Cole Thornton, a gunfighter for hire, joins forces with an old friend, Sheriff J.P. Hara. Together with an old Indian fighter and a gambler, they help a rancher and his family fight a rival rancher that is trying to steal their water.
John Books an aging gunfighter goes to see a doctor he knows for a second opinion after another doctor told him he has a cancer which is terminal. The doctor confirms what the other said. He says Books has a month maybe two left. He takes a room in the boarding house and the son of the woman who runs it recognizes him and tells his mother who he is. She doesn't like his kind but when he tells her of his condition, she empathizes. Her son wants him to teach him how to use a gun. Books tries to tell him that killing is not something he wants to live with. Books, not wanting to go through the agony of dying from cancer, tries to find a quicker way to go.Written by
It is virtually impossible to watch The Shootist, the story of an aging gunfighter dying of cancer, without being frequently reminded that it was John Wayne's last movie and that he was dying of cancer himself. This gives several scenes a real lump-in-the-throat quality, such as when Wayne tells Lauren Bacall "I'm a dying man afraid of the dark."
But even when viewed without that knowledge, The Shootist is a thoughtful, sad and very well acted film. Although I've seen only a handful of Wayne's 200-plus movies, it's hard for me to believe that he ever turned in a better performance than he did here. His portrayal of a terminally ill man wanting to end his life on his own terms is moving and totally convincing. The supporting cast is also outstanding, and Wayne has several great scenes with actors like Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and even Scatman Crothers. I found Harry Morgan, whom I usually like, to be a bit cartoonish as the marshall who was anxious to see Wayne's character die as quickly as possible, but that's a minor quibble.
Since the movie takes place in 1901, there are naturally references to the end of the old west and the coming of a new age, and how the time of gunfighters like Wayne's character have come to an end. Again, it is difficult to view these scenes without thinking of the twilight of Wayne's career and the declining popularity of western films, just as you can't help but connect the plight of his character in this film with his own death from cancer a few years later.
It's hard to imagine that any other significant actor ever made a more appropriate and moving farewell film. You don't need to be a fan of westerns, or even a fan of John Wayne, to appreciate The Shootist.
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