This is the second entry in a series on the final Westerns of the great cowboy stars. The previous entry looked at Gary Cooper and The Hanging Tree.
Don Siegel’s The Shootist is an elegy. Made three years before John Wayne’s death from cancer, it tells the story of a gunfighter (or a “shootist” to use the archaic newspaper term) who rides in from the range, gets a room in town with a prim widow woman and her impressionable son, and settles down to die. The film is an elegy for many things—for the Western itself, for the idea of the cowboy hero, but mostly it’s an elegy for the man who, more than any other, defined the idea of the American film hero for the entire world.
By any standard, John Wayne had an amazing career. Born Marion Morrison, he started out in pictures in the 1920s as just another tall, good-looking guy in crowd scenes—a football player here, a solider there. (In the 1928 Noah’s Ark, he survived the botched flood sequence that killed three extras.) Raoul Walsh gave him his big break playing the lead in the epic 1930 Western The Big Trail. The film was a flop, and Wayne spent most of the next decade riding the range in cheapie oaters, playing second fiddle to guys like Tim McCoy and gradually working his way back up the call sheet. His second big break—the one that actually succeeded in breaking him out of the world of Poverty Row horse operas—was John Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach. He was 32, a bit old to be playing someone called the Ringo Kid, but there was no doubt he was a star. Those nine years had taught him how to work a camera, how to pace his walk, how to listen to other actors. (“I’m a reactor,” he once said of his approach to his craft.) He looked like he’d been born with a gun in his hand, and though he famously didn’t care for horses, you can never catch him thinking about what he’s doing with one. He rode like it was second nature.