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The Shootist / The Sons of Katie Elder
  • Composed by Elmer Bernstein
  • La-La Land Records / 2013 / 57m

The Shootist is an unusually poignant film.  John Wayne – more than a beloved actor, a true icon – played an ageing gunfighter dying of cancer; and while it was not known at the time for sure that it would be his last film, it was widely known that he was in ill health and his life was coming to its end.  The parallels between the actor and his character, J.B. Books, were obvious.  For my money the film drew one of the actor’s very finest performances and, while it didn’t do much business at the time, is probably the best film he made after the masterpiece The Searchers.  (What a cast there is in support of Wayne, led by James Stewart and Lauren Bacall.)

Elmer Bernstein scored over a quarter of the films in which Wayne appeared in the 1960s and 70s – The Shootist was the eighth of the actor’s films scored by the legendary composer.  The brief score – less than thirty minutes long – had never been released in its original form until this album from La-La Land, though the composer did include several selections on the two-part John Wayne anthology he recorded for Varèse Sarabande in the 1980s.

Elmer Bernstein

Elmer Bernstein

The wonderful score opens with a bouncy main theme which, while identifiably a Bernstein/Wayne theme, is a bit different from the composer’s other scores for Wayne westerns.  It has energy but it’s a more wistful kind, playing over the unusual opening title sequence which presents images from some of the actor’s past triumphs – the music having the usual bounce but perhaps acknowledging that it’s reflecting the past rather than the present.

There is some action music in the score – in fact, quite starkly aggressive action music in “Attack” and “Shootout” – but more often, Bernstein’s music takes a very tender form, actually more like To Kill a Mockingbird than The Magnificent Seven template he used in most of his westerns.  The gentle strings and piano of “D / Prognosis” are heartbreaking; later, there’s an extraordinary whimsy to “Farewells”, one of the score’s most affecting moments.  Bernstein’s orchestra is often only of chamber size and this allows him to convey such a personal feeling in the music.  The most obvious concession to his usual style is in the rambunctious, delightful “Ride”.  The Shootist is such a fine score – it’s been one of my favourite Bernsteins since I first saw the film many years ago and I’m delighted it’s finally been released.

Because of its brevity, La-La Land paired it with another Bernstein/Wayne western score – and that one’s not half bad either.  The Sons of Katie Elder is more standard fare as a film – Wayne plays the eldest of four sons of the recently-deceased Katie Elder, who decide to try to find out the truth about the death of their father.  While it’s not an outstanding film by any means, there’s always something so satisfying about simply watching John Wayne do his thing.

sons_katie_elderElmer Bernstein’s score is also more “standard”, if that word can ever be used for a Bernstein western score.  The spectacular main theme – very much in the mould of The Magnificent Seven – is one of his most memorable.  Bouncing with such energy, such warmth, such dignity, I could sit and listen to it all day.  I know that many composers tackled westerns with great success, but surely nobody ever expressed the romantic view of the wide open spaces and grinning cowboys – the John Wayne view, in other words – quite as successfully as Bernstein.

A sumptuous, truly gorgeous secondary theme is heard in “Texas is a Woman” – warm-hearted (as almost all music by this composer is), a great melody, it’s just a delight and the theme’s appearances in subsequent tracks are always an absolute pleasure.  Delightful in a different way is the lively jig which follows, “The Elders Fight” – the composer lending a lovely comic touch to the film.  The final theme is first heard in “Dangerous Journey” – it’s the melody of a song which Bernstein actually wrote specifically for the album (it’s not in the film), performed in a later track by the great Johnny Cash, who somehow makes you believe in Ernie Sheldon’s slightly dainty lyrics (this album concludes with Sheldon’s own performance of the song, which wasn’t on the original album but was released on a single).  There are a few pieces of action music here too, generally fairly gentle and always very listenable.

The recording here is the re-recorded album Bernstein made with a reduced orchestra at the time of the film – that’s all that survives, and it’s a really good album (the label has sensibly removed the John Wayne narration from the first performance of “There is a Woman”, but included that later as a bonus track).  This is just a fantastic release, pairing one really good score with one absolute gem; the sound is wonderful on both scores, and there are excellent notes by Jeff Bond.  For Bernstein fans, 2013 is unlikely to see a finer soundtrack album.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Monday 29 April, 2013 at 21:29

    Great review. I’d agree with your last sentence except Doug Fake has indicated that the complete original recording of The Ten Commandments is coming from Intrada soon…

  2. James Southall (Reply) on Monday 29 April, 2013 at 21:31

    Ah yes. That’s a very good point.

  3. Yavar Moradi (Reply) on Thursday 28 September, 2017 at 21:22

    James — When you wrote this review I agreed with you about the superiority of The Shootist to Katie Elder on the disc, but I just got LLL’s more recent release of the complete *film* recording of Katie Elder (over HALF of what Elmer wrote was not included on the album recording) and this is now my favorite Bernstein western score. I highly recommend you pick it up if you haven’t yet!