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The Shootist


John Wayne, at the end

This was John Wayne’s last movie, the story of the last shootist, who comes to the city to die. He looks unmenacing; a robber makes his last move on him; so soon as he enters the city, he loses his way. It’s hard to follow him in the hurrying crowd…

He finds a woman willing to give him lodgings, feed him, & care for his clothes. He is ill, so he needs a doctor, who tells him how long he has left & what will kill him. The year is 1901.

The men who lived in the Old West no longer live. The least likely to survive is the last survivor – the shootist, the land’s favorite son. It’s a paradox of manliness that risking one’s life is sometimes the only way to save it. That’s how heroes are made; & we take our measure from them; so we watch Westerns.

His manly aloofness must go, lest he die alone. As comfort & weakness come upon him, as old age foreshadows death, a certain longing for the pleasures he rejected – or was denied – in his life awakens. A darkness is coming that scares him, he says; the woman says he judged too often where only God judges. Not even this shootist can stare God in the face.

Jimmy Stewart plays Duke’s only friend. Doctors heal people, forestalling death, doing the good of the body, of which no one is more careless than a shootist, who endangers all, suggesting the doctor’s work is futile. The doctor knows what kills men; he does not like it; there is no nobility in it; it seems purposeless; what is more fearful than that? He gives the shootist a painkiller & some advice, to use his last courage & not suffer the disease to end him; but he cannot cure. The doctor is also a gentleman, so his example is important; but his only last kindness is honesty; & he is old, so city life cannot delude him with hopes & fears.

Lauren Bacall plays Duke’s host. Angry & wary at first, she warms up to him, offering sympathy before the end. Old age removes half or more of the excesses & crimes of men.

The sheriff is petty, cowardly, perpetually worried. The evildoers also are petty; their revenge & ambitions are all naughty. The shootist speaks of justice only once: 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. The marshal can’t threaten a dying man, because the laws can’t punish him. But the shootist knows justice & so chooses to die a noble death.

If you love the Western, you need to see this.