SUBJECTS — U.S./1865 – 1913; Literature/Myths of the Western Genre; Literary Devices: theme &characterization; Cinema;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Coming of Age; Illness (Serious);
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Respect; Caring.
AGE: HERE; Notes On Age Here
PG; Drama, 1976, 100 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
It’s 1901 in Carson City, Missouri, formerly a frontier village but now a bustling town. J.B. Books, a notorious but aging gunfighter, is very ill and rides into Carson City to see a doctor. When it’s confirmed that Books has cancer and only a short time to live, he rents a room in a boarding house run by an upright community woman. Her 19 year old son, Gillom, is euphoric over the fact that a celebrated gunfighter resides in his home. Although it is clear that Books is aware of the changes time has wrought, evident in Carson City’s trolleys, traffic congestion, and telephone poles, Books is still willing to use a gun to solve problems. Several people want to see him dead: some for revenge and some to exploit his fame. Other townspeople want to save his soul. The movie shows how Books seeks his end and passes onto Gillom many of the lessons he has learned in life.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1977 Writer’s Guild of America Nominations: Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium; 1977 Golden Globe Awards Nominations Best Motion Picture Actor in a Supporting Role (Ron Howard); 1977 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards Nominations Best Actress (Lauren Bacall); 1977 Academy Awards Nominations Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Featured Actors: John Wayne as J.B. Books; Lauren Bacall as Bond Rogers; Ron Howard as Gillom Rogers; James Stewart as Dr. E.W. Hostetler; Richard Boone as Mike Sweeney; Hugh O’Brian as Jack Pulford (faro dealer at Metropole Saloon); Bill McKinney as Jay Cobb (owner, Cob’s Creamery); Harry Morgan as Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido; John Carradine as Hezekiah Beckum (undertaker); Sheree North as Serepta (Books’ ex-girlfriend); Rick Lenz as Dan Dobkins (reporter, ‘Morning Appeal’) (as Richard Lenz); and Scatman Crothers as Moses Brown (liveryman).
Director: Don Siegel
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
For U.S. history classes, this film provides a picture of life at the beginning of the 20th century and a platform for assignments relating to the closing of the frontier. It also provides an opportunity for students to exercise many skills required by the English Language Arts curriculum. As part of the Western genre, it acknowledges the passing of the myth of the Western hero as a viable model for modern society. Finally, students will benefit from learning about nuances of character, the courage it takes to face death and the struggle of a young man in his efforts to balance respect for a hero against the violence the hero represents. Students will benefit from learning about how much more there is to an individual than his reputation suggests.
During the period between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, towns sprang up all over the West. The absence of law and order created a void filled by the growth of the marshal/sheriff system, vigilantes, private security forces, such as the Pinkertons, and individuals, quick on the draw, who helped maintain order. Eventually, jails were built and courts established in the effort to establish a legal system similar to what could be found in the already settled areas of the country. However, these were difficult times. Banditry, Indian resistance, range wars and exploitation of immigrant workers kept both the official and unofficial systems for maintaining order very busy.
Don Siegal’s film, “The Shootist”, looks at one of these keepers of order and shows the values that, allegedly, made the system work. The voice-over narration at the beginning of the film tells us that Books started as a sheriff and then stepped outside that role and became what is called a shootist. The film is interesting in its portrayal of an individual who thought he was highly moral but who had killed nearly thirty people.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
For English Language Arts Classes: This film looks at the end of the usefulness of the mythical male hero of its genre. Information concerning the struggle of the Western hero, his relationship to his fellows, his code of honor, and his loneliness is contained in the handout prepared by TWM entitled Myths of the Western Genre — Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys?.
For Social Studies Classes: Provide the same preparation described above or give an introduction to the historical period in which the film is set. The latter can be provided through lecture or by having students make the presentations listed in suggested Assignment #11.
The Discussion Questions and the Assignments, Projects & Activities can be used to complete the educational benefits available from this film.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
As the initiate in the film, Gillom learns a lot from Books. What was the most important thing that he learned?
Gillom was skilled with a gun before he met Books. This was shown during the target practice scene. Gillom understands what Books is doing by entering the saloon and encountering the men from his past. When Gillom enters the bar, Books lies dying, brought down by a cheap shot. Although Gillom has grown fond of the old man and retaliates against the bartender who shot Books in the back, Gillom sees that the ethic of the gunfighter represented by Books is no longer viable. By leaving the bar without taking any credit for killing the man who shot Books, Gillom ends the pattern of gunfighter competition. This signals the end of the gunfighter era and the myth of the Western hero.
See the Quick Discussion Question.
[The following question is suitable for students who have been presented with the information in TWM’s Handout Myths of the Western Genre — Are American Men Just a Bunch of Cowboys?.]
2. Is J.B. Books a true hero of the Western genre, an American Adam?
The following would be components of a strong response to this question: a) Books is intelligent and experienced; he is an expert shootist; b) Books was once physically fit but he is no longer; in fact, he is dying of cancer, but he is strong enough for the final confrontation; c) Books has enough wealth to live as he chooses; he has no trouble paying for his room or his medical care; d) Books is a member of mainstream culture; e) Books is single; f) Books is definitely an outsider in Carson City and in the new century. Books is seen by Gillom and other characters as a representative of the authority of the frontier society, however, only vestiges of this society exist. Books is a wounded and dying lion. Most characters want to use him for their own purposes. See Suggested Response to Question #4 below.
3. What scenes from the film indicate that Books is an anachronism whose time has and come and gone?
Books rides into town and looks out of place with trolleys, early automobiles, churches and crowded streets with newspapers sold on the corner. The creamery truck driver tells Books to get out of the way and the boy with him urges the driver on with a disrespectful comment that the old gunman is not worth the trouble. The sheriff, at first nervous about Books’ presence, becomes animated and gleeful at the idea that the old gunfighter is dying.
4. Which characters in the film are willing to exploit Books or to use him for their own purposes?
Almost all of them: the livery stable owner wants to profit from Books’ horse and saddle; the mortician wants to make money exhibiting Books’ body after he dies; the barber sweeps up some of his hair to sell; Gillom tries to swindle a few dollars from the sale of Books’ horse; Books’ woman friend from the past tries to get him to marry her; the journalist wants Books to assist in a novel he is writing; the men who want to kill him are eager to earn a reputation for having taken down a famous gunfighter; and finally, Bond Rogers wants to save his soul. Note that as the film progresses, Bond relents and accepts Books on his own terms while Gillom comes to admire and love the old gunfighter. An important exception is Books’ old friend the doctor; he doesn’t appear to have any agenda of his own in his relations with Book.
5. This film is often seen as a metaphor for the death of the Old West in general. To many, the film is seen as the Western genre acknowledging its own limits in terms of time. Do you agree or disagree with these views? Justify your answer.
There is a lot to be said for both of these ideas. Books is clearly an anachronism: he does not fit into the beginning of the 20th century, just as the Old West died out at about the same time. Just like the Queen who, Books learns from the newspaper, has just died, the time of the Western hero has passed. Both gunfighters and queens are from another era. In terms of Western film, once the gun-toting good guy no longer matters, what will the stories be about?
6. Does American culture still respect the violence that is shown in this film?
Although violent Western is no longer a popular film genre, many films have similar stories and similar characters who use violence to solve problems. Students will be able to come up with many titles to support this position, including the gangster films and the “gangsta rappers”..
7. What was J.B. Books’ creed and is it suitable for modern times? Is it ethical?
Books tells Gillom, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people; I require the same of them.” Books is willing to kill and he accepts the fact that someone may kill him. This seems attractive on the surface. However, it is not ethical because it involves killing someone in circumstances in which the killing is not absolutely necessary. A good response will point out that the flaws in the gunfighters’ code include: (1) it overreacts and escalates minor disputes into life and death situations; (2) in a civilized society, the state is the institution which administers justice and which has a monopoly on violence; and (3) what it means to be wronged can be different things to different people; in modern society, Books’ “morality” would lead to chaos..
8. There is more to Books’ personality than just being a gunfighter. What incidents in the film show this? Do you think that Books was always like this or did the prospect of death from cancer make him see life in a different way?
Examples of actions which suggest the complexity of Books’ character are: Books talks Bond into enjoying a ride in the countryside with him. He spends time with Gillom as a father might. When Gillom tries to profit from the sale of Books’ horse, Books symbolically takes Gillom “to the shed” where he chastises the boy for his dishonor. Books is fatherly in this encounter, showing affection and disappointment rather than anger. Books is at first pleased to see and then hurt by a woman friend who comes to visit. He tells Bond he is afraid of dying. He passes his cushion on to the old trolley driver and tells a young woman he hopes she finds the right gentleman. As to the second part of the question, there is no once correct answer.
9. Does it appear to you that Books wanted to die with his boots on in order to keep the legend alive and to keep his fading dignity? Justify your answer.
Many responses are valid. One is that Books was, in a way, committing suicide. The doctor suggested that if he were a man of physical courage, like Books, he wouldn’t want to die the slow agonizing death from cancer that would have been Books’ fate had he not died by the gun. Books took care of all of his business prior to entering the saloon and said his goodbyes. Students may see Books as doing the right thing in facing down the men in the saloon or they may feel he needed to die this way in order to save face or to avoid dying in pain. In any case, it is clear that he knew he would likely die in the encounter.
10. Which characters changed through the course of the movie?
As to Gillom, see response to Coming of Age Question #1, below. His mother also changed her attitude toward Books and became willing to accept the old gunfighter on his own terms. Books also changes in that he accepts the inevitability of his death. However, he does not change in that he still meets all that life offers him, including his death, on his own terms.
COMING OF AGE
1. How did the character of Gillom come of age in this movie?
Gillom was associating with people who were not good role models and, initially, tried to cheat Books. At the beginning of the movie, Gillom had an unrealistic admiration for Books’ achievements as a gunfighter. By the end of the film, he had the maturity to reject violence and the ways of the gunfighter. He threw away Books’ gun, something he had coveted from the first time he met Books.
2. How did Books react to the news that he had a terminal illness and would die in agony very soon?
There is no one correct response to this question. A strong response would point out that Books dealt with his coming death with dignity and rationality. He set up his death by arranging the confrontation with the three men who wanted to kill him.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)
[The following question is a variation of Discussion Question #7.]
1. What was J.B. Books’ creed and how does it relate to the Golden Rule? What are the flaws in Books’ creed?
Books tells Gillom, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people; I require the same of them.” Books is willing to kill and he accepts the fact that someone may kill him. This seems attractive on the surface. This is not, however, the Golden Rule, because it involves killing someone in circumstances in which the killing is not absolutely necessary. A good response will point out that the flaws in the gunfighters’ code include: (1) it overreacts and escalates minor disputes into life and death situations; (2) in a civilized society, the state is the institution which administers justice and which has a monopoly on violence; and (3) what it means to be wronged can be different things to different people; in modern society, Books’ “morality” would lead to chaos.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
2. Gillom attempts to profit from the sale of Books’ horse in spite of the respect and admiration he feels for Book. What is Books’ response to this deception?
Books symbolically takes Gillom “to the shed” where he chastises the boy for his dishonor. Books is fatherly in this encounter, showing affection and disappointment rather than anger.
3. Bond at first wants Books out of her house, but then decides he can remain. What brings about her change of heart?
Bond feels compassion for the dying man even though she disrespects the life he has lived. She is religious and tries to get Books to go to church; there is a soul to save. Later she accepts Books for who he is and stops trying to convert him.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. The ability to accept change is an important life skill. Students can learn more about change by looking closely at the characters that change in “The Shootist”. Have students write a “Think Piece” about change itself. What is the change? What does it take to accept change? What kinds of change do we accept easily and welcome? What kinds of change do we resist? After students finish looking at change in general, have them look at the changes in the film. Who changed? What provoked these changes? What were the outcomes of the changes? Depending on the level of the class, this can be worked into a formal paper.
Students will give a wide range of opinions about the first four questions. In terms of the film, Books did not change, Bond changed and most importantly, Gillom changed. Books resisted change, continued to be a shootist, and died with his boots on. (Although there is a plausible argument that the indications of complexity in Books’ character, see Discussion Question #8, were actually changes in his personality) Bond was at first hostile to Books; she worked to save his soul but finally accepted his choice to die according to his own will. Gillom changed from admiring and accepting Books to rejecting the gunfighter life style. Although Gillom kills the bartender who shot Books in the back, he throws the gun down and walks away from the scene without claiming the kill.
2. For Books, a gun is the tool he uses to forge his life. Guns are still important in American culture and the desire of many Americans to possess guns deserves close examination. Students can use their research skills to write expository or persuasion papers or to prepare debates on any of the following gun-related topics:
- The history of firearms;
- The history of gunfighting;
- Shooting as an Olympic sport;
- Whether firearms should be available to the general public;
- The problems caused by the existence of guns in homes and businesses, including deaths and injuries from accidental shootings or situations in which people become angry at eaeach other/li>
- The history of the efforts to control guns;
- Laws associated with guns;
- The relationship between guns and crime;
- The arguments in favor of gun control;
- The arguments opposed to gun control; and
- The trade in guns.
3. Many critics have come to see “The Shootist” as a memorial, in a sense, to the career of John Wayne. They feel that the film’s story parallels the story of John Wayne. Interesting facts and opinions are available in support of this notion. Students can research both John Wayne’s career in film and the various critical commentaries on “The Shootist” and prepare a presentation for the class. Clips from earlier films can be shown.
4. Students can be assigned to write an obituary for Books. They should be asked to read several obituaries in the newspapers in order to see how these traditional articles are written. (An interesting wrinkle would be to have students look at and mimic obituaries in newspapers published in the early 1900s.)
5. In groups of two, create a scene in which a journalist interviews Books about his life as a gunfighter. This can be done in a talk-show format wherein the audience can ask questions which the performers must answer. The questions must provoke interest and the answers must be true to character.
6. In groups of two, write a dialogue between any two people in the film, for example between Bond Rogers and the woman friend that came to see Books and suggest that he marry her. This can be presented to the class in character. Should individuals want to do this assignment, have them research the interview format and present the paper formally.
7. Write an alternate ending. In doing so, take care about the theme created and be realistic about historical trends relating to the closing of the frontier.
8. Write the love letter that Bond Rogers will never get to send to Books.
9. Read the novel by Glendon Swarthout which inspired the film. Note the differences and determine whether too many liberties were taken by the screenwriters. There are several distinct differences between the film and the novel and students doing this assignment should argue which of the two stories, novel or film, creates the most viable theme. Note to Teachers: See “The Shootist Redemption of Discredited Authority” by Steven Albert for a description of some of the differences.
10. Creative students may want to write an ode to J. B. Books or a corrida telling his story. Presentations to the class can be made, complete with guitar and sombrero.
11. Students can exercise their research skills by finding information about any of the following topics which can then be presented as oral reports. The topics are not difficult and can be easily accessed on the Internet. Students should be allowed to present the information using note cards; they should not be allowed to read facts printed from their sources.
- The history of a specific Western town, such as Deadwood, South Dakota;
- The biography of a gunfighter;
- The biography of a well-known lawman;
- A review of the development of the cattle industry;
- A review of the development or the mining industry;
- The history of immigration in the period 1890 to 1920;
- The role of women in the period 1890 to 1920;
- The biography of a well-known woman in the period 1890 to 1920;
- The role of churches in establishing order in the frontier West;
- A general history of Indian resistance to westward expansion;
- The history of a particular western tribe of Native Americans;
- The role of the federal government in its effort to maintain order in the Western territories; and
- A biography of John Wayne, including his physical health at the time of the shooting of this, his final, film.
Notes about Assignments:
- Assignments 2 -5, 7 and 11, are also appropriate for Social Studies classes.
BRIDGES TO READING
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
“The Shootist Redemption of Discredited Authority” by Steven Albert; this is an interesting article and although many of its conclusions seem unwarranted, it provides valuable background for the film and the time in which the film was made.
- Hollywood’s West: the American Frontier in Film, Television, and History, Edited by Peter Rollins and John E O’Connor
- American Film Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking and the Studio System, by Stuart Kaminsky Random House, 1981
- Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, by Phillip French, 1977
- The Invention of the Western Film, by Scott Simon, 2003.