"He's got to face a gunfight once more to live up to his legend once more. To win just one more time."
John Wayne starred in over 200 films in his storied career. For his 69th western, Wayne chose The Shootist, the tale of a notorious gunfighter dying of cancer. Joined by fellow screen stars Lauren Bacall and James Stewart, The Shootist would turn out to be Wayne's final film, as he lost his own battle with cancer just two years later. Paramount brings Wayne's most poignant performance to DVD with treatment befitting his legend.
Facts of the Case
In early 1901 John Bernard Books (Wayne) returns to Carson City, Nevada, the scene of one of his most famous gun battles to learn from Doc Hostetler (Stewart) that he is dying of pancreatic cancer and has only a few weeks to live. In incredible pain, Books rents a modest room at the boarding house of the widow Mrs. Rogers (Bacall). Books intends to die there in peace, but when Mrs. Rogers's son Gillom (Ron Howard) learns a famous gunslinger is living in his house, word spreads around town. Books must deal with the local sheriff (Harry Morgan), an eager mortician (John Carradine), and a nosey reporter who all want a piece of the dying legend. Mrs. Rogers dislikes Books and the violent past for which he is known, while Gillom worships the dying hero and wants to emulate him. As his pain intensifies, Books sells his horse and puts his affairs in order. He attempts to disillusion Gillom about the life of a gunfighter, and convinces Mrs. Rogers to take a friendly carriage ride through the countryside. As the end draws near, Books must decide between dying a slow and painful death or facing the younger gunfighters who want to kill him.
The Shootist is meaningful portrayal of the life, death and redemption of a gunslinger. It's also a subdued look at a man who has outlived his times. The Shootist takes place at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the legends of the Old West have died. Books is a relic, uncomfortable in a world with cars, electricity and telephones. He picks up a newspaper early in the film to learn of the death of Queen Victoria, signaling the end of another era. The Shootist is a philosophical western, very different from the more action-packed films that built John Wayne's career. This film explores themes that would be further addressed in equally mature westerns like Pale Rider and Unforgiven.
This film is especially poignant as it signals the end of the John Wayne era as well. Wayne, who'd already had a lung removed from cancer, knew The Shootist would likely be his final film. Facing his own mortality, Wayne bravely chose to expose his predicament on the screen. James Stewart came out of semi-retirement to support his friend. Wayne and Stewart had appeared together before, in John Ford's 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It's a film lover's delight to see the two stars together again. Lauren Bacall is also very good as the tough widow who is willing to care for a killer, despite personal risk. Ron Howard also turns in a good performance, though he seems a little old to be quite so impressionable.
The Shootist is presented in its original aspect ratio, an anamorphic 1.85:1. It's a very good transfer. Apart from a few instances, there is little dirt or blemish on the print. I found no occurrences of digital artifacting or edge enhancement. The film looks a bit washed-out, as many westerns do, but otherwise there is little to complain about. A nice job by Paramount.
The Shootist is presented in Dolby Digital mono. Since it was presented mono in the theater, I am content with the same on disc. I suppose the film could've been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1, though it would have been underutilized anyway. As is, the dialogue is crisp and clear and the few action sequences are without distortion. Also included on this disc is a French mono track as well as English subtitles.
"The Shootist: The Legend Lives On" is a gem of a special feature. It runs about 18 minutes and contains interviews with writer Miles Hood Swarthout and producer William Self. Swarthout talks about adapting his father's classic novel for the screen, while Self reveals that John Wayne wasn't the first picked for the role of Books. Originally, George C. Scott agreed to star in the picture. When Wayne expressed interest they fired Scott! This featurette is the perfect length with some intriguing stories. It's a nice surprise. Though The Shootisthas grown in stature over the years, it's doesn't have the reputation that some other Wayne films have attained. In other words, Paramount didn't need to produce any features for this disc. I'm glad they did.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Shootist has been criticized in the past for being a slow film. Indeed, those expecting an action-packed shoot-em-up will be disappointed. This is a thinking-man's western that moves only as quickly as its dying hero. But if you know that going in, you'll be able to enjoy this swan song for what it is.
With The Shootist as his final film, John Wayne proved to be as brave in life as he appeared on the screen. Paramount has given the film worthy treatment with a nice transfer and a terrific featurette. John Wayne fans should be very pleased with this release and want to have it in their collections. For the more casual fan it is definitely worth a rental.
Not guilty! The Duke is free to ride off into the sunset…
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