In The Shootist, his last film, living legend John Wayne plays living legend John Bernard Books. Books is part of a proud subset of Western heroes: The aging gunslinger with unfinished business to conclude before his time on earth runs out. The film’s trailer, which capitalizes on Wayne’s reputation as much as it advertises the merits of the film itself, describes Books as “the last of the great gunfighters.”
In the pantheon of cowboy heroes, Books stands between Bill Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven, who returns only reluctantly to his former deadly occupation, and Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) in Lonely Are the Brave, who cannot even acknowledge that the way of life that sustains him is waning fast.
Books knows it’s almost over because people keep telling him so. Dr. Hostetler (James Stewart) confirms that cancer will kill him within weeks. But Books wants to die as he lived, and so it was with John Wayne, whose own situation paralleled his character’s. The actor was himself afflicted with stomach cancer and in poor health during production. He passed away less than three years after the film debuted.
As Vera Dika writes in Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film, “…The Shootist is not so much about the passing of the West, or even about the passing of the Western genre, as it is about the death of the Western star, John Wayne, and along with him, the Western hero.”
See how it ends when The Shootist airs tonight, April 17, at 8PM | 7C. Click here for a complete schedule.