The Shootist (1976)

Directed by Don Siegel

For me, The Shootist (1976) is a funny movie. Not funny “ha-ha” but funny in the oddball sense. I really enjoyed it. It’s a good, maybe even close to great movie. But at the same time, there are aspects of it that don’t quite work for me.

I think what I have problems with are Don Siegel’s direction. On the one hand, it’s perfect. He tells the film’s story exactly as he should.

It’s the tale of a gunman, a “shootist” who, in his later years, finds out he has cancer and is dying. The movie focuses on his final days.

This makes it a very character driven film. And this is how Siegel directs it. Being a mid-seventies film (and being as Siegel is the man who gave us Dirty Harry), there is a good deal of reliance on the hand held, realistic looking “in-the-moment” kind of film work that was common with certain films back then.

But … The problem I think I have is that Wayne’s character, John Bernard Books (based loosely on John Wesley Hardin), is a character whose story, in the world of cinema, is dependent on previous Hollywood movies. In other words, in order for the character and his situation to resonate, we have to refer back to what Hollywood has established – part of the reason why Wayne is perfectly cast in this role.

Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall and John Wayne in The Shootist.

But the movie isn’t really shot or put together like a Hollywood western. It has the look of something much more realistic, far less mythic.

And for me this didn’t quite work. I found it a bit off-putting. (Though I will say that, near the end of the film, Siegel uses a handheld, ground level shot to change perspectives that works brilliantly given that it’s the sort of change you’re not really supposed to make.)

But that’s not to say I didn’t like the film. The truth is, I loved it and I loved John Wayne in this role. He was made for it. And like many actors, the older he got the more effortless his performances became and here, in The Shootist, it comes across as utterly effortless.

On the whole, despite my qualms, this is a wonderful western and a great character piece where we get to see John Wayne, not to mention Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard and an array of other superb Hollywood stalwarts, give a tremendous, moving performance.

A gunfighter’s last days. A man who is dying and knows it. What does he do? How does he feel? How does it play out?

That’s The Shootist.

And in addition …

As a review of this film on reminds me, there is an fascinating behind the scenes story to this film about an old gunfighter dying of cancer. John Wayne, who plays that old gunfighter, was himself dying of cancer at the time he made this film. This is recounted in the relatively short but very interesting documentary that is part of the DVD’s special features. (Actually, it’s essentially the only special feature on the disc.)

You can get The Shootist individually or, as I did, part of The John Wayne Centennial Collection, which contains eight of the Duke’s movies (and some pretty good ones at that).


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