Lauren Bacall, Jimmy Stewart, Ron Howard and John Wayne all star in The Shootist. It is the type of cast that most directors would have given their right arm for even in 1976 when all but Howard had seen their best years already gone by. Don Siegel takes a great script, exceptional actors and he let’s both develop and work together. This is a classic western movie and stands out as one of the very best westerns ever put to film.
As with all great movies the soul of this movie is in the characters and their relationships. John Wayne is J.B. Books the greatest living Shootist (a gunfighter for hire) who is seeking a little peace and quiet as his life draws to a close and cannot seem to find it. Lauren Bacall is flawless and stunning in her portrayal of the widowed single mother Bond Rogers. Ron Howard as Gillom Rogers brings a refreshing naiveté and enthusiasm to a character which has been a stock of western movies since the beginning of the genre – the hero worshiping young man about to choose how he will live his life.
The Shootist successfully works into the story a keen sense that just as J.B. Books’ life is drawing to a close so is the old west which men like him represent. Books rides the horse drawn streetcar in town to get from place to place and there is even a Stanley Steamer car featured in the movie. The west is clearly no longer the west that men like J.B. Books once ruled. It has moved past them into a different era and requires different things of men than being fast with a pistol. It is something Books understands but it is something seemingly no one else in the town understands.
This is a movie which differs from most movies – even other westerns – in the maturity of the script, the even paced story telling and the simple, completely unnoticeable direction. It is a story which has adults as its intended audience and treats the audience as if they can not only think but that they are also capable of coming to their own conclusions. There are only a handful of westerns which can live up to the legend of John Wayne and The Shootist is one of them.