What Happens ?
The film opens with scenery of the open West, which moves on to pistols firing as different time periods are captioned. Narration kicks in over the scenes of the same rugged looking younger cowboy in many gunfights in the 1800's. "His name was J.B. Books, and he had a matched pair of 45's with antique ivory grips, that were something to behold. He wasn't an outlaw. Fact is, for awhile, he was a lawman. Long before I met Mr. Books, he was a famous man. I guess his fame was why somebody or other was always after him. Wild country had taught him to survive. He lived his life and herded by himself. He had a credo that went [J.B. Books' voice cuts in.] "I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I require the same from them." It's now 1901 and an older Books (John Wayne) is headed to Carson City on horseback. A man on the road attempts to hold him up, but Books shoots him in the gut. The bandit falls to the ground saying "You've murdered me." but Books tells him he'll just have a long bellyache. After Books orders the man to hand him his wallet (which he threw to the ground when pulling his pistol) the bandit says "You're not gonna leave me here?" Books replies "Well, it's quite obvious, that's what you were gonna do to me." before pushing the man away from his horse. Watching the bandit fall into a stream behind him, Books advises him to get into another line of work as "this one sure don't fit your pistol."
Books: Are you talking to me?
Cobb: Yeah, you dumb bastard. I said move it, or I'll deliver you something to remember me by.
Books: Well now, pardon me all to hell.
Books obliges moving out of the street. As Cobb passes, Books says "Buster..." at which Cobb puts his hand on his pistol. Books says "Try it." but Cobb's passenger, young Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) tells him to calm down, as "the old man isn't worth a bullet. He looks all tuckered out." Cobb and Gillom have a laugh driving off. Books adds, when they're out of earshot "You're right, there, son."Books reaches his destination, the office of Dr. Hostetler (Jimmy Stewart) Hostetler remembers him from many years ago, greeting him warmly. Hostetler helped him back to health 15 years ago "the only time he was ever hit, at the Acme Saloon." Hostetler recalls that he killed two men and Books remembers the second one came out of nowhere and nearly killed him and would've if Hostetler hadn't been there. "You must have the constitution of an ox." Hostetler says. Books reveals that ten days ago, he saw a doctor in Colorado, when he wasn't feeling well, and when the doctor gave him his results, he set off to see Hostetler. He tells Dr. Hostetler that he won't tell him what the first doctor said, until he examines him. Hostetler agrees and tells Books he has an advanced cancer. Books confirms that's what the first doctor had told him. He asks "What can you do?"
Hostetler: There's very little I can do. When the pain gets too bad, I can give you something.
Books: What you're trying to tell me, is that I...
Hostetler: I'm sorry, Books.
Books: You told me i was strong as an ox.
Hostetler: Even an ox dies.
Books: How much time do I have?
Hostetler: Two months, six weeks, less...There's no way to tell.
Books: What'll I be able to do?
Hostetler: Well, anything you want at first. Then, later on, you won't want to.
Books: How much later?
Hostetler: You'll know when. You'll have to get off your feet and get some rest.
Hostetler recommends Books see the widow Rogers, for a room in town. Books asks him not to tell anyone he's in town
Bond: I didn't get your name.
Books: [pulling his pistol from his saddlebag] I didn't give it. Is it so important?
Bond: For anyone living under my roof, it is.
Books: Alright, it's...Hickok. William Hickok.
Bond: Where do you hail from, Mr. Hickok?
Books: Abilene, Kansas.
Bond: And, what do you do there?
Books: I'm a U.S. Marshal.
Bond: Oh, that's nice.
Books: No, it isn't.
Bond: I'm glad you're not staying long, Mr. Hickok. I;m not sure I like you.
Books: Not many do, Mrs. Rogers.
Books appears shaken and Hostetler apologizes offering to visit him at Mrs. Roger's place. Hostetler tells him "There's one more thing I'd say. Both of us have had a lot to do with death. I'm not a brave man, but you must be. Now, this is not advice. It's not even a suggestion. It's just something for you to reflect on while your mind's still clear. I would not die a death like I just described. Not if I had your courage.Mrs. Rogers comes to see Books in his room, and Books tells her. "I was reading about old Queen Vic. Well, maybe she outlived her time. Maybe she was a museum piece, but she never lost her dignity, nor sold her guns. She hung on to her pride and went out in style. That's the kind of an old gal I'd like to meet." He asks her if she's afraid of him and she admits that she is. She claims to be asking about dinner but he tells her that isn't what she came to say. She relents and apologizes for anything "unchristian she said or did." He asks her to go for a drive with him, and she refuses. They agree to start trying to get along better, and she finally changes her mind and agrees to go with him.
The next day Books slips in the tub, and Mrs. Rogers helps him. She told him she should've asked for help to begin with and he says he promised not to be a burden. She tells him it's too late for that. Books mentions that they went a full day without fighting, and she says it's because they didn't see each other all day. She sees that he's out of laudanum and offers to call Dr. Hostetler.He declines and says he'll be fine. She guesses that he's planning to do something, because of his Sunday clothes, haircut and not refilling the laudanum. He asks her to promise not to ask any questions tomorrow when she sees him leaving all dressed up. He says "No tears, Bond." Gillom comes home, and she leaves the room, promising, as he asked.
Books tells the bartender it's his birthday and asks for the best in the house. He sees Cobb, Pulford and Sweeney through the bar mirrors and jumps behind the bar when Cobb tries to shoot him in the back. He shoots Cobb while the others watch. Sweeney shoots him and he fires back, missing, while Pulford watches. Sweeny grabs a table and holds it in front of him to approach the bar. Books shoots through the table until Sweeney falls, yelling "I'll tell you, that was for Albert." Pulford takes the opportunity to fire then takes cover while Books stays on the floor behind the bar trying to figure out where Pulford is from a reflection in a glass. He sees Pulford just before Pulford sees him, and shoots him through the forehead. Books gets to his feet and leans on the bar as the bartender comes back out. Gillom can't take the suspense and runs across the street into the Metropole. He sees the bartender sneaking up behind Books with a shotgun, and yells "Look out!" as the bartender starts blasting him. Books falls to the ground and can't quite raise his gun. Gillom takes it and shoots the bartender three times while Books looks on. He then throws the gun away, and Books smiles, nodding just before he dies. Gillom takes off his jacket and covers Books. He takes off his hat and walks out seeing Hostetler at the door watching. Gillom walks away while everyone seems to be running toward the bar. His mother is waiting for him, and they walk home together.
Wayne's Books is not really a likable man. He's used to barking orders and to people making way when he comes through. He's the greatest celebrity of the old west, and it's big news when he visits Carson City. Books is a guy that knew Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson and outlived them too. He's fine with not being liked and not surprised when trouble finds him. Trouble is taken to show that he isn't a callous killer, as when the man attempts to rob him at the beginning, he could've easily and perhaps justifiably killed the bandit, but somewhere in his code, he determines that the man didn't deserve it. While an able killer, he doesn't celebrate cruelty. This explains why he selects Cobb as part of the final showdown. Cobb isn't a character with much screen time, but Bill McKinney gives him a scowl and a temperament that makes him supremely unlikeable, but not so far removed from many inconsiderate motorists in a hurry. We know all we need to know about Cobb, by how he talks to a stranger, dropping threats without thinking twice. But, I think it's Gillom's revelation that Cobb was bragging about breaking a salesman's jaw that confirms Book's opinion of the man. He comments "Nice employer you have there." and we have to wonder if he isn't noticing Gillom's amusement at the anecdote, more than the facts themselves, and in his choosing Cobb, perhaps he's trying to spare Gillom the bad influence that Cobb surely is (which Books witnessed himself when Gillom joined in in making fun of him at the beginning.)
Ron Howard's portrayal of Gillom is an interesting one and his history of acting roles, certainly gives it some interesting depth. We associate Howard with wholesome characters like Opie from the Andy Griffith show and Richie from Happy Days, so it's easier to see that goodness in Gillom, although we're also shown his potential to steer away from that. He's clearly influenced by Cobb, and convinced he has something to prove, as we see when he challenges Books before realizing who he is. In a sense, the main struggle of the movie is to determine the direction Gillom chooses. I think it's not accidental that Cobb drives a horse driven cart, while Books has only his horse. Cobb is the impatient, supremely entitled modern man, supremely concerned with his own convenience, giving us a period example of road rage, while Books is the patience of sitting out in open and unforgiving spaces, capable of violence, but mainly in the interest of survival. It's fitting that they meet in Carson City, an almost mythological piece of the old West. Although here, it's not entirely Books' Carson City. The Acme Saloon has given way to the modern "Metropole." While Cobb represents it, Thibodo is the champion of this shift. He gives us the situation pretty clearly, telling Books "The old days are gone, and you don't know it. We've got waterworks, telephones, lights. We'll have our streetcar electrified next year, and we've started to pave the streets. We've still got some weeding to do, but once we're rid of people like you. we'll have a goddamn Garden of Eden here. To put it in a nutshell, you've plain, plumb outlived your time." Like Cobb, Thibodo carries an easy cruelty, as when he whoops for joy, being informed that Books is going to die soon. Thibodo is the law but he certainly isn't a good man. Harry Morgan portrays him well, and unapologetically.
Progress doesn't happen overnight however, and there are always those who remember the old days. When Books decides to venture to Carson City, it's to see Dr. Hostetler, a an who was there when he was, and witnessed the only time, he almost died in a gunfight. He saved Books' life and Books has never forgotten. For his limited screen time, Stewart is invaluable in the depth of history that he adds to Books. They're both products of the "old days." in this movie and in actuality, seeing them together recalls their screen time in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." another film about the changing times, and another film where Wayne played his "larger than life cowboy" role with a bit of a knowing wink. Stewart like Wayne is from another area, but he exemplified something different in his roles, not the tough guy like Wayne, but the average man who strived to be decent. Like Wayne, his persona was bigger than his screen time. It's easy to believe that the two are old friends and who but Hostetler could give Books the news that he's going to die. He advises Books to consider going out another way, advice that a modern man might not offer, and fittingly Hostetler is there to witness the end, as Gillom walks away.
Lauren Bacall is the perfect choice as Bond Rogers. Like Stewart and Wayne, she represents the past era and fills her role well, giving Wayne a feminine interest but never veering into romantic parody. She is self sufficient and tough in her own way, but not uncaring. While she dislikes the old ways perhaps as much as Thibodo does, she is also a product of them, and possesses a good deal of compassion. Books can reveal things to her that he couldn't to other men, as when they argue over church and he puts aside all bravado and tells her "I'm just a dying man, scared of the dark." WHile she doesn't approve of his ways, she does see a manliness in him, that she senses could be valuable to Gillom, who has been without a father figure (except for Cobb perhaps) for some time. Wayne and Bacall play off each other perfectly and her scene saying a cheery good bye and not crying until he's well out of the house is touching and telling of her character.
A great deal of the film deals with Books fending off the celebrity obsessed vultures, Serepta, Dobkins, Beckum the undertaker, everyone sees his death as a public event. When Books compares his coming funeral to that of John Wesley Hardin, he sums it up well. "Oh Beckum, you're going to do to me, what they did to John Wesley Hardin. You're going to lay me out, let the public come by and gawp at me, for fifty cents a head, 10 cents for the children. When the curiosity peters out you're going to stuff me in a gunny sack and stick me in a hole while you hurry to the bank with your loot." Of course, Beckum doesn't argue the point much, as that's exactly what he plans to do. Books, like Wayne is a celebrity, larger than life, and the public wants a piece of him. Books, however, simply wants to maintain his dignity while he goes out, as he points out several times, making an apt comparison to another relic of the past, Queen Victoria "I was reading about old Queen Vic. Well, maybe she outlived her time. Maybe she was a museum piece, but she never lost her dignity, nor sold her guns. She hung on to her pride and went out in style. That's the kind of an old gal I'd like to meet."That's what Books wants to. He knows it's his time to go, but he wants to do it his own way, like he lived his life.
Don Siegel crafts a compelling story, and uses all of his actors here to their best effects, not only their performances here but our knowledge of each of their histories. Wayne, Stewart, Bacall, Howard, Morgan (and the rest of the supporting cast, Carradine, Crothers, Booth) each of them bring a distinctive body of work with them that informs who they are. These actors were not chosen accidentally and it shows. As a result, we get to know these characters far more than we should reasonably expect to in the time we see them. This is a truly remarkable effect, executed flawlessly, and Siegel has exactly the right touch for it. Siegel is well known as being Clint Eastwood's big influence (The Unforgiven was partially dedicated to him) and that makes sense here, as this is a movie which symbolically hands off the reins (after the fact) from the John Wayne ideal cowboy to the Clint Eastwood realist cowboy in Dirty Harry (which Wayne had actually been offered.) Siegel acts like Gillom here, a link between two eras.
Books is not a realistic character, he retains much of Wayne's persona, but with a hint of darkness not often seen. Although we see John Wayne shot in the back and killed, we nonetheless have to see this as an affectionate send off, for all his flaws and unbelievability, there was no one quite like John Wayne, and likely won't be again. The Shootist turned out to be Wayne's last movie as the man himself was dying, but it's fitting. In the words from The Man who Shot Liberty Valance "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Certainly no actor fit that bill better than John Wayne. And here, he proves he is an actor, not just a man playing a caricature of himself. The depth of charcter given to Books is wonderful to see.
Personally I'm happy we see Books die smiling, having witnessed Gillom, momentarily take up the role of righteous killer, only to choose correctly in Books' opinion and throw the gun away. Gillom walks away alone, while everyone runs the opposite direction, determined to see the spectacle and perhaps get a piece of history. Hostetler watches sadly, relieved that Books went in his own way. His time is coming too, certainly. That's as good a triumph as Books could hope for, and one fitting of the Wayne persona which fascinated so many. Carson City will soon belong to the Thibodo's of the world but Gillom remembers, and hopefully he'll take the good parts with him.