J.B. Books (John Wayne) had a notoriety about him for being a gunslinger who had killed around thirty men, but come the turn of the century, January 1901, he was beginning to look past his prime. This did not slow his great skill with a pistol, as today as he approached Carson City across a vast prairie and was accosted by a thief who demanded he hand over his wallet or he would be shot. The thief didn't realise who he was dealing with and was shot himself by Books, left to wander off by himself with a stomach wound while his attacker carried on his way. What Books really wanted to do was reach the town's doctor (James Stewart) for a second opinion...
The Shootist was John Wayne's final film, and although it was not intended to be, it proved a fitting elegy to his career even if it was not recognised as such in its year of release, mainly because The Duke still planned to make more movies during the three years he had left. But what could have been better for him than a story that followed the last week of an ageing gunfighter, presented as much as a farewell to the heydays of the western as it was a valediction to the star of so many in this genre? Books gets his second opinion, you see, and is told that he is dying of cancer, with nothing he can do to stop it.
If it wasn't for Clint Eastwood, you could say that westerns died with Wayne's inevitable demise in this film, and it's not spoiling anything to point that out as Books' death is well telegraphed in advance, it's simply a matter of how he is going to go. There is truly a sense of a way of life passing in this, as there was in a number of such films during this decade after The Wild Bunch blazed onto the screen, and as Wayne had been the biggest player to ever appear in them, it was as if he was setting aside a career with an acknowledgement of how good it had been to him and how good he had been to his fans. So if you know anything about him at all, you can't help but feel the poignancy in the manner in which the story resolves itself.
Books settles in a boarding house owned by widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), whose son Gillom (Ron Howard) gets very excited when he hears who is living under his roof. But civilisation is making inroads into the lives of the residents of Carson City, and there is no place there for the likes of this man of violence, although as depicted here, he seems like such a thoroughly decent chap, averring that he never killed anyone who did not deserve it, that you cannot see why he would not have fitted right in for the autumn of his life. It's only the fact that there are those who are itching to finish him off that throws a spanner in the works, as even though word has got around that he is dying, there are those who want to execute him for the sheer glory of it all.
It's here that the mythology of the star outweighs the mythology of the film, as unless you had read Glendon Swarthout's novel you would never have heard of this Books character and have to take his prowess and legend on trust: the film opens with a montage of a handful of Wayne's previous hits, to underline that this is not so much a fictional man of the West we're dealing with, but a long-lasting movie icon with all the baggage that goes with that. For that reason all the filling in of the protagonist's background, where he encounters various people from his past (often played by actors from Wayne's past), is regretfully colourless, and the contemplative mood edges to close to muted and drab. Fortunately, The Duke is there at the heart of it to supply one of his most humane performances, not a bad way to go out, although how much you got out of The Shootist very much depended on how much you had invested in him in the first place. Music by Elmer Bernstein.