The Shootist, starring John Wayne, VHS version
Five out of five stars
The premise of this movie fits well with the aged John Wayne in the lead role. He plays J. B. Books, one of the last gunfighters. The context is Carson City, Nevada and Books is dying of cancer of his digestive tract. Which is fitting, because John Wayne did in fact die of cancer of the stomach.
Knowing that he has at most a couple of months to live, Books consults his old friend Dr. Hostetler, played by Jimmy Stewart. When the grim news is given, Books goes to a boarding house run by a widow played by Lauren Bacall. She is a person committed to peace, so while she will not turn away a sick man, she expresses her displeasure. Her son is played by Ron Howard and she is appalled at the hero worship that he exhibits towards Books.
The supporting cast of the movie is very powerful, there are men in town that would like to be the one to gun down the great Books and two of them are played by Richard Boone of “Have Gun Will Travel” and Hugh O’Brian of “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The local lawman is played by Harry Morgan.
Books settles all his affairs, becomes a bit of a father figure to the Howard character, does a bit of courting of the Bacall character and then rather than just rot away, arranges to go out in a final gunfight against overwhelming odds.
This is Wayne playing a vulnerable human, struggling to cope with the sad facts of life and that we all age and have our skills fade and our bodies fail us. In many ways, this makes “Shootist” one of his best movies, he doesn’t punch everyone in sight and expresses some hard-won wisdom of a man that has beaten death in the past but now must face it for certain.