The Shootist John Books an aging gunfighter goes to see a doctor he knows for a second opinion after another doctor told him he has a cancer which is terminal. The doctor confirms what the other said. He says Books has a month maybe two left. He takes a room in the boarding house and the son of the woman who runs it recognizes him and tells his mother who he is. She doesn’t like his kind but when he tells her of his condition, she empathizes. Her son wants him to teach him how to use a gun. Books tries to tell him that killing is not something he wants to live with. Books, not wanting to go through the agony of dying from cancer, tries to find a quicker way to go.
After a brief prologue made up of film clips of Wayne in his career prime, we meet his cinematic alter ego, John Bernard Books, an aging gunfighter who rides into Carson City, Nevada in the early 1900’s looking for Doc Hostetler (James Stewart), the old sawbones who once saved his life and apparently the only man he trusts. It seems the old guy has prostate cancer and only a few weeks to live, and as Hostetler tells him, it will not be a pleasant death. Books, with no where else to go, checks into Bond Rogers’ (Lauren Bacall) boarding house to live out his final days in peace under the alias “William Hickok.” When Bond’s delinquent son Gillom (Ron Howard, in a nice change-of-pace performance and his last major film appearance before becoming a director) informs her of his true identity, she tries to throw him out but relents when she finds out his condition and agrees to help him die in peace.
Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned as everyone from the town mortician (John Carradine) to an old girlfriend (Sheree North) to a newspaper editor (Richard Lenz) try to take advantage of his situation and turn a fast buck. And then there are several lowlifes (Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Bill McKinney, etc.) who want to seal their reputations by taking him out. Since it’s obvious that no one will leave him alone in his final days, and since he grows fond (to put it mildly) of both Bond and Gillom and wishes them no harm, Books decides to go out in style and on his own terms, and to take a few scumbags along with him.
“The Shootist” is one of those rare films that seems to have gotten better with age. It wasn’t particularly successful with critics or audiences at the time, as they were apparently put off by its leisurely pace and relative lack of action. Typical of the reaction was a TV guide critic (who shall remain nameless), who once derided it and its stars as coming across as “relics of the old West.” (Wasn’t that the point?) However, it is now pretty much considered a classic, and rightfully so, especially when viewed next to some of the lesser films of Wayne’s 1970’s period (“Cahill,” “Rooster Cogburn,” “The Cowboys”). In fact, it is now hard to believe that Wayne was not nominated for an Oscar here, as Books is clearly one of the best performances of his career and definitely eclipses his extravagantly praised, Oscar-winning mugging in “True Grit.” Indeed, “The Shootist” deserves to stand alongside Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” as the last three great Westerns in cinema history. Everything about it is immaculate–the sets, the costumes, the supporting cast (including Harry Morgan in a terrific cameo as an unsympathetic sheriff who tells Books, “What I put on your grave won’t pass for roses.”), the script, and the chemistry between Wayne and Bacall, teaming up for the first time since “Blood Alley.” And everything is held together by old pro director Donald Siegel who, aside from the late Hal Ashby, may very well be the most underappreciated director in cinema history.
But “The Shootist” is John Wayne’s film all the way. He is simply sensational, and BRAVE, since he apparently knew at the time his cancer was back and that this would probably be his last film. It’s not every film legend who gets to end his/her career on a high note, but Wayne did just that. I just hope he knew it before his death barely three years later.