end his career.