A Final Film for Wayne's Gunfighter
There is something quite touching about the western movie "The Shootist", not just because the storyline revolves around a legendary gunman who is forced to live out his last days under the shadow of cancer but also because it turned out to not only be the great John Wayne's last movie but also the equally great James Stewart's last performance in a western. In many ways the combination of these three elements and that with the story being set in 1901 when the era of the outback cowboy was coming to an end makes "The Shootist" feel like an emotional farewell to the great westerns which once filled the big screen.
When legendary gunfighter J.B. Brooks (John Wayne - Rooster Cogburn) learns from Dr. E.W. Hostetler (James Stewart - Fools' Parade) that he has not long to live due to a cancer, he takes up residence in Carson City renting a room at Mrs. Rogers' (Lauren Bacall - Written on the Wind) boarding house where her young son Gillom (Ron Howard) idolizes him. He hopes to live out his last few days in peace but his presence in Carson City causes a stir and when he comes to understand that he can expect a painful, undignified death due to the cancer he decides to go out doing what he knows best, gun fighting.
One of the nicest things about "The Shootist" is that it's not just another traditional western which revolves around revenge or protecting the innocent. But with the focus being on the legendary J.B. Brooks attempts to live his last days putting his affairs in order but also enjoying what time he has length in the knowledge of the painful death which beckons makes it very different to any typical western. It is full of tender moments such as Brooks teaching young Gillom about shooting and respect but also the tender relationship between Brooks and his land lady Mrs. Rogers. One of the tenderest moments is in the scenes which John Wayne shares with James Stewart where Stewart's character of Dr. Hostetler has the unhappy role of telling Brooks about his painful fate.
But whilst it is a nice change on your traditional western it manages to cleverly combine those traditional expected elements of a gunfight into the storyline without it feeling contrived. It's a nice touch when Dr. Hostetler suggests that a brave man such as Brooks would not succumb to such a painful and demeaning death as that of cancer which leads to him manufacturing a shoot out. The movie is littered with these clever moments including the intro sequence which uses a montage of some of Wayne's own movies to build up the legendary character of J.B. Brooks.
What is slightly odd is that at times "The Shootist" is quite humorous with various scenes having a lighter even humorous tone about them such as the interactions between Brooks and the liveryman Moses Brown marvellously played by Scatman Crothers. But then some of it doesn't work at all ending up feeling uncharacteristically forced such as the larger than life Carson City Marshal Walter Thibido played by Harry Morgan.
Adding to what makes "The Shootist" quite a sentimental movie is that it is set in 1901 and as such the stereotypical elements of the Wild West are replaced as the world becomes modernised. What this means is that Carson City where it's set features telephone lines, electricity, a tram service and some early cars or horseless carriages as they are referred to. In many ways this modernisation ties in to Brook's storyline surround his own death and that it ended up being John Wayne's last movie makes it quite symbolic as if it was made to be a farewell to the great westerns.
As for the actual performances well it would be a lie to say that it was John Wayne's greatest movie, but it is one where he manages to deliver some touching sentiment and a surprising amount of emotion. In a strange way when young Gillom refers to the character of Brooks as a "tuckered out old man" you get a sense that Wayne was starting to feel that way as well, especially after being taken ill during the actual filming, although the cancer which would finally claim him didn't surface till later. Alongside Wayne is a nice performance from Lauren Bacall as Brooks' landlady Bond Rogers who goes from being icy towards the legendary gunman to one of Christian sympathy as she learns that he is going to die. Plus of course there is also the performance from James Stewart who in his scenes with Wayne acts like old friends and as such manages to deliver complete naturalness to their performance together.
Aside from these great names there are also nice performances from now successful director Ron Howard as the young Gillom who idolizes Brooks as well as supporting performances from Hugh O'Brian, Richard Boone, Bill McKinney and the slightly over the top comedic performance from Harry Morgan.
What this all boils down to is that "The Shootist" is a good movie, just not a great one. As John Wayne's final movie it is amazingly touching and with it coinciding with the story of a cancer stricken cowboy makes it all the more sentimental. But it is a nice change on your traditional western, looking at the characters rather than just traditional action, but still managing to bring the shoot out into it in a clever uncontrived manner.