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Arrow Video gives the Duke a solid Blu-ray sendoff in ‘The Shootist’

Updated: May 1


Actor John Wayne in his last on-screen performance as Shootist J.B. Books, who’s suffering from prostate cancer. He’s arrived in Carson City, Nevada to live out his final days. Books and Widow Bond Rogers played by Lauren Becall, take a buggy ride around Washoe Lake.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions) 



Blu-ray; 1976; PG for violence and language


Best extra: Commentary with filmmaker/critic Howard S. Berge


JOHN WAYNE playing legendary gunfighter J.B. Books didn’t seem to be in the cards. The studio first offered the starring role in “The Shootist” to Paul Newman, then George C. Scott, Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman, and Clint Eastwood.


Wayne’s star power and health had been waning for nearly a decade but, surprisingly, he won the Oscar for Best Actor as drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (1969). For over 50 years, the Duke, who played football at the University of Southern California, had appeared in 168 movies, and nearly 90 Westerns, but his left lung and several ribs were removed in 1964 because of cancer. Since the surgery, breathing and riding a horse had become difficult.


Author Glendon Swarthout had shaped Books after real-life gunslinger John Westly Hardin, who was killed in an El Paso, Texas, saloon in 1895, and added a twist to the storyline by having his gunslinger fighting prostate cancer. Swarthout discovered a similarity between long-distance truck drivers and Old West cowboys who were in the saddle for days, suffering from the disease.

(1) The opening scene was captured near Carson City with the Sierra Nevadas in the background. (2&3) A would-be robber (Jonathan Goldsmith) tries to take Books’ money but fails with a small caliber bullet into his belly. (4&5) Doc Hostetler (James Stewart) gives Books the bad news.


The epigraph from the novel:

“‘Gunfighter’ is a word of recent coinage. A survey of Western newspapers of the late 1880s shows that a man notorious for his skill with handguns and his willingness to use them was called, variously, a ‘gunman,’ a ‘man killer,’ an ‘assassin,’ or a ‘shootist.’”



Directed by Don Siegel (the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Dirty Harry”), “The Shootist” opens with a black-and-white montage with several clips from Wayne’s earlier films serving as a backstory to Books’ life: “Red River” (1948), “Hondo” (1953), “Rio Bravo” (1959) and “El Dorado” (1966). Then, it fades into color as Wayne rides his favorite horse, Dollar, across the high desert near Carson City, Nevada, with the lightly snow-covered Sierra Nevadas in the background.


On-location photography started on January 14, 1975, in Carson City, where a number of historical homes were persevered against its picturesque landscape. Despite his health, Wayne lobbied for the role of Books. The production shut down for a week while he recovered from influenza, writes film historian Philip Kemp in the enclosed booklet. The producers originally considered filming in El Paso, but the border town’s cityscape had become too modern. Most of the interiors and the town center were filmed at the Warner Bros. Burbank studio. 

(1) Books arrives at the boarding house run by Bond Rogers and her son Gillom (Ron Howard). (2) Marshall Thbido (Harry Morgan) asks Books to leave town. (3-5) Gambler Pulford (Hugh O’Brian ) defends himself and kills the man with a shot over 80 feet away, as everyone ducks for cover inside the Acme Saloon.



The Blu-ray includes an 18-minute carryover featurette “The Shootist: The Legend Lives On” (2001) with interviews with screenwriter Miles Hood Swarthout (the author’s son), co-producer William Self, and Peter Frankovich, the son of producer M.J. Frankovich.


Word had gotten around that “The Shootist” might be Wayne’s swan song. With a modest $8 million budget, the producers were able to line up some of his longtime friends at a reduced rate,  including James Stewart (Doc Hostetler), Lauren Becall (widow Bond Rogers), John Carradine (undertaker Beckum), Richard Boone (Mike Sweeney), Harry Morgan (Marshall Thibido) and Hugh O’Brian (gambler Pulford), who volunteered not to take a paycheck. Twenty-year-old Ron Howard plays Gillom Rogers, who worships the notorious Books.


Still, many consider it one of Wayne’s best performances. “The reason [Wayne] is so good and believable is because it’s underplayed,” says Frankovich. Three years later, Wayne lost his battle with cancer. He was 69.


Arrow Video provides four new featurettes. A visual essay with filmmaker/critic Scout Tafoya “Contemplating John Wayne: Death of a Cowboy” details his career that mostly circled with director John Ford (“They Were Expendable,” “The Searchers”). “No other actor could communicate Ford’s self-loathing anger and turn so quickly to tenderness … John Wayne was a great actor and he knew it somewhere, even though so few people asked him to be after Ford hung up his viewfinder,” says Tafoya.

(1) Long-time rivals Books and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone) spot each other. (2) Moses (Scatman Crothers) the local blacksmith brushes Dollar, which Wayne rode in seven films. (3) Books gives Gillom lessons on using a gun. (4) Books’ old lover Serepta (Sheree North), seemingly comes to his aid. (5) Longtime friend John Carradine plays Beckum, the local undertaker.


“Laments of the West,” hosted by film historian/British TV broadcaster Neil Brand, looks at composer Elmer Bernstein (“The Ten Commandments,” “The Great Escape”), who changed the Western forever when he scored “The Magnificent Seven” (1961) with its sweeping theme, says Brand. On the other hand, Bernstein’s soundtrack for “The Shootist” is extremely short, with a simple sound much like his Oscar-nominated score for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


The 40-minute “A Man Making Moment” featurette, with author C. Courtney Joyner, highlights the career of Glendon Swarthout, who taught at an Arizona college and started writing Westerns for Collier’s magazine in the 1940s. One of his short stories was purchased by Columbia Pictures and developed into the B-Western “7th Cavalry” starring Randolph Scott. His first major novel, “They Came to Cordura,” was adapted into another Columbia Western starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth. And in the late 1950s, he switched horses and wrote the Spring Break romp “Where the Boys Are,” which became a huge box office hit starring George Hamilton and Connie Francis.


Another video essay, “The Last Days,” with filmmaker/critic David Cairs, examines Siegel’s career. Starting out as a Warner Bros. montage editor in the 1930s and ‘40s, he became a hard-edged filmmaker in the 1960s and ‘70s, directing five Clint Eastwood films. Plus, he scared the pants off America with his 1956 sci-fi classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in which a California town is overtaken by pods that transform into lifeless humans.


Cairs also explores Wayne’s latter-day career when he tried to keep up his leading-man stature: With a receding hairline, he had worn a toupee since the late-1940s and had his eyes tucked in the late ‘60s. Traditionally, Wayne never died on screen, but in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) he was fatally shot. Ten years later, in “The Cowboys,” he was unarmed when Asa Watts, Bruce Dern’s character, guns him down. “He had moved toward showing the vulnerability of age, but very slowly. Even with ‘The Shootist,’ he seems to be hesitant and insecure,” says Cairs.


But the best extra is the commentary with filmmaker/critic Howard S. Berger, which gives you a complete tour of the production. After filming the very first shot, Wayne announced to Siegel and the crew that “John Ford wouldn’t have shot it that way,” then took over for the rest of the day. The next morning Siegel stood his ground and Wayne, in tears, apologized for being a cranky old man. “Mr. Siegel there’s one director on this picture, and thank God it’s you,” he said.



Paramount conducted the 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio) while Arrow and London’s R3Store Studios handled the digital 2K restoration and color grading. The majority of the shots boast excellent clarity and natural film grain, and solid color tones with a slight red tint. The sharpness only drops during the composite fades and title shots.


The original mono track was also restored in London, with the dialogue and soundtrack front and centered.


Arrow continues to produce some of the finest packages, and includes a poster and postcard with this Western. The only regret is that it wasn’t made available in TRUE 4K with HDR.


Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


1 Comment

Ken Roche
Ken Roche
May 01

What an amazing cast was assembled for this production and how ironic for Wayne to star in this prophetic film! The sets were about as good as they can get.

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