The Shootist

(Paramount, 1976)

Director -- Don Siegel. Starring -- John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, Sheree North, and Scatman Crothers.

This low budget film didn't do well at the box office when Paramount dumped it on a limited number of screens with very limited promotion and advertising in October of '76. The studio only owned domestic exhibition rights to the film, sold them by producer Dino de Laurentiis, who kept all foreign rights himself. As it turned out to be the great Wayne's final film, however (he died from lung cancer three years later), The Shootist has since become a TV perennial and been written-up prominently and appreciatively in every picture book about the Western film since. With its good screenplay based upon Glendon's award-winning novel, and fine performances by a truly amazing cast, this film has gradually become recognized by film historians and Western buffs for what it really is -- one of John Wayne's five best Westerns and certainly one of the most memorable Westerns from the Seventies, a generally weak decade for the genre.

The tremendous cast came together at producer Mike Frankovich's behest, and all were willing to take much smaller fees in support of the ailing cowboy legend, for they knew this might well be his last ride before the cameras. Indeed, a doctor had to be paid off under the table to even get Wayne past his insurance physical. Already down to one lung, he had a nurse with him 24/7 with oxygen handy due to the higher elevation in Carson City, Nevada. Production had to be shut down for two weeks when he got the flu, and only a few months after filming Duke had open heart surgery. No wonder he was cranky on the set, complaining and giving everybody hell about everything! Don Siegel got good performances out of the entire awesome supporting cast, Bruce Surtees' cinematography was great and Robert Boyle's Oscar-nominated sets superb. The film's only weaknesses were Harry Morgan as the Sheriff and Elmer Bernstein's unmemorable score. The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale received a Writers Guild nomination for Best Adaptation. In 1995 this movie was voted by a hundred members of the Western Writers of America as one of the 15 Greatest Westerns ever made. The Shootist was also famed child actor Ron Howard's last big screen role (he's now a more famous director). This Western also saw Jimmy Stewart in his first late career movie role in five years, and Lauren Bacall's first film acting in ten years.

Do see John Wayne's valedictory farewell to films, playing a fabled Western gunfighter dying of cancer (too true!), who even sums up his legendary career in one great line -- "In general, I've had a helluva good time!" The Duke goes out with his boots on and his six-shooter smoking, exactly the way Western movie heroes should. This now classic Western remains a fitting final tribute to an authentic American legend.


"The Shootist will stand as one of John Wayne's towering achievements, and his very best since True Grit. Don Siegel's terrific film is simply beautiful, and beautifully simple, in its quiet, elegant and sensitive telling of the last days of a dying gunfighter at the turn of the century. Wayne and Lauren Bacall are both outstanding. Dino de Laurentiis sponsored the very handsome Mike Frankovich/William Self production, which could become a major box office hit for Paramount . . . The entire film is in totally correct balance, artistically and technically, a major credit in Frankovich's long production career. Robert Boyle's production design, Bruce Surtees' cinematography, Elmer Bernstein's music and all other key components support this magnificent depiction of people and their society at a fulcrum. The Shootist is one of the great films of our time." Art Murphy, Variety

"With The Shootist, a grandly elegiac Western superbly directed by Don Siegel, John Wayne once again goes with richer, more fully dimensional material than usual as he did with True Grit. Once again it pays off handsomely with a film that is among his and Siegel's finest . . . Splendidly designed by Robert Boyle and photographed by Bruce Surtees in appropriate autumnal tones, The Shootist is a film of much resonance, enriched by the regard Siegel has for his cast members and they for each other . . . Wayne, Miss Bacall -- astringent and regally beautiful in her first major screen role in years -- and Stewart are stars rich in associations that further enhance the film's meanings and emotions. Wayne naturally dominates with his larger-than-life presence yet reveals to us rare tenderness and vulnerability. The Shootist is a very special film indeed." Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times

"If, God forbid, John Wayne should choose to end his incredible career right now, after more than 45 years in films, I can't think of any more perfect picture to fade out on than this Frankovich/Self production of The Shootist . . . Just when it seemed the Western was an endangered species, due for extinction because it had repeated itself too many times, Wayne and Siegel have managed to validate it once more. The Shootist may well become a classic, ranking right up there with many of Wayne's earlier masterpieces." Arthur Knight, the Hollywood Reporter

"Wayne's proud, quietly anguished performance, one of his very best and certainly his most moving, has a richness that seems born of self-knowledge; he lends the film a tremendous sense of intimacy and a surprisingly confessional mood. The Shootist is, in its own reserved way, John Wayne's single-minded statement about both the burden and the triumph of being John Wayne. The big name supporting cast performs beautifully, but it is very much a supporting cast, perhaps in tribute to the stature of its star." Newsweek

"The Shootist, Wayne's latest film, seems destined to become one of the classics. As such it could take its place beside Red River, True Grit, and all those John Ford epics starting with Stagecoach. The new film is different. It is filled with pain, melancholy and death. Perhaps it might even be called a film of despair. It is about moral choices, but unlike so many Westerns, the moral decisions of its protagonist are not unquestionable . . . The Shootist is a blending of many talents. Glendon Swarthout's novel is the basis for an intelligent script by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale. Wayne, Miss Bacall, Harry Morgan, James Carradine and others turn in fine performances. Don Siegel, the director, again proves he is a filmmaker with few peers in America." Dennis Stack, Kansas City Times

"The Shootist is the fascinating, often entertaining, always moving and humane story of how a legend dies with courage in the face of adversity. Director Don Siegel paints a softly focused canvas of the changing West at the turn of the century, with keenly observed details and insights about the life of the times, indoor plumbing, streetcars, and the advancement of medical technology. John Wayne, in his finest role since True Grit, is a wounded eagle in an aviary of vultures. Resting his behind on a bordello pillow, scandalizing the self-righteous widow with his salty talk, bellowing and ordering everyone about and lacing his delivery with a wry twinkle, he has a fine time with the role. There's something touching about the grandeur of the last of a dying breed, suffering on a patchwork quilt, while a 1901 Oldsmobile rattles by outside the window as a sign of progress." Rex Reed, Vogue

"The Shootist is a strange film if only because it tips its ending at the beginning -- Wayne, the aging gunfighter, is going to die. But it still enthralls partly because all the elements mesh properly: Don Siegel's lowkeyed, resolute direction, the beautiful modulations between black humor and heartwrenching poignancy in Miles Hood Swarthout's and Scott Hale's screenplay, and the uniformly excellent performances of the entire cast (especially those of Lauren Bacall, as the widow, and Ron Howard, as her son, who both realize they got to know this man too late) . . . But most of all, The Shootist is John Wayne. It was Wayne who insisted that the story be changed to reflect more optimism than Glendon Swarthout's stark book. It was Wayne who knew this would be a summation of his entire Western-movie career. And it is Wayne who provides a performance to match the best performances of his past in Red River and The Searchers." Mike Petryni, the Arizona Republic

"The Shootist is John Wayne's best film since John Ford's 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This Don Siegel-directed film version of Glendon Swarthout's novel may also be, with the exception of the anti-Westerns like The Wild Bunch, the best single Western since Ford's brilliant elegy to Western myth-making." Tim A. Janes, Tucson Arizona Daily Star.

"The Shootist may just prove to be a historic Western. That is a risky projection, but there is evidence to support the contention. It is, in the first place, not only a superior Western, but a superior film as well. Further, it is a notably gutsy project, presenting as it does a decidedly unconventional and uncommercial plot -- the last eight days in the life of a gunfighter dying of cancer. Additionally, it features an extraordinary cast -- Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Richard Boone, John Carradine, Sheree North -- several of whom accepted roles more modest in scope than they would ordinarily require. But the main reason The Shootist should live beyond its allotted time is John Wayne. The picture probably would not have been made without him -- his personal prestige, his near legendary stature, his box office appeal -- and probably could not have been made without him. For it is, in a sense, a biography of the Duke, both man and actor. If the two can be separated. And it may well be the last film Wayne will make." John L. Wasserman, San Francisco Chronicle

"John Wayne mellows into what may prove the finest role in his career, an aging legendary gunfighter who puts his lifelong ideals in order as he waits out the final seven days of his life. Don Siegel's absorbing, highly affecting character study is a major achievement, although a dearth of action and the story's leisurely, downbeat tones may require unusual marketing to bring out its audience." Independent Film Journal