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J.B. Books, a famous gunfighter of the Old West has traveled to Carson City to see an old doctor friend (Jimmy Stewart) about some health troubles. Said doctor tells him straight it's cancer and that Books has only weeks to live. Told to rest in town, Books makes his way to a widow's house (Lauren Bacall) and under a false name rents out a room. The widow's son Gillom played by Ron Howard quickly finds out Books' real identity and word quickly spreads that the gunfighter is in town. Soon enough, Books' old enemies with scores to settle come looking, and the town's local gambler is intrigued with the idea of making a name for himself as the Man Who Shot John Wayne, uh J.B. Books...
The film was made at a time when two things were coming to an end: The end of the tradition film Western and the end of John Wayne's career. Wayne's age was catching up to him: the other problem was that fewer Westerns were being made and the ones that were messed with the traditional morality of the Westerns made in The Duke's heyday.
Note: the legend that Wayne was dying from cancer in real life is just that, legend. The cancer he had from earlier was in remission. The truth was The Shootist was his planned farewell to Westerns: he had hopes of starring in more films such as detective roles he started taking earlier in the decade. It was just that he suffered other illnesses that prevented him from making more movies, and it wasn't until three years later that the cancer came back to take The Duke at last.
This film is associated with the following tropes:
- Badass: Books (John Wayne, natch).
- Badass Grandpa Even in his sixties, in chronic pain from the cancer that's killing him, and outnumbered three to one, Books wins because he's still just that good.
- Bittersweet Ending: John Wayne, uh Books dies as he wanted to, in a blaze of glory defeating bad guys. It's accepted that this was a far better fate than the cancer that was killing him. The happier conclusion is that young Gillom, after shooting a man to defend the dying Books, throws the gun away in disgust and shows he will not take the path of being a gunfighter.
- Break the Haughty: YMMV on whether or not it's dignity or pride, but Books does take several blows to it as he is increasingly forced to accept help. In the book its worse for him: he's physically overpowered by Gillom, whom he failed to set right, and is brought to tears by an encounter with a ambitious reverend. However, on his way to the final fight, he recalls his small victories and contentedly decides that there's still a lot of him left to kill.
- Celebrity Is Overrated: News of Books being in town stirs up a ton of interest with the citizens of Carson City. Finding out the famous gunfighter is dying in their town brings all the glory seekers and businessmen - including the undertaker - rushing to annoy Books to no end.
- Dawson Casting: Ron Howard was 21 when he played the teenager Gillom.
- Death Seeker: Books, obviously.
- Deconstruction: It's pretty mild compared to other Westerns of the era but for a John Wayne film to end the way this does, The Shootist counts.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: How Books would prefer going instead of waiting for the cancer to finish him. He does.
- The Edwardian Era: The movie is set at the start of it with newspapers announcing the death of Queen Victoria.
- End of an Age: both in the film as Carson City is entering the Twentieth Century with electric lights and automobiles signaling the end of the Wild West as we know it; and on a serious meta-level as being the last John Wayne Western EVER signaling an end to the clear morality of Right and Wrong that Wayne's Westerns created.
- The Gunfighter Wannabe: Gillom.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: given the buzz that this was going to be Wayne's final Western, a few cameos were in order. Jimmy Stewart and John Carradine, aging veterans of Westerns themselves as well as Wayne's buddies, were cast at Wayne's insistence. This would also end up being Stewart's last live-action role in a Western as well.
- And of course over here there's Col. Potter as a jerkass town marshal.
- It's Opie as the teenaged Gillom!
- Hope Spot: Ironically subverted with the final shootout. Rather than dying in a blaze of glory, Books' instincts kick in and he kills his three opponents while receiving non-fatal wounds to himself. And then just when it seems the cancer will be the thing killing him after all, the bartender comes in from behind...
- In the Back: The bartender fatally shoots Books in the back.
- Manly Tears: No, not in the film! I'm talking about all the John Wayne fans watching this film and bawling their eyes out! Noooo, Duke, don't die! Noooooooo...
- A Real Man Is a Killer: Played with. Books is clearly a man's man and is brutally efficient as a gunfighter. But from his lessons with Gillom, the revelations about Books' violent and lonely life, and the disgust Gillom feels when he shoots the bartender for killing Books, it's clear that being a killer isn't all that glamorous a career choice.
- Retired Gunfighter: Not really. If Books retired from gunfighting it took all for about five minutes before he realizes he has three enemies to put down before he dies.
- Romancing the Widow: Books and the Widow Rogers seem to grow fond of each other... except that the widow doesn't like gunfighters that much and grows concerned about Gillom getting the wrong influences from their guest.
- Sliding Scale of Law Enforcement: the town marshal is more interested in keeping his ass out of trouble more than anything else. He's openly antagonistic towards Books, but also realizes that Books can clean out some of the problems (such as the town's crooked gambler) that he's reluctant to do himself.
- Books himself worked at various points of his career as an officer of the law, although there's hints it wasn't as clean and honorable as the dime-store novels about him tell it.
- Twilight of the Old West: The movie takes place in 1901.
- Your Days Are Numbered