Directed by Don Siegal
Written by Glendon Swarthout, Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale
Produced by M.J. Frankovich and William Self
Cinematography by Bruce Surtees
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Drama / Western
John Wayne as J B Books
Lauren Bacall as Bond Rogers
Ron Howard as Gillom Rogers
James Stewart as Dr Hostetler
Bill McKinney as Cobb
Richard Boone as Sweeney
John Carradine as Beckum
Scatman Crothers as Moses
Harry Morgan as Marshall Thibido
Hugh O'Brian as Pulford
Sheree North as Serepta
Aging gunslinger J.B. Books comes to Carson City, Nevada to see an old doctor friend of his, Doc Hostetler, to confirm a disconcerting diagnosis he received from another doctor a few weeks earlier. Doc Hostetler confirms that Books indeed has cancer, and will die shortly. The town goes through several phases regarding Books’ arrival. At first curiosity at this old man that has arrived, then dread as they discover that one of the deadliest men in the west is in their midst, and finally turning to opportunism as they realize he is dying. Books sets up in a hotel run by Bond Rodgers with her son Gillom. Gillom has a serious case of hero worship regarding the stories that he’s heard of the gunslinger, but that turns to a more compelling respect as he gets to know the man as a person. While putting his affairs in order, Books fends off vultures looking to profit from his carcass left and right. A woman he had an affair with at one time shows up, not to comfort him in his hour of need, but to get married to have his name so she will be famous. A reporter tries to cash in on Books’ life story, and even the undertaker plans to display his body as an attraction.
Facing the grim reality of an agonizing demise, Books sets up a plan to meet all of the would-be gunslingers in the town that want to capitalize on being the man who shot J. B. Books to boost their own reputations, for one final shootout. Who will be the one who brings down the legendary gunfighter?
The parallels between The Shootist and this point in John Wayne’s life are striking and poignant. Although Wayne had had his lung removed and was declared cancer free when the movie was being made, Wayne certainly had some idea of what it was like to stare a slow painful death by cancer in the face. It may be considered ironic that it was actually cancer that took Wayne’s life in 1979. The film plays out almost like a memorial, with the opening shots supposedly depicting the life of J.B. Books, but were actually scenes taken from previous John Wayne films; Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo and El Dorado . Over the montage of footage, Ron Howard narrates the story of a larger than life gunslinger.
John Wayne was not considered for the role when the story was first purchased. George C. Scott was the lead contender, but when John Wayne found out about the role he fought for it vigorously.
Wayne made several changes to the story when he took the lead role. He changed the setting from El Paso, Texas to Carson City, Nevada. He also changed the ending. In the original story, Books shoots Jack Pulford in the back, and Gillom Rogers, disgusted with Books’ lack of honor, shoots Books. However, Wayne objected to this saying, “Mister, I’ve made 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” Wayne also objected to being killed by Gillom, and so the script was changed.
John Wayne gathered a cast from his friends and associates. Lauren Bacall worked with Wayne on Blood Alley, and he was so impressed with her that he campaigned for her to get the part. It is also worth noting that Bacall had lost her husband, Humphrey Bogart, to cancer years earlier in 1957. Again in her role as Bond, she faces taking care of a man dying of cancer. Perhaps Wayne felt that her personal tragedy would make her more aptly suited for the role. The name of her character, Bond, is an homage to Wayne’s good friend Ward Bond, who had died in 1960.
Wayne also specifically requested Jimmy Stewart for the role of Doc Hostetler. Stewart had semi-retired five years earlier. Jimmy Stewart and Wayne share an inside joke in the film. Doc remarks that he hadn’t seen Books in 15 years. 15 years is the time between The Shootist and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance which was the last time that Stewart and Wayne worked together.
Although not a major theatrical success, The Shootist gained excellent critical reviews, with critics giving Wayne the majority of the praise. The Shootist was named one of the 10 Best films of 1976 by the National Board of Review, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
John Wayne liked the work of director Don Siegel greatly, and regretted turning down the role as Dirty Harry. Wayne finally was able to work with the director on The Shootist.
While filming The Shootist Wayne fell ill with influenza, especially serious considering he only had one lung, and was hospitalized for two weeks. There was some concern that the film would not be completed.
Ron Howard was once asked by an interviewer if John Wayne had given him any acting tips. Howard replied that during the filming of the final shootout, Wayne pulled him aside. As Howard eagerly waited for some profound advice Wayne said, “Ron, if you want to look menacing – close your mouth.”
Although the movie makes a very convincing case for Wayne knowing it to be his final film, there were actually plans for one other film, also co-starring Ron Howard entitled Beau John.