The Shootist

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For the bank robber nicknamed "The Shootist", see Johnny Madison Williams Jr.
The Shootist
Shootist movie poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster by Richard Amsel
Directed by Don Siegel
Produced by
Screenplay by
  • Miles Hood Swarthout
  • Scott Hale
Based on The Shootist 
by Glendon Swarthout
Music by Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography Bruce Surtees
Edited by Douglas Stewart
Distributed by
Release dates
  • August 20, 1976 (1976-08-20)
Running time
100 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $13,406,138[1]

The Shootist is a 1976 Western film directed by Don Siegel and starring John Wayne in his final film role. The picture is about a dying gunfighter who spends his last days looking for a way to die with the least pain and the most dignity.[2]

The film is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout[3] with a screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout (the son of the author) and Scott Hale. The distinguished supporting cast features Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, Hugh O'Brian, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Sheree North, and Scatman Crothers.

In 1977, The Shootist received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction (Robert F. Boyle, Arthur Jeph Parker), a BAFTA Film Award nomination for Best Actress (Lauren Bacall), and a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Ron Howard), as well as the National Board of Review Award as one of the Top Ten Films of 1976.

The movie also received widespread critical acclaim, garnering a 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes; the picture also was considered one of John Wayne's most 'down to earth' roles, and was a brilliant career-finishing movie. Many speculate that he was reluctant to choose another film in the three years left to him because this was such a perfect closing film for him.



The story begins with a clip montage of some of John Wayne's earlier Western films, such as Rio Bravo, depicting the life of the legendary "shootist" (gunfighter) John Bernard "J. B." Books. Ron Howard narrates the opening of the film and points out that Books was not merely a gunfighter, but a lawman. In his narration, Howard mentions the creed by which Books lived, "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them". [4]


An aging Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada, on January 22, 1901. In a newspaper, he reads that Great Britain's Queen Victoria has died. After a stranger calls him an "old man" and barks at him in the street to get out of the way, Books laments that the Old West is dying, too.

Books seeks a medical opinion from an old, trusted friend, E. W. "Doc" Hostetler (James Stewart). Hostetler confirms a Colorado doctor's prognosis of a painful and undignified death from cancer. He tells Books he only has two months to live at best. Hostetler tells Books that eventually the pain from his cancer will become unbearable and he will die screaming. However, he also advises his patient that he would not die such a death if he had his courage. Books rents a room from the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her teenaged son Gillom (Ron Howard) to contemplate his fate.

A distinctly nervous Marshal Walter Thibido (Harry Morgan) visits the house to order the notorious gunfighter to leave town. Books tells him about his terminal illness. The lawman is both relieved and elated - telling him, "Don't take too long to die."

Books' presence in town becomes known. Old enemies and glory seekers are drawn to him. A newspaperman (Rick Lenz) wants to exaggerate and glorify the violence in Books' life. A disgusted Books threatens the reporter with his gun and literally kicks him out the door. Others seek fame by trying to kill the gunfighter; Books is forced to shoot two strangers who try to ambush him as he sleeps. Gillom is impressed, but his mother loses boarders and is upset with Books, blaming him for the violence in her home.

Old flame Serepta (Sheree North) shows up to ask Books to marry her. He is touched until he learns that she wants to use his notoriety to make money from the sensationalized ghost-written "memoirs" of his widow. Doc Hostetler prescribes laudanum to ease Books' pain and advises him to find a better way to die than the one Books insists he describe. Books is approached by the undertaker, Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine) and sees through his veiled sales pitch for a grand funeral (in reality, a way to "cash in" on the dead gunslinger's reputation). Instead, he makes Beckum pay him and orders a headstone with a mysterious inscription.

Bond goes for a buggy ride with Books at his request. She is concerned about Gillom, who has grown up without a father's influence and is acquiring a taste for drink and violence. They encounter Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), who carries a grudge against Books for having killed his brother.

Gillom tries to sell Books' horse to Moses (Scatman Crothers), the blacksmith, to make up for his mother's loss of boarders. Books negotiates a better deal, confronts Gillom, and they work out their differences. Gillom asks for a lesson on how to shoot a gun, but it turns out that he is already fairly accurate with one. Books advises him to have a "third eye" and to beware of the unexpected.

Books sends a message, via Gillom, to three men: Sweeney; Jack Pulford (Hugh O'Brian), a professional gambler and pistol marksman; and Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney), Gillom's ill-mannered employer. Thibido agrees to release Cobb from jail so Cobb can "meet" Books. Gillom informs them that Books will be at the Metropole Saloon on January 29 — his 58th birthday. (Each is unaware that the others have been told.)

On January 29, the headstone arrives, showing 1843 as the year of his birth. Having grown fond of Gillom, he makes him a gift of his horse, which he has bought back. Books says goodbye to Bond, whose original harsh opinion of him has softened. He departs to meet his fate.

In a changing frontier, Books arrives at the saloon by trolley and sees Sweeney's Oldsmobile Curved Dash (which debuted in 1901) outside. Gillom intensely observes Books enter the bar from across the street. It is early in the day, so no other customers are in the bar besides the four men and the bartender. To personally celebrate his birthday, Books orders a drink from the bartender, then lifts his glass to each of the three men who are there at his invitation.

Suddenly, one by one, the men draw their guns and open fire. Books easily gets the better of Cobb. He is wounded by Sweeney, but shoots him through a table as Sweeney tries to use it as a shield. Pulford, who has patiently waited, now fires and Books is hit again. He takes cover behind the bar. Pulford works his way closer, but Books sees his reflection in a glass and shoots him dead as Pulford peers around the corner of the bar.

Gillom arrives after the gunfight to find Books seriously injured but still alive. The bartender sneaks up on Books and empties a shotgun into his back. While the bartender tries to reload, Gillom picks up Books' gun and kills him. Gillom looks at Books' gun in horror, then tosses it away. Books nods his head in approval and dies. A saddened Gillom covers Books' corpse with his coat and takes off his cap in respect for the dead. As Hostetler arrives, Gillom departs from the bar, meeting his mother. They share a meaningful gaze before walking home.



The character of J. B. Books foreshadows the final days of John Wayne, who had already lost a lung and several ribs to lung cancer and would ultimately die from stomach cancer three years after production ended. The Shootist was his final film role, concluding a legendary career that began during the silent film era in 1926. Lauren Bacall had suffered through the 1957 death of her husband Humphrey Bogart, who died of throat cancer, adding further shading to the film's parallels.

At the time the movie rights were purchased, John Wayne was not seriously considered for the role due to questions about his health and his ability to complete the filming. The producers had wanted George C. Scott, but Wayne actively campaigned for the role and made completion of the film a personal mission.

Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne was not facing a diagnosis of terminal cancer when the film was made, although as a life-long six-pack-a-day smoker, as well as having been exposed to radiation during nuclear tests while making The Conqueror, it seems he suspected his life would follow that of character J.B. Books and was determined to be in the film.[5] Following his previous diagnosis of lung cancer in 1964, his entire left lung and several ribs had been surgically removed, and in 1969, he was declared to be "cured" (an overly-optimistic prognosis for lung cancer that today would likely be called a temporary remission, instead). Aa decade later, the cancer was found to have returned for good—in 1979, almost three years after this movie had been filmed. This time the disease spread to his stomach, intestines, and spine.

The film was shot on location in Carson City, Nevada, and at the Warner Bros. Burbank Studios in California. In Carson City, the Krebs-Peterson House at 500 Mountain Street was used for the widow Bond Rogers' rooming house, where J. B. Books stayed.[6] The house is located three doors south of the Nevada governor's mansion. The only change to the house was a portico added on the southern side. Scenes were also shot at Washoe Lake State Park at 4855 Eastlake Boulevard in Carson City.[6]

John Wayne was responsible for a number of changes in the final film. He changed the location from El Paso to Carson City, and also had his horse Dollar written in. More significantly, Wayne also changed the ending of the screenplay. Books was supposed to shoot Jack Pulford in the back, and then Gillom Rogers was to shoot Books. Wayne said, "Mister, I've made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it." He also did not want the young Gillom killing him; this would have made the movie go in a different direction and Gillom's tossing away of the gun, thus rejecting the life of a gunman, gained Wayne's approval.

Wayne was also responsible for much of the film's casting of friends and past co-stars. Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Richard Boone, and John Carradine were all cast at Wayne's request.

Despite Wayne's influence on the film, Don Siegel denied claims that Wayne and he clashed, saying, "He had plenty of his own ideas... and some I liked which gave me inspirations, and some I didn't like. But we didn't fight over any of it. We liked each other and respected each other."[7]

The horse that J. B. Books rides in the film and gives to Gillom — Dollar (Ol' Dollar) - had been Wayne's favorite horse for 10 years, through several Westerns. The horse shown during the final scene of True Grit was Dollar, a two-year-old in 1969. Wayne had Dollar, a chestnut Quarter Horse gelding, written into the script (although no mention is made in the book of a specific horse), because of his love for the horse; it was a condition for him working on the project. Wayne would not let anyone else ride him. Robert Wagner rode the horse in a segment of the Hart to Hart television show, but this was after Wayne's death.[8]


Upon its theatrical release in June 1976, The Shootist was a minor success, grossing $13,406,138 domestically,[1] $6 million was earned as US theatrical rentals.[9] It received fair-to-excellent reviews, with enormous praise given to Wayne by many critics. It was named one of the Ten Best Films of 1976 by the National Board of Review, along with Rocky, All the President's Men, and Network. Film critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times ranked The Shootist number 10 on his list of the 10 best films of 1976.[10] The film was nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA film award, and a Writers Guild of America award. The film currently has a 93% "Fresh" rating on the Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.[11]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Box Office Information for The Shootist. Worldwide Box Office. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
  2. ^ "The Shootist". IMDb. Retrieved April 26, 2012. 
  3. ^ Swarthout, Glendon (1975). The Shootist, New York, New York: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-06099-8
  4. ^ In order, the films are Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado.
  5. ^ John Wayne#Death
  6. ^ a b "Locations for The Shootist". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved April 26, 2012. 
  7. ^ quoted in Michael Munn, John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, p. 333
  8. ^ Whiteside, John. "The Duke's Horse Keeps Special Bond". Chicago Sun Times. January 19, 1985
  9. ^ Box Office Information for The Shootist. The Numbers. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
  10. ^ Roger Ebert's 10 Best Lists: 1967 to present. Archived January 13, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. Roger Ebert's Journal. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
  11. ^ Movie Reviews for The Shootist. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
  12. ^ "NY Times: The Shootist". NY Times. Retrieved December 30, 2008. 

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