Reflections on “The Shootist”,
dir. By Don Siegel, script by Miles Swarthout and Scott Hale,
starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart
Frequently described as being about a dying gunman’s attempt to face death with dignity in the not so wild west of 1901, “The Shootist” is indeed about the last days of ageing gunman John Bernard Books (John Wayne) and his desire for an end with dignity, but it is also about so much more, is much gentler, and has a far greater emotional punch than such a bare synopsis might imply.
Largely character-driven, the film proceeds at a fairly leisurely but steady pace, introducing characters who will help shed light on Books’ character, situation and predicament. Hardly similar to the majority of Wayne’s plot-driven and entertaining westerns, he nonetheless rises to the occasion to create a heartfelt, touching and authentic portrayal of a gunman facing not just his end, but the also the consequences of his actions and the reputation they have incurred.
A person is defined not just by his or her genes, character and personality, but also by the time and society in which he or she lives, and the people and events he or she encounters in the course of their life. The character of J B Books lived in the relatively lawless time of the late 1800s in the west of America, a time and place which appealed to adventurous spirits willing to try to carve a life out of the relative wilderness, but also a time and place which appealed to some adventurous spirits who were less willing to respect the rights and property of others. Thus there came about a need for gunmen, at a time when law and order were yet to be fully established across the land. In the course of the film, Books says he does not consider himself a gunman or shootist. He doesn’t explain exactly how he regards himself, but from the context I suggest he considered himself as one who was willing to impose his view of justice and fairness (at a price) on those who were less willing to hold others’ rights and property in esteem. He may not consider himself a hero, but he appears to consider his actions necessary and just, given the circumstances of the time and place. He frequently refers to the fact that in killing others he was merely defending himself, presumably against those willing to kill him for gain. The way is thus open for existential debate and discussion of differing views of such actions.
Books arrives in a bustling and rapidly changing Carson City where he visits old acquaintance Dr Hostetler (James Stewart) who proceeds to confirm the diagnosis that Books had already received from another doctor, that he is suffering from cancer and that it is in an advanced state. As word spreads both of his arrival and his condition, we see others’ reactions and their desire to turn his death to their gain. Just about the only people not seeking to benefit from Books’ death are widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard), at whose house Books is lodging and where he has decided to die. Bond may argue with him and be judgmental of him, but she does not seek to gain from his presence or death, unlike so many others …. .
Presumably wishing to be able to claim they killed Books, two men attack him in the night, but are outwitted and killed by Books. Similarly, Jack Pulford (saloon keeper) says Books is a man he could have taken, and Jay Cobb (Gillom’s unpleasant and loud-mouthed employer) clearly feels he should take him on, though he is terrified when given the chance. Finally, Sweeney, the brother of a man killed by Books, is keen to try to avenge his brother’s death by killing Books. At the end, all three are invited to a shootout in Pulford’s saloon, a meeting organised by Books who clearly wishes to avoid a lingering and agonising death. All three have their own reasons for wishing Books dead, but all three are acting for their own gain.
The beginning of the era of the cult of fame and reputation, and sensationalised accounts of lives and events by the media in order to maximise profit is clearly depicted as reporter Dobkins offers to ghost-write Books’ life story, suggesting they embellish acts and events and even invent them in order to appeal to readers. Books literally kicks him out of the Rogers’ household, preferring to maintain his integrity and dignity rather than stoop to the level of what he sees as the gutter press.
This theme is returned to on at least two further occasions. Firstly, when Serepta, a former lover, turns up and brings the conversation round to the subject of marriage and the possibility of a book co-written by Dobkins in which, once again, Books’ actions will be exaggerated and embellished in order to maximise sales. Books is bitterly disappointed as Serepta reveals herself to be more interested in self-advancement than Books’ condition and imminent death, dashing belief in the genuineness of her feelings for Books. Once again it appears that Books is a victim of his own success and reputation.
Marshall Thibidoe just wants rid of Books as he points out the cost to the taxpayer of protecting him long enough to allow him to die naturally. He shows no sympathy or remorse, indeed he is joyous at the news of Books’ illness! Although unpleasant, he appears to be a man of integrity until just before the final shootout when he is approached by Dobkins who offers to include Thibidoe in his account of Books’ life and death.
Others who set out to profit by Books’ death include the undertaker Beckum whose scheme is clear to Books from the outset and Books turns it to his own advantage, allowing Beckum to do as he pleases after Books’ death, provided he pays for the privilege first. Even the barber, who admires the way Books handled Beckum, sweeps up Books’ hair (and that of another customer) to sell after his death!
Representing reason and principle, Bond Rogers argues regularly with Books and frequently adopts a position of moral superiority, dismissing Books as a lowly killer with no moral fibre, yet she appears to also have considerable sympathy for him and may even like him in spite of herself and her opinions. Books points out it is easy to judge others who commit acts such as he has committed from a safe distance, and to base judgments on biased and second-hand accounts. Such judgments may only be valid if everyone shared the same values, but Books faced people of a decidedly different moral persuasion. Things come to something of a head when Bond offers to call in her minister to offer Books some comfort, and her suggestion is rejected out of hand with Books stating that his soul is what he has made it already. Religion is rejected, then, as Books continues his life-long habit of depending on himself and his own judgment.
Their arguments often just peter out, with no conclusion and no ground being given by either side, yet the next time they meet apologies are offered and their budding friendship (necessarily short-lived) seems to win out over their differences. Books clearly has great respect for Bond, and it appears that Bond is grudgingly willing to see things through others’ eyes and may even be developing some respect for Books.
A recurring theme is that of the passage of time and with it a changing of ways. Cities are developing and society is becoming more “civilised”. The motor car is replacing the horse and trams run along the streets of Carson City. The telephone and electricity have been introduced to homes. Books is frequently told he has outlived his time and is now an embarrassment – law and order are now firmly established, but that may be largely due to men like Books who were willing to make a stand against crime and enable the imposition of law and order.
Reference is made to “the good old days”, though this concept is laughed at by Sweeney who clearly does not share Books’ view of the past. However, Books realises his time is gone and things have moved on. As Books lies dying, Gillom throws away the gun he used to shoot the bartender who fatally wounded Books and Books nods approvingly, reflecting a move away from the direct action of the past to the reason and principle of Gillom’s mother.
There is great admiration for the professionalism of Books and his kind. The final gunfight is exactly that – a fight and not some sort of voluntary assassination. Books actually wins but is brought down by an occurrence referred to twice during the film – an amateur who comes out of nowhere, someone who acts by chance and who upsets the balance of a “professional” gunfight.
As far as performances are concerned, everyone involved acquitted themselves with honour, but it is obviously Wayne’s film and it is hard to fault his performance. He manages to combine unpleasant characteristics and a hardened and gruff (but polite) exterior with a principled, lonely, frightened and ageing man faced with the realisation his days are numbered.
The music by Elmer Bernstein captures the spirit of a determined man capable of dynamic acts of courage and bravado, but which slows to suit the ageing and vaguely melancholic gunfighter, while retaining the spirit of the younger man.
The direction by Don Siegel maintains the underlying and underpinning emotional engagement in almost every scene.
It is certainly one of my favourite films, and one I revisit frequently.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org