Blu-ray Review: The Shootist (Limited Edition)

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Rarely does an actor have the ability to pick the perfect project to make their final film. The end can happen unexpectedly or their health can be in rough enough shape that they can’t get the insurance company to cover them in a major role. Or they need to keep working to earn enough to cover their loved ones when they’re gone. Or they don’t want to think about retiring, let alone their own mortality. They faked their death numerous times. When Boris Karloff made Targets, Peter Bogdanovich wanted it to be the legend’s farewell to horror fans. But he ran off and made a bunch of quickie films since he needed the money. Bruce Willis crammed in 26 straight-to-video projects before his health conditions got to be too much. John Wayne found the perfect way to tip his hat to movie fans around the globe when he made The Shootist.

John Bernard “J.B.” Books is riding the range when he’s approached by an armed robber. Books likes an easy target as an out of shape old guy, but he quickly turns the tables with a hidden gun to shoot the robber in the gut. The robber begs to be taken to a hospital, but Books won’t show him an ounce of mercy. He rides off and doesn’t look back at his would-be killer. When Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada, he visits “Doc” Hostetler (How the West Was Won‘s Jimmy Stewart) to find out why it hurts when he’s in the saddle. After a careful examination, Doc tells his patient that he’s got cancer. It’s rather advanced and he might not have too long to live. He checks into a boarding house run by Bond Rogers (The Big Sleep‘s Lauren Bacall) under an assumed name. But the local blacksmith (The Shining‘s Scatman Crothers) and Bond’s son Gillom (Happy Days‘ Ron Howard) discover Books’ real identity. The local Marshal (M*A*S*H*‘s Harry Morgan) is not happy that the famous gunslinger is in town. Books explains that he’s going to die soon. He’s not in town looking to kill anyone. The Marshal seems fine, but spreads the word of Books’ condition around town. There’s a lot of people that want a piece of Books. A journalist is eager to get his final interview. An old lover wants his life story. Mostly there’s a lot of fellow gunfighters who want the career jump of claiming they shot down Books. Even if he was near death, it’s still a great name on the resume. Books wants to go out on his own terms although it’s tough. He passes on his techniques for shooting to Gillom. The teenager seems excited to learn from the legend. Is he going to follow in Books’ footsteps with that on his resume?

The Shootist is an autobiographical project for John Wayne even though the book and original script weren’t written for him. Director Don Siegel tailored the project to fit Wayne. The movie opens with a montage of Wayne’s other cowboy films where he gunned down others with his six shooter. This role is a culmination of his cinematic image. Wayne deeply relates to Books because they’re both dying of cancer. Wayne had already had one lung removed. There are reports of how difficult it was for him to finish the film because of his weakened health. But he pulled off the role with a mix of killer instinct and charm. Books is concerned about his legacy as much as The Duke. He set up a cancer charity in his name. Wayne is inseparable from Books. They are both cowboys who can see the end of the trail.

The Shootist is the proper send off for John Wayne since it’s full of familiar faces. Jimmy Stewart seems the right person to give him the fatal news. They were so good together in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. John Carradine gets to be the funeral home director that Wayne fears will put his body on display and charge the public. Carradine shared a ride with Wayne in Stagecoach. Two of the gunmen are Hugh O’Brian (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp) and Richard Boone (Have Gun Will Travel) and Boone played Sam Houston in Wayne’s The Alamo. The Shootist could have easily been a feel-good project. The ending lets people in the theater know that John Wayne isn’t coming back for another goodbye. Wayne had small part in the black & white silent The Great K&A Train Robbery in 1926. After 50 years and nearly 70 western films, The Shootist let us know that John Wayne would no longer be riding the range.


The Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer looks as sharp as Books’ aim. The Audio is LPCM Mono of the original mix. You’ll hear Elmer Bernstein’s music and John Wayne’s bullets equally clear. The movie is subtitled.

Audio Commentary by filmmaker and critic Howard S. Berger. Tells us which movies were used in the opening montage of Wayne shooting away. Turns out the first day of shooting didn’t go well when Wayne dropped John Ford’s name and took over the directing role from Don Siegel (Dirty Harry). The next day Wayne apologized and didn’t try to upstage his director. He also talks about how the character was different in the book.

The Last Day (28:26) is a visual essay from David Cairns. He describes Don Siegel’s rises as a director from the editing room. Siegel’s assistant as a director was Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch). He points out that John Wayne wore a toupee from 1949 onward.

A Man-Making Moment (40:27) has C. Courtney Joyner discuss the movie and Glendon Swarthout, the writer of the original novel. He points out how Don Siegel was eager to quit working for Universal since there was an “instant coffee” attitude to making movies. He was excited to work at Paramount on The Shootist because Siegel had got his start making Westerns. Swarthout’s western novels were adapted into films. He also wrote Where The Boys Are. He received royalties on the theme song. He delves into how Wayne wanted the script changed.

Laments of the West (26:30) has Neil Brand get into Elmer Bernstein’s score. Bernstein captures what is the end of an era: The Final John Wayne Western. The music elevates the legend and gives him a sense of sympathy.

Contemplating John Wayne (22:32) is a visual essay by Scout Tafoya who has written a book on director John Ford. This starts out with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard about how he hates John Wayne’s politics, but loves him on the big screen. Tofoya mentions how he wanted to make a full documentary on Wayne, but a producer told him that it would be too messy for the exact reason Godard had. He shows Wayne’s cringe worthy Playboy interview. We also see Bruce Dern shoot Wayne down in The Cowboys. He touches on the cinematic relationship between John Wayne and John Ford.

The Shootist: The Legend Lives On (18:26) gets into how John Wayne’s final film came about. There’s talk about how George C. Scott was going to take the role until John Wayne asked about it. They didn’t think Wayne could handle making one more film after losing a lung to cancer. But the Duke toughed it out. The book gets explored including how they had to swap location from El Paso to Carson City. The ending was also altered.

Theatrical Trailer (3:19) reminds us that this movie will never be forgotten. This is about the last of the great gunfighters. We get clips from his earlier films.

Image Gallery has 48 images including the posters, press photos, lobby cards used around the world.

Double-sided fold-out poster featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Juan Esteban Rodríguez

Six postcard-sized lobby card reproductions suitable for framing.

Illustrated collector’s booklet with an essay by film critic Philip Kemp

Arrow Video presents The Shootist: Limited Edition. Director Don Siegel. Screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout & Scott Hale. Starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, Richard Lenz, Harry Morgan, Sheree North & Hugh O’Brian. Running Time: 99 minutes. Rating: Rated PG. Release Date: March 12, 2024.

Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.