The Duke finally rode off into the sunset with this solemn but satisfying Western, which echoes the conclusion of star John Wayne’s film career through a storyline about an aging gunfighter looking for the right way to die. Although Wayne had been experimenting with possible final cinematic statements throughout the early ’70s—for instance, he was memorably martyred in the terrific 1970 adventure The Cowboys—it’s generally agreed that Wayne knew his health would prevent him from completing another film after The Shootist. Thus, the parallels between his offscreen and onscreen exits make the picture feel weightier than it might otherwise, since the film is actually rather gentle and talky.
After a montage of clips from old Wayne movies is used to cleverly convert his various cowboy characterizations into episodes from the colorful life of his current character, John Bernard Books, the movie proper begins with Books’ arrival in Carson City at the tail end of the Wild West period. Aware that he’s not well, Books seeks an examination from a trusted physician—played, in a nice touch, by fellow cowboy-movie veteran Jimmy Stewart—and learns he’s got terminal cancer.
Books rents a room from a graying widow, Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), whose twentysomething son, Gillom (Ron Howard), predictably regards Books with worshipful awe. As the leisurely plot unfolds, old friends and enemies gravitate toward Books, some trying to exploit him and some trying to settle old scores, so a major theme of the movie is that Books’ violent life has left him with few real emotional connections. (Although it explores them far less elegantly, The Shootist anticipates themes that Clint Eastwood later investigated in his own farewell to Westerns, 1992’s Unforgiven.)
The story twists and turns in order to set up the inevitable final shootout, so the resolution of Books’ quandary about how to die won’t catch anyone by surprise. Nonetheless, the way the picture assembles great Old Hollywood faces, and juxtaposes them with newcomer Howard, basically works. And because director Don Siegel was a master at screen economy—lest we forget, he was Eastwood’s directorial mentor—The Shootist never wanders into the realms of preaching or sentimentality, two potential traps given the material. Instead, The Shootist is an exercise in Hollywood mythmaking, and therefore exactly the right way for the actor born Marion Robert Morrison to retire the larger-than-life screen persona he spent a lifetime investing with idealistic meaning.
The Shootist: GROOVY