The Story: Last week, we looked at a scene from Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru, where a government functionary is given the news—by witholding the truth—that he has inoperable cancer.
This week, it's The Shootist—a Western, not "an Eastern" (but as we've come to learn, Kurosawa's dramas have often translated very well to that particular genre)—but the plots have an eerie similarity: a man of life-long habits is given a cancerous death sentence and goes out and lives the remainder of his days, doing things not done in life. For Ikiru's Kenji Watanabe, it's a brief encounter with a wild life-style that settles down into seeing through one good act to completion against all odds, rather than merely pushing paper and doing the bureaucratic shuffle.
For John Bernard Books (John Wayne in his last film role), it is to live a less wild, rambling life—staying in one place—reading a complete newspaper, settling his affairs and arranging a showdown with the meanest gunslingers in town. Both men want to go out in a blaze of glory—Watsanabe, to be free of his do-nothing life, and Books to not face death, suffering in bed, but to be taken out in combat. Both men seek a release from the poor choices of their lives, by using their respective skill-sets.
For this scene between doctor and patient, two veteran actors are reunited after 15 years (the characters mention its been that long since they've seen each other), Wayne and James Stewart. The last time they shared the screen together was John Ford's time-spanning epic of truth and the legend that becomes it, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The filming was difficult. Stewart, hard of hearing, was having trouble with the acoustics of the sound-stage, and in the shots where both actors interact there's an odd disconnect. Sometimes Wayne tries to interject a line while Stewart has paused before continuing his.* The folksy stammer that Stewart employed throughout his career (so he could think of his lines he always said) is more pronounced, the voice louder, the manner broader. Wayne is a study in subtlety, his weathered face actually seeming to collapse on itself in moments of disappointment. Despite the apparent confusion on-set, the scene plays beautifully, even naturalistically, with Books vulnerable and rocked back a bit on his heels, and Hostetler, when forced, being brutally, even savagely, honest about the prognosis.
John Wayne died of stomach cancer, three years after making The Shootist.
The Set-Up: Western gunslinger John B. Books (John Wayne) is dying of prostate cancer, diagnosed by Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart). A second visit to the doctor—who had previously pulled a life-threatening bullet from "the shootist"—confirms the diagnosis, but offers no cure...and no future.
JOHN BERNARD BOOKS: First things first, Doc...
BOOKS: Almost forgot to ask you. How much do I owe you?
Dr. E.W. HOSTETLER: You're a man after my own heart, Books. Most of 'em ask that last...
HOSTETLER:...if at all.
HOSTETLER: I make it $4 for the two visits and one dollar for that.
BOOKS: What's that?
HOSTETLER: They call that laudanum.
HOSTETLER: Solution of opium and alcohol.
BOOKS: Opium? Well, that can get to be a habit.
HOSTETLER: Well, absolutely. An addiction!
BOOKS: How's it taste?
HOSTETLER: Just..just..awful. Terrible!
HOSTETLER: It's the most potent pain-killer we've got.
BOOKS: How much of it do I take?
HOSTETLER: Well,...a-as much as you need when you need it.
HOSTETLER: We...I think a spoonful would be enough...
HOSTETLER: ...to start with.
BOOKS: And later?
HOSTETLER: I don't know.
HOSTETLER: I don't know...but...but..but I think...one morning you're just gonna wake up...
HOSTETLER: "...in this bed and here I'm gonna stay."
BOOKS: Hostetler, I wanna know.
HOSTETLER: But..uh..uh...unless you insist, I'd ra...rather not talk about it.
BOOKS: Well, I wanna know.
HOSTETLER: Wel-...there..there'll be a increase in the severity of the pain...in your lower spine...
HOSTETLER: ...your hips, your groin, y...
HOSTETLER: D...y...y...you want me to go on w...?
HOSTETLER: The pain will become unbearable. The...the..no drug...
HOSTETLER: ...will moderate it.
HOSTETLER: If you're lucky, you'll lose consciousness...
HOSTETLER: And until then, you'll scream.
HOSTETLER: Now..now..I'm sorry.
HOSTETLER: I-yi-yi-I didn't mean to...be specific like this.
HOSTETLER: So, the next time, I'll go to Mrs. Rogers. You...you...you just telephone.
BOOKS: Oh, my (hat)..
HOSTETLER: You just telephone.
HOSTETLER: There's...there's...one more thing I'd say...
HOSTETLER: Both of us...have had a lot to do with death.
HOSTETLER: I'm not a brave man...
HOSTETLER: ...but you must be....
HOSTETLER: Na...now...this is not advice.
HOSTETLER: It's not even a suggestion, it's just something for you to reflect...
HOSTETLER: ...on while your mind's still clear.
Books looks hard at Hostetler.
HOSTETLER: I would not die a death like...
HOSTETLER: ...I just described.
HOSTETLER: Not if I had your courage.