Wayne's last picture, The Shootist,” in which he plays an aging cowboy who is dying of cancer, was a most appropriate end to his illustrious career.
Wayne was the natural choice for the part, though, surprisingly, the role had been first offered to Paul Newman, who reportedly pulled out for personal reasons, and then to George Scott, who demanded too many changes in the script.
In retrospect, producer Mike Frankovich was delighted with the casting, claiming, “Nobody could have been better for the part than Duke. He's perfect.” There were many advantages in casting Wayne as John Bernard Books, for director Don Siegel wanted to show the progression of the gunfighter from his early glorious days to his tragic death. What better than using old clips from Wayne's own Westerns, Stagecoach,” Red River,” and Hondo.”
The movie thus became a self-conscious invocation of the Wayne screen legend and a tribute to his career. It looked as if “The Shootist” had been consciously designed as an epitaph, though Wayne had intentions at the time to continue making movies.
There were many parallels between the narrative and Wayne's life. John Bernard Books is dying of cancer, a theme that was unpalatable and unmentionable to many actors, but not to Wayne. “Hell, no. It means nothing to me,” he told an interviewer, “I'm a member of the club, after all.” However, Wayne refused to make cancer the film's major concern and, accommodating his request, the subject was mentioned just twice.
Moreover, the conversation between Wayne and the physician (played by Republican peer and pal Jimmy Stewart), confirming his fear of having cancer, was in harmony with his image. Stewart tells him the grim truth about cancer, even hinting about suicide as a way of avoiding pain. Upset, Wayne protests, “You told me I was strong as an ox,” to which Stewart replies, “even oxen die.”
At the center of the yarn is Wayne's relationship with a widowed landlady (Lauren Bacall) and her son (Ron Howard). At first, Howard resents Wayne, but gradually he learns to respect him, admiring him for being “the most celebrated” shootist in the West. Howard, like other children in his films, learns how to behave properly by observing and emulating Wayne's behavior.
For example, spying on Wayne from the window, he gets his first lesson, “If you want to see me, knock on the door, like a man.” Later, Wayne sums up his philosophy of life to Howard, deeming it useful to the younger generation: “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 others, and I require the same of them.”
When Howard asks for a shooting lesson, Wayne agrees but instructs him: “A man should know how to handle a gun–with discretion.” The film's assumption, like Hondo,” is that every child, let alone an orphan, needs a sociological father in order to become a man. And, in similar manner to The Cowboys, Howard adopts his master's style and philosophy. In the last scene, he avenges Wayne's death in the saloon by using the latter's gun, then throws it away.
The Shootist” was one of Wayne's most self-righteous and self-aggrandizing movies; he's described as “the most celebrated shootist,” one who never killed a man “who didn't deserve it.”
As in Big Jake,” Wayne is concerned with his increasing age and the coming of modernization to the West–the movie takes place in Carson City circa 1901. A man of the past, Wayne is not in tune with his times. When he first rides into town and obstructs the traffic, he is told, not too gracefully, “get out of the way, old man!” He is also greeted as “Hey, Methuselah!” We learn that Queen Victoria is dead; she, like Wayne, is a symbol of the past. Wayne likes the Queen because she had dignity, “she's the kind of gal I'd like to meet.”
Moreover, when Serpeta (Sherre North), a woman of his past, comes to visit and suggests they get married so she can gain some money from writing a book about him after his death, he tells her, “I won't be remembered for a pack of lies.” But being a true gentleman, he gives her money for her travel and sends her back.
Wayne even gets an opportunity to sum up his life as “All in all, I've had a helluva good life,” which he states with utmost conviction. The closing scene is also most congruent to his way of thinking and public persona: he dies on his birthday, wearing his best clothes, and he dies with his boots on, at the saloon, after a shootout.