At first glance, The Shootist and Gran Torino seem worlds apart. One was made in 1976, and the other in 2008. One takes place in Carson City, Nevada in the dying days of the old west, and the other in a modern-day Michigan suburb. But if you look deeper, you will see many similarities between the two films, aside from the fact that they will serve as the last acting appearance for both their stars: John Wayne would become terribly ill shortly after filming The Shootist (he was very sick during the actual filming as well) and never make another film, while 80 year old Clint Eastwood has said it will be his last job as an actor, and he will focus all his energies on directing. If you look beyond that, the parallels that can be drawn between the two films are stunning.
In The Shootist, John Wayne plays a dying gunfighter who is witnessing the rugged old west vanish before his very eyes. Horses are slowly being replaced by “horseless carriages” and trolleys, and people are changing. Wayne has had a multitude of jobs as a sheriff and hired-hand, among others, and now in his old age, has fallen ill with a mysterious disease. After going to his doctor for an examination, he finds out his has an inoperable form of cancer. We never find out what kind it was, but many have speculated the character of J.B Books had prostate cancer. The doctor, played by James Stewart, is an old friend of Books and since he is in town, recommends he stay at the boarding house of a widow, Bond Rogers, played by Lauren Bacall.
Clint Eastwood, meanwhile, is a veteran of the Korean War and we find out that he has his own inner demons of atrocities he and his men committed while at war. He too is disgusted at the changing times, how cars (a passion of his) are no longer being made in America, and that foreigners are ruining the country. He cannot stand his family and keeps only a few friends—basically becoming a stranger in his own hometown. He coughs up blood throughout the film and finally the character of Walt Kowalski goes to the doctor. Later on in the film, we see him reading a medical report, but never learn his exact illness; my guess would be lung cancer. His family tries to get him to move to a senior housing development so he wouldn’t be alone in the tough neighborhood, but stubborn soldier inside of him refuses to leave his house.
Both characters are unliked by virtually all those around them. Though Wayne is a traveler and Eastwood is in his home town, both seem to have the same number of friends early in the movie. Seen as a murderer and gunman, Wayne is nearly forced out of town by the Marshal, played by Harry Morgan, but refuses, and boards in Bacall’s house. When she finds out his history, she too wants him to leave, and her son, a young Ron Howard, is immediately mesmerized by such a legendary character coming to stay in their house. As more and more people in town find out about him, more want to challenge the old man to a gun fight, though not making it obvious. The characters of a smooth, sharp-shooting card shark and rough, never-do-well , played by Hugh O’Brian and Richard Boone respectively, have a mutual respect for Wayne, but still lick their chops at the thought of being able to kill a famous figure.
In Eastwood’s home town, he is virtually the last American living in the old neighborhood. He is gruff and unlikeable from the get-go and is ignored by his Korean neighbors who do not like his personality—he feels nothing but the same for them. His family is also seen as self-centered and “modern”, meaning they do not care about anyone but themselves. Eastwood, for the most part, wants nothing to do with his own children, or grandchildren, who show absolutely no respect anytime they are around him. When he gets involved with a nearby gang, after he befriends his neighbors, they too would love to kill the old man, who even though they are much stronger than, still see him as an important target.
Both main characters end up becoming closer to the supporting cast through a theft. When Ron Howard learns that Wayne is dying, he sells his horse without him knowing it, wanting to keep the money for himself. Wayne finds out and is furious, and makes him buy the horse back. Meanwhile, Eastwood’s prized possession is his 1972 Gran Torino, which is kept in pristine condition in his garage. The son of his neighbor, Thao, played by Bee Vang, is forced into a gang and his initiation is the stealing of Eastwood’s car. The next day, Thao’s family demands that their son work for Eastwood, in an attempt to pay the man back and restore family honor. He is at first hesitant and does not want the family anywhere near his property, but reluctantly accepts and puts the boy to work. As the days go on, the two develop a relationship and talk to each other every day. Eastwood still shows prejudice, but is much more welcoming towards his neighbors.
The Female Leads
There is a difference between the feelings that both main characters show towards their leading ladies, but the overall sentiment is the same. Wayne and Bacall are close to the same age, and though Bacall is not comfortable around a man who has taken so many lives, the two develop a shaky relationship and at the end, though it is never flat-out mentioned, you can see some love between the two. Bacall’s husband died many years earlier while Wayne never married, and now in their respective old age, they share a carriage ride together and many other conversations. Much like Eastwood and his neighbors, the two still argue and disagree many times, but by the end, they are good friends.
Eastwood’s female lead is a young girl named Sue, who is the sister of Thao, played by Ahney Her. Much like Bacall, she is a very likable character—Bacall runs a clean boarding house and is very womanly and respectable, while Her’s character is extremely intelligent and beautiful. She is young enough to be Eastwood’s daughter, and by the end, he becomes almost like a father figure to her.
Both characters are extremely tough individuals, with tight personalities and a very bossy, closed-minded attitude towards others, but by the end, they both become a bit warmer, and stick up for those around him. While Eastwood’s neighbors have gotten involved in gang violence through no fault of their own besides being cousins with one of the gang-bangers, Ron Howard is mixed up with violent and unstable character himself, Jay Cobb, played by Bill McKinney. Both Eastwood and Wayne will end up confronting these people in the end, in different ways, but nevertheless, face to face, showing unbelievable courage and bravery.
Both films deal with dark topics that include death, killing, diseases, and troubled pasts, but both are lightened up a bit with the insertion of a secondary cast member who does not receive top billing. In The Shootist, this role goes to Scatman Crothers, who plays the fast-talking stable manager who tried to swindle a deal from Howard and haggle another one with Wayne. Always funny in whatever movie he plays in, Crothers does very well in the few minutes of screen time he is given, to sort of distract us from the dark deeds that are about to unfold in the finale.
Gran Torino has a very similar character with Eastwood’s barber, played by John Carroll Lynch. The two make fun of each other non-stop while Eastwood sits in his barber chair, and it really brightens up the mood in an already darkly humorous movie, made so by the dialogue and ridiculously racist statements that come out of the mouths of some of the characters.
The Last Days of the Main Characters
Both Wayne and Eastwood go through extraordinarily similar final days. While Wayne has a fancy blue suit of his cleaned up with a new technology known to the people of that time as “dry process cleaning”, Eastwood goes to the tailor and has a custom-fitted designer suit made for him. Both characters go for a haircut when they really did not need one, and both head into their final evening with just a tad of fear, and a whole lot of dignity. Though both are terminally ill and could live a few months more, they are resigned to not drag out their disease and let it take its toll on them. They both make final preparations for life without them, as Wayne leaves Bacall money in an envelope, and Eastwood alters his will off-camera.
While Howard tried to steal Wayne’s horse, and Vang attempted to steal Eastwood’s car, both characters end up getting the possession they sought left to them legally by the owner. Wayne buys back his horse, “Old Dollar”, from Crothers and gives Howard the bill of sale, while Eastwood leaves his Gran Torino to Vang in his will. Both are unexpected, especially since Eastwood has a rather large family, some of which were expecting the car to be left to them.
Death of the Main Characters
Both endings are so much alike and so very different all at the same time. For Wayne, he arranges to have the three men in town who would like to take their shots at him, meet him at a saloon early in the morning, so it will be just them there, face to face. Wayne enters the bar and has a drink, looking into the mirror to see the three men opposed to him. After a few minutes, guns are blazing in a final shootout. Wayne is able to kill all three men, while getting shot once in the shoulder. But without realizing it, the bartender creeps out from the kitchen with a shotgun, and shoots Wayne in the back, and he dies a few moments later, after laying eyes on Howard one last time.
Eastwood handles his situation a little differently. He goes up to the apartment of the gang members who have been terrorizing his neighbors. He has his hands in his pockets, to make the audience think he has a gun or weapon of some kind. After talking them down, he pulls his hands out to reveal nothing but his army lighter, and the gang shoots him down with machine guns. He does this to sacrifice himself, as his murder took place in front of an entire neighborhood of witnesses. The gang is seen being arrested and taken to jail at the end of the movie.
Both characters are killed quickly and without suffering, which was their intention, and both had figures dangerous to the ones they cared about removed. It is important to note that the change in times and persona of the two actors account for the differences in the way the films ended. John Wayne was one of the most legendary actors of his time and had to go out in a gunfight, taking as many bad guys with him as he could. Eastwood, though a superstar and tough guy in his own right, has become more sentimental in his later years, and his somewhat more peaceful death reflects who he is, and how the world of cinema has changed.
To me, both movies are excellent and to say one is better than the other is like saying apples are better than oranges. Both were made in completely different times, and both films reflected that. Though Wayne’s ending was more exciting, Eastwood’s went perfectly with the rest of his film. They are two of my favorite movies, mainly because they serve as the final film for two of my favorite actors. The supporting cast of The Shootist was by far and away better, but the dialogue and character development in Gran Torino was superior. My only question is, was this all intentional?