THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.
The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that went, ‘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, and I require the same from them’ “. Books arrives in Carson City, Nevada in the year 1901, a thriving city in a changing world. He’s come to visit his old friend Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), and get a second opinion. Hostetler examines him and gives Books the bad news, ” You have a cancer…advanced”. The doctor can’t do anything to help his friend, except give him Laudanum for the pain. Describing how the end will come, Hostetler says, “I don’t think the death I just described to you is the one I would choose”.
Books decides to spend his last days in Carson City, taking a room with widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her restless son Gillom. The young man idolizes Books when he finds out his identity, treating him like rock-star royalty. Others in the town aren’t so welcoming, including Marshal Thibido (Harry Morgan) and Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), an ornery cuss whose brother was killed by Books. News of the celebrity in Carson City spreads, with faro dealer Jack Pulford (Hugh O’Brien) and local tough guy Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney) wondering how they would fare against the dying gunfighter.
Others seek to cash in on Books’ pending demise. Newspaperman Dobkins (Rick Lenz) wants to write up a series of articles on Books’ colorful career, only to receive a gun in the mouth and a boot in the ass for his nerve. Former flame Serepta (Sheree North) wants to marry him and trade in on his name. Undertaker Hezekiah Beckum (John Carradine in a wonderful cameo) offers a free funeral, hoping to put Books’ body on display, but ends up paying Books. The doomed Books, who only seeks to die with dignity and honor, devises a plan once the pain becomes too great to bear. He has Gillom invite Pulford, Sweeney, and Cobb to join him Monday morning for a last stand that’s tensely staged… and comes with a surprise twist.
Don Siegel directed THE SHOOTIST with his usual style, handling the well-stocked cast of veterans. Bacall, Boone, Carradine, and Stewart had all costarred with The Duke in films past, making this a sort of last round-up for them all. Bacall is particularly good as the widow Rogers, who despises Books at first until she learns he’s dying of cancer (Bacall’s first husband, the great Humphrey Bogart, died of the disease). Then her Christian charity shines through, and though she disapproves of his former lifestyle, the two gain a mutual respect. Ron Howard has what’s probably his best film role here, a long way from Opie in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and Richie in HAPPY DAYS. The superstar director of today gives a terrific performance, having honed his acting chops by working with so many legendary actors and directors in his career. Gillom is a young wastrel with no solid direction in his life until he meets Books. His involvement in the final shootout scene evokes strong emotions in anyone who watches this film.
The screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale is full of memorable dialogue. I love the use of language in this film, it has a poetic quality to it that separates it from the usual Wayne Western. The actors all deliver their lines with conviction, and it’s no surprise considering that marvelous cast. Besides those I’ve mentioned, Scatman Crothers also shines in his small role. But it’s John Wayne who dominates the show. The Duke may move a little slower, and his voice may be ravaged by time and illness, but he’s still The Duke. The cancer that eventually killed him hadn’t been detected yet, but somewhere in the back of his mind I’m sure Wayne knew THE SHOOTIST would be his last cinematic stand. His final public appearance was at the 1979 Academy Awards:
(One trivia note: Charles G. Martin plays the man who guns down Wayne. The Duke also bit the dust onscreen in only six other films. Can you name them?)