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A fitting eulogy to the film career of John Wayne
on 11 November 2004
It is totally fitting that John Wayne's last film is an obvious eulogy for his legendary career as the greatest Western star of them all. Like many others, I have always thought the Duke need this when he made "The Shootist." This 1976 film, directed by Don Siegel, begins with a montage of gunfights from Wayne's career, thereby establishing the reputation of his character, J. B. Books. It is 1901 and Books rides into Carson City to visit his old friend, Doctor E.W. Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart). The doctor's verdict is that Books is dying of cancer and does not have long to live. Books knows the rightness of this, because in an age of automobiles and electricity there is no place for an old gunfighter. But his reputation means Books will be denied a quiet death: the barber saves clippings of his hair to sell and the undertaker plans to exhibit his corpse. Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), the widow who runs the boarding house where he is staying, wants to send him packing, not only because of all the men he has killed but because her son Gillom (Ron Howard) thinks Books is a hero. Books tries to explain the code by which he has lived, but the boy cannot understand. Meanwhile, several gunfighters who would love to be the one to gun down the famous Books have arrived in town. Books sees an opportunity to die on his own terms, in one last epic gunfight.
"The Shootist" is a film of remarkable restraint, that achieves a wonderful eloquence. Wayne and Bacall have some nice scenes together as the widow becomes fond of the dying gunman. But it is the dynamic between Wayne and Howard that drives the film, as the gunman tries to explain to the hero worshipping boy that killing men is not a heroic enterprise. Ultimately, it is left to the boy to learn that lesson for himself and finally get the stamp of approval from his hero. It is impossible to watch "The Shootist" and not think of Wayne's last appearance at the Academy Awards, shortly before his death, when the cancer that would claim his life had reduced his body to a gaunt figure. Life does not always imitate art. But no other major star in the history of film did a better job of going out on their own terms.