Book Review: The Shootist

John Bernard (J.B.) Books, is what was known back then as a “shootist,” though in later years the more popular term became gunfighter. Books has been told he has cancer, which he doesn’t want to believe, and comes to Carson City to get a second opinion. He moves into a boarding house run by Bond Rogers and her son, Gillom Rogers. Bond wants Books out of her home as soon as she discovers who he is, but comes to have feelings for him as the movie progresses.

The town doc, Dr. Hostetler, confirms the initial diagnosis and lets Books know he only has weeks to live. Hostetler prescribes laudanum for the pain, but suggests to Books that he use his own courage to control his death. Books decides to do just that and spends one week preparing for the ending he has chosen.

John Wayne played J.B. Books, which was his last role and is generally considered one of his best performances. Ironically, in 1975 Wayne was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which would eventually kill him. It was one of the reasons he was not originally offered the film, and only after Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Clint Eatswood and others turned the role down was Wayne given the opportunity.

The opening sequence uses footage of Wayne from several of his earlier movies, including “Red River” (1948), “Hondo” (1953), “Rio Bravo” (1959) and “El Dorado” (1967).

Lauren Bacall played the conflicted Bond Rogers, and Ron Howard played her son, Gillom Rogers. James Stewart, who Wayne convinced to come out of retirement for the film, was Dr. Hostetler. Harry Morgan (as Marshall Thibido) and Scatman Crothers (as Moses) also had solid roles in the film. Don Siegel directed. Scott Hale and Miles Hood Swarthout (the book author’s son) wrote the screenplay.

“The Shootist” received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction, thanks to the work of Robert F. Boyle and Arthur Jeph Parker.

Having read the book before seeing the movie, I was curious to see how they would handle John Wayne’s character shooting someone in the back and Ron Howard playing a bad guy.

Siegel originally did shoot the scene showing Books’ victim being shot in the back while Wayne was away from the set. In the book, the shooting was fair and justified, but when Wayne was back on set and learned what had been done, he insisted the scene be reshot, reputedly telling Siegel, “Whatever the cause, I would never shoot anyone in the back. It’s unthinkable for my image … I spent many years in this business building up my image.”

Howard’s character, Gillom Rogers, was a young man going bad, who only got worse as the book went on. In the movie, they switched it around, and with Books’ help, Gillom crossed back over the line and ended the movie on an “Opie-like” high note.

John Wayne had a favorite horse, Old Dollor, that he had ridden in “Big Jake,” “Chisum,” “The Cowboys,” “Rooster Cogburn,” “The Train Robbers” and “True Grit.” He insisted Old Dollor be in the movie, and he was. Wayne’s character eventually gave the horse to Gillom Rogers, and the horse’s name was worked into the movie in multiple spots.

The movie was based on Glendon Swarthout’s novel, which was published in 1975. The book was well received by critics and readers, and former President Ronald Reagan called it “a treasured addition to my library.”

Swarthout was awarded the Spur Award for Best Western Novel of the Year (1976) by the Western Writers of America for “The Shootist,” and in 2008, he was inducted into the Western Writers Hall of Fame.


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