Quite simple in narrative scope, The Shootist finds its strength from what it says about its star and its genre. Opening with a John Wayne montage of a number of his earlier films, including Red River and Rio Bravo, intented to illustrate the past life of Wayne's character J.B. Books, it becomes clear that this is not only a story about a dying gunslinger, but a reflection on the approaching death of an icon and his genre. Being Wayne's last film, it is a fitting tribute to the end of the western's glory days.
Having just received news that he's rapidly dying of cancer, Books takes residence at a nearby boarding-house managed by Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall), who lives there with her son Gillom (Ron Howard). As news of his presence and condition spreads around town, Books is hassled by writers, undertakers and old girlfriends who want to cash-in on the death of a legend. With only his dignity left to preserve, at the suggestion of his friend and doctor (James Stewart), Books resolves to die like he has lived: on his own terms.
More introspective than action-packed, The Shootist is a beautiful picture about the culmination of life and the lasting impressions we leave behind. Practically without violence until the end, the film's final shootout is shocking, as we finally get to see a glimpse of the violence this man was supposed to be all about. When it is passed along but soon rejected, Books can die with satisfaction. Wayne's last picture is a fitting farewell, not only to the Duke, but to the fading out of a spectacular genre.