The Shootist
Redemption of discredited authority

by Steven Albert

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 9-11
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005

Because of the strong wave of public sentiment that surrounded John Wayne's death, THE SHOOTIST, Wayne's final film, looks very different today than it did five years ago when it was first released. For better or worse, all viewings of the film in the next few years will be weighted in the public's mind with the pathos of hindsight — with the knowledge that life imitated art (the film centers around the last days of a gunman dying of cancer) and at the same time that life was finally indifferent to art (the film reprieves its hero from precisely the slow, lingering death that Wayne actually suffered). THE SHOOTIST, however, functioned in a very different — and now largely forgotten — set of contexts at the time of its original appearance. The first aim of this article will be to recover, for the record, what these contexts were and to establish how they helped to shape the film when it was made five years ago. The second aim will be to use THE SHOOTIST as an object lesson in the basic procedures and strategies of defensively didactic narrative. The third aim will be to relate the use of these narrative procedures to what this article refers to as the fundamentalist imagination.

The John Wayne I discuss in this article is not the private individual who died in 1978 but his screen persona that survives him. This article deals with the uses of a cultural icon, not the actions of a human being. In a just analysis of any actor's work and of the cultural values he/she (at times quite unintentionally) becomes associated with, such a distinction is always essential. In the case of John Wayne, however, it is crucial because Wayne's relation to his public image was in fact often quite ambivalent.

Now that Wayne has been effectively canonized by death, it is easy to forget that when THE SHOOTIST first appeared Wayne's popularity had been declining steadily for practically a decade. Although Wayne's films from the 40s and 50s remained very popular on television during this period, where they ran almost perpetually, Wayne's performance at the box office continued to decline. According to Variety tabulations, half of the thirty-one films Wayne made between 1950 and 1965, when he was the Number 1 Male Box Office Star in America, grossed in the $4 to $8 million range. This represented tremendous earnings in the 50s. In the period 1966-1976 [that is, during the height of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandals], Wayne's films continued to gross in the same $4 to $8 million range, but in the inflated market of the 70s this represented poor to mediocre earnings. THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, 1954, and THE SHOOTIST, 1976, both earned $6 million, but that figure represented three times as many separate admissions in 1954 as it did in 1976. This decline in the number of admissions sold does not, moreover, reflect a general decline in audience attendance. In the period 1971-1977, Clint Eastwood's films, which used similar narrative formulas and played to essentially the same audience, consistently outgrossed those of Wayne, sometimes by as much as 300%.

It would be simplistic to suggest that Wayne's support of the Vietnam War in his private life was the only or even the determining factor in this record of box office decline, but it was an important one. Wayne was certainly the object of a great deal of criticism and hostility during and after the Vietnam period and his screen persona, guilty by association with the war, became increasingly politicized with every passing year.

Wayne's two greatest successes in this period, THE GREEN BERETS and TRUE GRIT, each in their own way addressed and reflected the controversy that continued to surround him. THE GREEN BERETS was an attempt to meet the antiwar critics head-on. It was Wayne's first overtly political film since BLOOD ALLEY in 1955; that is, it addressed a contemporary situation and its politics were not displaced into the nineteenth century. It grossed $10 million in 1968, more than any other Wayne film ever grossed except TRUE GRIT, which won him an Oscar the next year and grossed $14 million. (But, in perspective, in the same two years. THE GRADUATE and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDSANCE KID grossed $50 million each.) Wayne took such a beating over THE GREEN BERETS from both film critics and liberals that TRUE GRIT's success with both these groups the following year seems almost miraculous.

However, the same strategy was at work in this case that had earlier salvaged the careers of both Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn when they too had been rejected by the public. In TRUE GRIT Wayne saved himself by giving a self-mocking performance in which he surrendered every vestige of his dignity, thus proving himself a good sport, surprisingly able to poke fun at his own inflated and now highly politicized image. That is, by publicly humiliating himself — as Marlene Dietrich had done when she took part in a in a saloon brawl in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN and as Katherine Hepburn had done when Cary Grant socked her in the jaw in the first minute of THE PHILADELPHIA STORY — Wayne "atoned" for all his "sins" and won forgiveness from the public by no longer asking to be taken seriously.

In THE SHOOTIST, however, we see the Wayne persona become suddenly serious again. The film turns abruptly away from the good-natured self-caricature that had governed most of Wayne's films in the early 70s in favor of a kind of tragic Lear-like pathos that marks a return — one might almost say a regression — to a mood and feeling that had not been associated with Wayne since the Ford westerns of the early 60s. At the time of its release the film was frankly understood as a swan song, the intention of which was to rehabilitate and canonize its star. Though ultimately the film did only average business ($6 million), it was Wayne's first success with the critics in seven years and a modest hit with the sophisticated audience in New York. The film's considerable prestige, regardless of its actual earnings, did succeed in making Wayne respectable again. But why had the Wayne persona suddenly turned serious — indeed almost funereal? Why the abrupt retreat from comedy and the desire for redemption? The answer is that in THE SHOOTIST, for the first time since THE GREEN BERETS, the Wayne persona was appropriated in the service of a matter considerably more urgent to its makers than the mere vicissitudes of John Wayne's screen career.

THE SHOOTIST was released in 1976, the bicentennial year, at a time when the "John Wayne" brand of patriarchal heroism, already seriously compromised by Vietnam, had been finally disgraced entirely by the Watergate affair. I don't think there is any question that a significant relation exists between the forced resignation of the president from office in August 1974, the publication in January 1975 (less than six months later) of Glendon Swarthout's novel THE SHOOTIST, and the filming of this novel by Don Siegel and John Wayne for release in the final quarter of the bicentennial. This does not mean that the film should be construed as an allegory about Watergate or that J. B. Books, the outlaw hero of the film, was consciously intended as a surrogate for Nixon. Nor is Queen Victoria, whose death is announced to the hero in the story's second scene, meant to be a surrogate for Nixon. On the contrary, as a monarch who reigned more than half a century and who was still greatly loved by her subjects when she died. Victoria was everything Nixon was not. That was precisely the point. In 1975, the powerful saw Nixon as the man whose public humiliation and disgrace had cast a shadow over all authority, and no western could address the crisis of John Wayne's status in the bicentennial year without at the same time addressing what the Right, at the time, perceived to be wholesale crisis in authority throughout the United States, if not indeed throughout the world. This is so because "John Wayne" in 1976 was the very embodiment of distressed authority in the United States. Perhaps in the 40s it was still possible to view Wayne only in the guise of a heroic male demigod, but by the 70s Wayne, whether willingly or not, had practically become the patriarchy in the flesh. Thus any criticism of John Wayne, whether of the man or the persona, attacked and threatened the entire worldview of the Right.

I will argue in this article that THE SHOOTIST met this crisis by trying to rehumanize the archetype of patriarchal heroism that J.B. Books and Wayne personified in the hope that if Wayne became more likable again, patriarchal heroism would become respectable again. Through the redemption of "John Wayne," THE SHOOTIST tried to resurrect the honor and the dignity of all discredited authority, which had been very seriously wounded by the blunders of a fallen president.

This intention — and this hope — is most noticeable in the way the film transforms the ending of the Glendon Swarthout novel. In the novel, Books' death is handled like -a crucifixion drenched in tragic pathos. In the film, his death is pregnant with apotheosis and redemption. The novel, having been produced much more closely in time to the "tragedy" of Nixon's fall, is morbid and self-pitying. A year later, however, in the film the Right has found its second wind.


In the opening sequence of THE SHOOTIST, J.B. Books (John Wayne), an aging gunman notorious for having shot down thirty men, rides out of the mountains and into town and learns from Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) that he is dying of cancer and has less than six weeks to live. Books then takes up lodgings in the local boarding house of Mrs. Rogers (Lauren Bacall), a respectable bourgeois widow, and prepares to meet his death. The remainder of the film depicts the various ways in which the town reacts to Books's presence (he is viewed as both pariah and celebrity). It shows his hot-and-cold relationship with the Widow Rogers (who has moral qualms about his reputation and his moral code but who, in the end, comes to accept Books on his own terms). And we see his rehabilitation of her young son Gilliom (Ron Howard), whom Books snatches from the evil influence of a local ne'er-do-well.

After being subjected to a variety of insensitive efforts to exploit his notoriety for profit — by, among others, a journalist, an ex-fiancée (Sheree North), and an undertaker (John Carradine) — Books learns that his death will be both agonizing and undignified. "If I had your courage," the doctor tells him, implicitly suggesting suicide, "I would not die a death such as I have just described." But Books repudiates the idea of suicide. Finally resolving to die as he has lived, with both guns smoking, he invites the town's three villains to a shootout. The four men meet in the gaudy opulence of the town casino on the afternoon of Books' birthday (a sentimental touch added by the film). In the ensuing battle Books sustains gunshot wounds but manages to kill all three of his antagonists. At this point the novel and the film version of THE SHOOTIST diverge from one another drastically.

In the film, the rehabilitated Gilliom runs into the saloon just in time to see the bartender suddenly jump out from hiding and shoot Books in the back, thus cheating Books of his final moment of redemption. At once Gilliom takes up the fallen outlaw's gun and shoots the bartender dead, thus avenging Books' honor. For a tense moment the boy stands there, holding the gun in his hand (he has greatly coveted this gun throughout the film). Then suddenly he throws the gun away. Books sees him do this and dies silently and happily. The sense is that Books has taught the boy well, that in this final act Gilliom has graduated and become a man.

In the novel, on the other hand, Gilliom (whom Books has failed to rehabilitate) does not come in until after the bartender has shot Books. Moreover, in the novel the bartender's gunshot blast, unlike that in the film, is not fatal; it merely incapacitates Books, leaving him helpless and in agony. Books is then made to suffer the final indignity of having to beg Gillion (who detests him and who has only come to steal his guns) to put him out of his misery, as one would a horse. Gilliom obliges Books sadistically and then walks off with Books' guns, exultant.

"That was my idea, my little 'director's touch,'" Wayne admitted in an interview (The Advocate, September 22, 1976). The change in the ending represents

"my wish that this man have some reason — that there is some reason for this picture … and I think it's done through our guidance and example for this kid … I put this kid on the spot to make him realize that my life is not the best for a man to lead."

The emotional tone of the film at the decisive moment when Gilliom rejects the outlaw's gun is so elegant and so lyrical that it is impossible for the audience to think about what it has just been shown. It is certainly true that Gilliom has learned from Books to turn from violence as a way of life. But this does not mean that Books, through Gilliom, has repudiated the violence of his own life, nor does THE SHOOTIST urge every hawk to turn into a dove. On the contrary, the audience, through Gilliom, is simply being told to go about its business and to take no further interest in the actions of the powerful. When Gilliom relinquishes the outlaw's gun — the symbol and the instrument of power — he has really learned that he is not entitled to aspire to the general's rank or to take part in shaping policy. In other words, he has been taught his place.

Even more significant, however, Gilliom has also learned the "proper" attitude of sentimental and unquestioning reverence that the Right believes is due to every figure of authority. When Gilliom, in shooting the bartender, comes to Books' aid and avenges Books' honor, which Books can no longer defend for himself, his action is a sentimental gesture grounded in uncritical admiration, sympathy, and love. He is propelled by his feelings to step into Books' shoes and to act, on Books' behalf, as Books would act himself if he were able. For the instant, that is, he acts according to Books' code, which is not supposed to be his own; then he rejects this code entirely, having at last understood that such a code would be entirely unsuitable for him.

In the novel, the villains, through Gilliom's theft of Books' guns, ultimately win the day; Gilliom is their heir, not Books'. However, the triumph of the villains in the novel is cynical only insofar as it reflects certain basic assumptions of the Right about human societies, the most fundamental being that certain groups within society (women, the poor, the young, the heretical, and in particular the rebellious) are innately wicked and thus in need of constant supervision and restriction by their "betters," who are, in turn, innately competent, innately wise, and (hence) innately powerful. Further, the welfare (indeed the very survival) of society as a whole is seen as depending' entirely on society being organized hierarchically into supervised and supervising classes, with the best (that is, genetically most competent) men at the top. From this logic it follows that any disruption of such a balance of classes (particularly from the bottom) results inevitably and irrevocably in the complete reversion of civilized society to chaos and barbarism, a state of affairs in which (supposedly) not only the powerful but everyone would perish because then the genetically least competent would be, in charge. Essentially, then, the novel's ending represents a right-wing nightmare vision of the state of the union not in the year 1901 in the aftermath of Books' martyrdom but rather in the year 1975 in the aftermath of Nixon's fall, when the controls have been relaxed, and the barbarians are rushing through the gates.

The new ending of the film does not, of course, alter any of the novel's assumptions regarding the fundamental necessity of a rigidly hierarchical society in which the innately superior have charge over the lives of the innately inferior. On the contrary, the film merely effects a restoration of the social controls which the novel had portrayed as having been catastrophically subverted. In this context, Gilliom's rehabilitation and final conversion to the code of middle-class respectability is as central to the film's methods of restoring control as Gilliom's defection to the criminality had been to the novel's vision of class apocalypse. Both novel and film assume that it is not force but rather the self-restraint of the supervised (children, wives, workers, students, psychiatric patients, prisoners, etc.) that provides the most critical element in all social control.

Self-restraint per se is not an issue here — restraint would still be needed, even in utopia. The question is what, specifically, must (most) individuals keep from doing in a social order based on hierarchies of dominance? They must refrain from theft — not merely theft of property but, even more essentially, theft of privilege. THE SHOOTIST's worldview, at base, forbids the personal appropriation of authority. That is, we must all stay in our place.


Self-defense is a central theme in THE SHOOTIST, as it is in any western of the Right, yet, peculiarly, Books is never shown in any serious danger from the men he finally exterminates. Indeed, the villains in THE SHOOTIST are so crudely integrated into the scenario that the film's treatment of them seems almost absent-minded. However, Books is menaced constantly throughout the film. The method of THE SHOOTIST in dealing with these menaces involves the basic procedures of all defensively didactic narrative (regardless of originating ideology). These procedures involve

  1. dramatically invoking a feared threat or danger so that it can then be ritually exorcized,
  2. glorifying an exemplary hero by means of contrast with trivialized, hence devalued, enemies, and
  3. presenting (innocently or deliberately) mystified patterns of cause and effect by substituting myth for history.

The most obvious menace Books encounters in THE SHOOTIST is the threat of cancer and the prospect of a period of prolonged helplessness leading to a painful and degraded death. I think it would be inappropriate, however, to overemphasize this threat. Books' cancer actually functions in THE SHOOTIST in much the same way as FDR's polio functions in SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO. In both conservative and liberal-minded films, the hero's affliction primarily makes possible a demonstration of the hero's admirable strength of character and skill in overcoming obstacles, and it gives dreadful substance to a threat, which the action of the film ultimately, and triumphantly, neutralizes. In defining this threat it has to be remembered that what is really at stake for distressed authority in THE SHOOTIST is not mortality — that is, threatened loss of life — but rather threatened loss of power. In this context it really makes no difference that Books dies, whereas FDR does not. What is important is that Books, ultimately, does not die passively, the victim of a dreaded and immobilizing ailment. Rather, by taking matters into his own hands, he takes charge of his death just as he has taken charge of his life. Discharging his guns one final time into the villains at the end, he triumphs over both passivity and "fate," just like FDR, and thereby crowns his life and his authority once more with honor.

In fact, the real menace to the hero of THE SHOOTIST conies from neither cancer nor the film's cardboard villains but rather from a whole parade of secondary characters who (a) are hostile to his moral code or (b) attempt to take advantage of him by "improperly" appropriating for themselves the hero's special dispensation to exist outside the law. Books' real enemies in THE SHOOTIST are those who step out of their proper place to criticize him or exploit him. The main business of the film is to repudiate their criticism and to punish their presumption.


In both the novel and the film version of THE SHOOTIST, Books is visited by an obnoxious young reporter by the name of Dobkins, who wants to write a series of sensational articles on Books' life that will be syndicated coast-to-coast (and at the same time put Dobkins on the map). This is a key scene because it seems to have been put together with the sole intention of discrediting all journalists (newspapers being viewed entirely as institutions that profit from the humiliation of the powerful). In fact, Dobkins seems to be taking the rap in this scene for all the Woodwards and Bernsteins who have ever blown the whistle on establishment iniquity.

Although Dobkins tells the outlaw that he wants to set down the true facts before it is too late (before the last of the great shootists dies), he really wishes to sensationalize the outlaw's life — that is, he has his own sentimentalized idea of the "true facts." Although uninterested, Books patiently hears Dobkins out. Emboldened by Books' silence, the reporter grows increasingly impertinent. Finally he becomes insulting:

"Then I'll go after the psychological angle. What is the true temperament of the man-killer? Is he the loner that they say? Is he really cool-headed under fire? Is he by nature bloodthirsty? Does he brood after the deed is done? Reproach himself?"

Books turns white with fury. He stands, draws his gun, and inserts it into Dobkins' mouth. He backs the reporter out of the parlor, down the hall, out the front door, and onto the porch. He tells Dobkins to bend down and turn around. Then, while Mrs. Rogers stands protesting at the door, Books kicks the upstart squarely in the ass and sends him packing. (The scene is the same in both the novel and the film.)

The sexual politics of this scene deserve close scrutiny. At the beginning of the scene Dobkins challenges Books' dominance by attempting to penetrate him — not only by insulting him but also by attempting to "probe" deeply into Books' past in order to uncover Books' "secrets" which, in order to advance his own career, he means to use to Books' disadvantage. (Even Dobkins' name is full of penetrating connotations. Dobkins is an anagram for "bodkins," defined by Webster as "a thick blunt needle or a  pointed instrument for making holes in cloth." The word originally meant dagger or stiletto.) Books rises to this "challenge to his manhood" and humiliates Dobkins by penetrating him instead — with his gun and his boot — thus ratifying his own dominance and rendering the reporter powerless. This effectively puts Dobkins in his place again.

The phallic connotations of guns and daggers hardly needs to be spelled out — this scene is a duel of penises. The overtones of fellatio and sodomy could not be more explicit; in the book. Dobkins is told to suck on Books's gun. Even more to the point, a stereotype of homosexuality (incorrectly identified with "unmanliness" and "weakness of character") is repeatedly invoked in order to devalue Dobkins. His dress is dandyish, his manner is effete, and his motives are treacherous. He is interested in psychology (the study of the emotions, which only women are supposed to be concerned with) and has apparently projected onto Books sentimentalized ideas about the guilt feelings of outlaws. Moreover, he uses pretentious ten-dollar words like "salubrious" and "extant" which are unsuitably refined for a discourse with a "man" like Books (who, "to his credit," does not understand them). It is of course never explicitly suggested that Dobkins is actually homosexual; nevertheless these signs connote, if not the concept "homosexual" then at least the concept "sissy" (which, of course, amounts to the sane thing since for most people who do not know any better these two concepts, very simply, signify each other).

Yet to read homoerotic metaphors into this scene would be to misinterpret the encounter. There is no question of any sexual desire between Books and Dobkins here; there is only a contest for dominance between male enemies. In fact the operative metaphors are sexist. The sissy stereotype is invoked in order to inscribe Dobkins from the very beginning as one destined for submission. And the simplest, most effective, most "debasing" way of rendering Dobkins powerless, in the context of such sexist thinking, is simply to characterize him as a woman. That is why he is penetrated by Books at the end of the scene. And that is why Bacall is there to protest against (but also to observe) this penetration. Bacall is brought in so that Dobkins can be identified with her as someone who is penetrated (and hence dominated). At the same time that her presence intensifies his degradation because it has been witnessed by a woman, her defense of Dobkins (though she has no idea of what he has done) further stigmatizes him as a mama's boy who needs a woman to protect him. In all these ways is Dobkins (by sexist standards) rendered trivial — and the threat posed by the questions Dobkins raises in his interview with Books is thus effectively defused.

Similar trivializing strategies are employed throughout THE SHOOTIST to discredit other characters who challenge, criticize, or fail to show the proper reverence for Books. The undertaker who hopes to profit from Books' death is a senile dandy; the sheriff (Harry Morgan) who insults Books throughout the film is incompetent; the ex-fiancée who visits Books and offers to marry him before he dies is in league with Dobkins and only interested in the book royalties she would receive as Books' widow. On the one hand, all these figures are presented as unworthy, which discredits and neutralizes their criticism. On the other hand, they are all weak-willed; hence Books has little difficulty dominating them — indeed he has only to expose their motives to them and they crumble in his hands. From beginning to end, all the characters Books encounters in THE SHOOTIST are shown to be motivated by the same self-interest and opportunism (and cone to the same degraded end) as the unfortunate reporter. Only Mrs. Rogers, Books' harshest critic, escapes humiliation. She is allowed to keep her dignity intact and to have strength of character, partly because she and Gilliom are the only characters who do not try to exploit Books, but primarily because she learns to honor Books' code all by herself and therefore functions as the vehicle through which the audience is counseled to concede to the powerful their claims to special privilege and higher truth.

In all these instances THE SHOOTIST consistently functions to protect Books from a confrontation with an equal with whom the audience might possibly compare him. By the sane token the compassion which the film insists is due the dying Books is not in any way disinterested. It is not advanced as a general humanitarian principle but is rather directed specifically at a stricken authority figure who has been divested through extraordinary circumstances of the privileges he would ordinarily enjoy and which the film believes should be restored to him. THE SHOOTIST is opposed, in other words, to the stereotyping and humiliation of heroes but not to the stereotyping and humiliation of sheriffs, undertakers, barbers, journalists, old flames, and adolescent upstarts.


The action of THE SHOOTIST, like the action of the Book of Job (with whom Books is implicitly identified) tests its hero with a series of ordeals, a string of spiritual trials, which he must stoically endure and ultimately rise above. For the most part, these trials involve a series of insensitive intrusions on the privacy of Books' death. These intrusions on the hero's privacy, in turn, are caused by public curiosity regarding Books' (infamous) past. In one way or another and from one motive or another (greed, envy, malice), almost everybody Books encounters wants to know about the thirty men that he is credited with killing. However, they are all denied the facts they seek. Books refuses to discuss his past with anyone.

The film rationalizes Books' reluctance to explain or justify his past by suggesting that from Books' point of view these questions represent invasions of his privacy by people who are undeserving of his confidence. That the characters are all undeserving is, of course, something which the film has carefully arranged. For Books, such questions are impertinent and disrespectful; they prejudge him and he refuses to be judged. And just as he refuses to reveal his history to Dobkins, who is interested only in Books' legend ("I won't be remembered," Books exclaims at one point, "for a pack of lies!"), so also does he rebuff Mrs. Rogers' exhortation to see a preacher before dying. In both instances, the hero refuses to "confess." Confession implies sins which can be pardoned; to ask for pardon is to tacitly admit guilt.

What is at stake here, of course, is not whether Books himself should speak about his past or not (other characters could do this for him if the film desired — in this way his privacy would not be violated) but rather whether the audience is entitled to know about such matters so that it can judge Books for itself. THE SHOCTIST takes the clear position that the audience is not entitled to this knowledge because the audience is not (supposed to be) entitled to pass judgment on "John Wayne," J.B. Books, or any other figure of authority. Rather, it is entitled only to revere such figures, on their own terms (as Mrs. Rogers ultimately learns to do), from a respectful distance. And this would not be possible if we were brought up close.

Books' past is none of our business. No matter what he may have done, the film would argue, no matter how his actions have been misinterpreted, his heart, his motives, and his ideology remain above reproach — thus society has wrongly and unjustly censured him because as a heroic figure of authority he lives above he law.

It is for this reason that the film keeps hammering away at Books' past. The questions hurled at Books really challenge whether he should have heroic status; by seeking to expose his past, they call into question his integrity, his honor, and his authority. These challenges existed within the culture at large. The questions asked in the film represent questions which America, in 1975, was asking itself about authority-per se. THE SHOOTIST's mission was not to answer these questions but to repel them by denying us the right to ask them. When the film's characters are spurned and silenced, the audience is also spurned and silenced: it is we who have been disrespectful and impertinent.

To some extent, of course, we are shown Books' past in THE SHOOTIST. The film's prologue shows a series of brief clips from several John Wayne films in which he has played gunslingers like Books. When THE SHOOTIST was released, most reviewers were puzzled by this prologue or dismissed it as a sentimental tribute to John Wayne's career and legend. No one seemed to notice then the way it also functioned as an invocation of the values and the ideology that Wayne himself personified.

Like the newsreel that opens CITIZEN KANE, the prologue of THE SHOOTIST presents the film's themes and action in miniature. Just as the whole film presents us with a series of thwarted challenges to Books' dominance, so each section of the prologue repeats the same paradigmatic action — an exchange of gunfire between Wayne and an enemy, with Wayne emerging victorious. Each clip bears an advancing date and the clips proceed chronologically through that period of the nineteenth century with which the- Hollywood western has primarily concerned itself, roughly 1840-1890. Thus we are shown Wayne/Books during the opening of the frontier, Wayne/Books during the Indian wars, Wayne/Books during the Civil War, Wayne/Books during the building of the railroads, and so on.

The prologue projects U.S. history as entirely a matter of a series of contests for dominance between heroes and villains (that is, between the virtuous and the depraved), and the association of Books (as well as Wayne) with these evocative historical events is meant to persuade us that Books deserves our reverence and gratitude for having fought the battles and won the victories which made the United States the greatest nation in the world. This is nonsense. What the film really invokes here is not the historical reality of the U.S. West in the nineteenth century (about which most of us know next to nothing anyway) but rather the audience's own movie-going past in the twentieth century. We are not looking at biography or history in the prologue; we are looking at the way the West was mythologized by Hollywood in the westerns of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. THE SHOOTIST remembers the values and myths of the pre-Kennedy assassination era with nostalgia, not the values of the nineteenth century. This prologue's intent was to make Bicentennial audiences feel the same nostalgia.

THE SHOOTIST's prologue does not inform us about the past that Books is asked about throughout the film. We see instead Books' and Wayne's legend, which consists of a chain of equally context-less incidents, all more or less identical in nature. Over and over again we see Books the victor but never Books the man. We see archetypal situations, not historical events. But this is, of course, precisely how the past looks to the powerful (indeed, this is how it looks to most of us). History is not what actually "happened." History is a highly selective fiction, constantly reconstructed in the present to account for the present in order to legitimize or shame it. The writing of history is, by its very nature, a partisan activity. Once absorbed by ideology, history becomes the source of myth. And the crucial issue about myth (the mode not of truth but of desire — or of dread) is not fidelity to fact but rather who has authored it and why.


THE SHOOTIST's particular vision of society is a function on the one hand of certain assumptions of the conservative Right (specifically, the assumptions surrounding Social Darwinism) and, on the other hand, of a certain cast of mind, which may be called the fundamentalist imagination. It is important to distinguish these two tendencies from one another. Fundamentalism is neither the automatic by product of conservatism nor is it exclusively associated with conservatism. The fundamentalist imagination concerns itself above all with preserving received boundaries between "good" and "evil, as well as with defending certain cultural taboos that guard these boundaries. Essentially a puritanical, authoritarian mode of thought, concerned obsessively with order and with the stamping out of heresy, fundamentalism is canonical in operation rather than investigative: it explains the world by trying to reduce rather than by trying to explore social, psychological, and moral complexity. Its contrary would be dialectical thought. Although we typically associate fundamentalism with the Right, the fundamentalist spirit quite frequently animates both liberal films (as in ROOTS or the films of Costa Gavras, which operate essentially in the service of scandal rather than of historical "truth") and socialist ones (as in MISSION TO MOSCOW, WATCH ON THE RHINE, or THE NORTH STAR). Conservative, liberal, and socialist fundamentalism are certainly grounded in drastically contrasting visions of ideal societies, but the didactic rhetorical and narrative procedures they employ in the service of these different visions are identical.

The "hero vs. villains in a threatened community" narrative paradigm (whether in the war, western, detective, police, spy, monster, or disaster genres), of which THE SHOOTIST is a very typical example, tends to function as a stage upon which conflicts between the almost always contradictory claims of social cohesion and community survival, on the one hand, and individual desire, on the other, are brought out into the open and artificially resolved. (Indeed, the arbitrary artistic resolution of issues seemingly incapable of immediate social resolution is one of the primary — though certainly not the only — cultural functions of narrative; stories are the dreams of culture.) However, the nature and projected meaning of this conflict will be very different, depending upon (a) whether the terms of this conflict have been mediated by the cultural assumptions of the Right or the cultural assumptions of the liberal Left (the socialist Left cannot be said to have any voice today in Hollywood at all) and (b) whether the imagination governing the narrative is fundamentalist or not. THE SHOOTIST has much in common, for example, with HIGH NOON and SHANE, but the latter films are animated by a very different kind of social vision. Let me clarify with a brief comparison of THE SHOOTIST, an expression of conservative fundamentalism, with HIGH NOON, a non-fundamentalist film from the liberal Left.

In HIGH NOON, Grace Kelly's Quaker principles are shown to be inadequate to Gary Cooper's self-defensive needs in mach the sane way as Lauren Bacall's lukewarm Christianity in THE SHDOTIST is shown to be inadequate to John Wayne's self-defensive needs. In both films, we have the sane pair of contrasted moral systems: the female system emphasizing fairness and compassion, oriented to promote justice; the male system emphasizing righteousness and honor, oriented to promote survival. In both films, moreover, the woman's moral system handicaps the hero in the face of danger. These contrasted moral systems are not inevitably gender-identified by Hollywood: Wayne's survival morality is challenged by Montgomery Clift in RED RIVER and by James Stewart in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. HIGH NOON, however, allows Kelly certain actions and responsibilities that THE SHOOTIST forbids Bacall. To put it another way, HIGH NOON trusts Kelly and through her, its audience, in a way that THE SHOOTIST does not trust Bacall and, through her, its audience.

The essential issue which divides HIGH NOON and THE SHOOTIST is whether individuals should be encouraged to develop competence in many social roles or only one. That is, who shall be allowed to act? The conservative fundamentalism of THE SHOOTIST answers this question by assigning all individuals in society to one, and only one, of a very limited number of social roles, each with its own unique code of conduct and its own (unequal) powers of initiative. The basic roles are

  1. respectable law-abiding townsperson,
  2. outsider warrior hero (sometimes a maverick law officer), and
  3. poacher villain.

In this scheme of strict role specialization, society resembles the social order of the insect world, in which there is essentially a worker caste and a warrior caste (and of course natural enemies) which are each genetically distinct from one another. (Only warrior ants have eyes. Worker ants are blind.) These social roles are intended to be fixed forever. Hence, the movement of individuals from one caste to another is not seen as evidence of their superior adaptability and fitness; on the contrary, it is viewed as evidence of poaching and presumption. In THE SHOOTIST Wayne must act alone against the villains — because as t)le warrior it is his role and his role alone to do this. In HIGH NOON Cooper spends almost the entire film going from one person to another asking for their help in facing down the villains. And the refusal of the town to help Cooper is something which HIGH NOON regards as a pathological perversion of its vision of the natural order of things in a democracy.

The deepest assumption of HIGH NOON is that, all moral systems being arbitrary, no moral system can account for all contingencies. At the climax of the film Kelly, the embodiment of Quaker pacifism, is forced to compromise her principles and shoot a man in order to save Cooper's life. Because Kelly has to cross the line to an antagonistic moral system, the film's contrasted paths of action, by implication, are available to everyone (depending on the circumstances).

It is precisely this rejection of moral absolutism and its consequent expansion of individual choice, judgment, and responsibility, as well as individual uncertainty and error, that is forbidden by the fundamentalist worldview. When Kelly acts out Cooper's code at the climax of HIGH NOON, she behaves as the audience might be required to behave one day under similar circumstances. On the other hand, when Gilliom Rogers is allowed to act out Books' code at the climax of THE SHOOTIST (Mrs. Rogers herself, being a woman, is not allowed to act at all), it is only in order to purge Gilliom (and the audience) forever of the temptation to step out of their place and to identify with that code.

In the shootouts at the end of the fundamentalist westerns of the Right, we always see the parasitic amorality of the villains annihilated by the leader's heroic self-sufficiency while the town stands passive on the sidelines, helpless. In this scheme, the passivity of the town  — its inability to act — is central. It is the town's supposedly innate passivity and helplessness that legitimizes and necessitates the aggressive actions of the hero, without whose aid the town would perish. It is true that in HIGH NOON the town also remains passive, but it does so out of fear, not out of an innate incapacity to act; its passivity is regarded as an aberration. By contrast, there are many westerns of the liberal Left — perhaps the best example is SHANE — in which the hero's courage is contagious. Because of Shane's example, the town is roused from its passivity, asserts itself at last, and finally regains its self-respect.

It is precisely this capacity for cooperative self-determination and its social consequences that is most feared by the fundamentalist worldview. Only Wayne is self-determined in THE SHHOOTIST. The rest of us are worker ants.

Among the ideological elements of THE SHOOTIST are the following: the self-righteous patriarchal hero as judge and executioner of villains, who come from the lowest levels of society; the assumption that society is menaced only from below and never from above; anxiety regarding the inheritance of ideology and the consequent obsession with "rehabilitating" the young; the assigning of different moral ideologies, thus of different codes of conduct, to mutually exclusive groups within society. These elements can of course be found in many other westerns of the Right. What distinguishes THE SHOOTIST from other films that share its ideology is a higher level of anxiety than is usually encountered in the western — after all, in 1976 the confidence of the Right had been very badly shaken.

Because THE SHOOTIST's sense of mission is more urgent than that of other films that share its outlook and assumptions, its tone is more obsessive and its procedures are more carelessly worked out. (This is especially noticeable in the almost cavalier ineptitude with which the script sets up the villains whom Books finally exterminates). Yet this very carelessness is what renders the ambitions and the motives of the film so entirely transparent. Indeed, as with most mass-culture narrative, THE SHOOTIST's narrative choices — and compulsions — all become coherent once one understands the way its social vision intersects its social fears.