John Wayne's final film, just now released on DVD, is a labor of love that simply begs for analysis.
In The Shootist, Wayne plays an old and dying gunfighter named J.B. Books -- nay, a "shootist" -- who returns to his old stomping grounds in order to die in peace. His old doc (James Stewart) confirms that he has cancer, so Books heads for the boarding house of the widow Rogers (Lauren Bacall), raising her son Gillom (Ron Howard) all by her lonesome.
Of course, when word gets out about Books' condition, his old enemies start to surface, creating trouble, bloodshed, and a lot of nuisances for the residents of Carson City.
That said, The Shootist is not an action-packed film. While the gun battles are there, diligently dropped in every half-hour, the film is really about a man coming to terms with his own impending death. He haggles over his own tombstone, sells his trusty old horse, all while the cancer gets progressively worse. He teaches young Gillom a thing or two, revives passion in the widow, and gets his revenge, all in a quick 98 minutes.
The really interesting bits of The Shootist, though, are behind the scenes. Wayne himself was of course dying of cancer during the production -- he'd already had one lung removed. But in fact, as a short and very interesting documentary on the disc details, Wayne wasn't the first choice for the role -- it was George C. Scott (try to imagine that!). As well, the novelist's son explains how the film differed from the book, namely in a Hollywood ending that is strikingly different than the original (and in fact, the way he describes it, far more compelling).
For any fan of the western genre, The Shootist is a true must-own.
Now stick out your tongue, Duke.