The Shootist
directed by Don Siegel
(Paramount, 1976)

This is John Wayne's last film, as he was dying of cancer as he made it, and it is the perfect film for his finale. He plays J.B. Books, an aging gunfighter at the dawn of the 20th century who discovers he has cancer. He moves into a boarding house run by the widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard). The kindly and respected doctor (James Stewart) gives him medication to ease his pain as he inevitably slides into the agony of the spreading cancer, but hints that Books might want to find another way to die. He does.

What is right about this film? Everything. Wayne shows his true acting ability here, and some of the dialogue is absolutely perfect. When Bacall self-righteously confronts Wayne on how he has led his life and how he sees himself as godlike, Wayne replies, "I'm a dying man, afraid of the dark." That reply totally ends the argument.

Even the opening of the film is great. We are shown a montage of Books' life, which is really a series of clips from old John Wayne films interspersed with new clips to add color, perfectly narrated by Ron Howard, with an introduction to the "creed" that Books (and most of Wayne's characters) have followed: "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a-hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same from them."

The musical score is also just right, with a definite melancholy air intermingled with lighter sequences that highlight Books' determination to have no regrets and go out in style.

I've already mentioned Wayne, Stewart, Bacall and Howard, but the cast list does not end there. This movie has an amazing number of recognizable faces, in parts large and small. The list includes Richard Boone as one of the meanest bad guys you will ever see; Hugh O'Brian as one of the slickest bad guys you'll ever see; Bill McKinney as a nasty but incompetent bad guy; Harry Morgan as the marshal who can't stop talking; John Carradine as the perfect undertaker; Sheree North as the ex-girlfriend who wants to cash in on Books' death; Rick Lenz as a nosy, fame-hunting newspaper reporter; Scatman Crothers as the local liveryman and expert haggler; and Melody Thomas Scott in a bit part as a girl on a streetcar. Also look for Christopher George, Leo Gordon and Ricky Nelson in uncredited parts in the opening montage.

This is a Western, a character study and a tribute to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. This is a great movie.

by Chris McCallister
27 May 2006

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