Why John Wayne screwed down starring in a western with Clint Eastwood

John Wayne turned down the chance to work with Clint Eastwood on a Western, simply because he hated Eastwood’s much darker entry into the Old West.

Two characters stand tallest among the history of American Western cinema – John Wayne and Clint Eastwood both have pursued careers in the genre, but when they had the opportunity to work together on a film in 1970, Wayne sadly vehemently denied the opportunity and rejected it. To justify his answer, the reason behind Wayne’s decision lay both in Eastwood’s starring character as well as the changing landscape of the western film genre as well as the film in question.

John Wayne is famous for being one of the first huge stars in the western film genre. When he found his beginnings in the 1930s, like films that had sync-sound replaced silent films, he was the face of an entire era of Western cinema at a time when the genre dominated the cinema landscape. Movies like John Ford Cavalry trilogy glorified certain ideals of the time, including black and white morality, American exception, and a positive view of Manifest Destiny. Several nuances came into Wayne’s persona with later releases such as The seekers and The man who shot Liberty Valance, but he never deviated far from these ideals. 1960s and 70s and brought a new era, heralded by films like Sergio Leones Dollars trilogy, which was a darker and more violent form of Western. These newer types of Westerners began to have more moral ambiguity, and at times, their themes and concepts would challenge American beliefs closely. Clint Eastwood, the American face of this new era, became almost as big a star as John Wayne himself was at the peak of his career.

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It was in the early 1970s that attempts were made to bring these two epochs of the Western together through the two actors who embodied them most. Larry Cohen, a director known for B-movies such as The things and Q: The winged snake, wrote a manuscript for a western titled The hostile. The script focused on a player who won half of an elderly man’s estate, and the idea was that Eastwood should play the gambler and Wayne the older man. Eastwood was interested, but Wayne outright rejected the part. He did not like the script, but even more than that, he did not like Clint Eastwood as director and actor, or how the script reflected the recent trends of the Western genre. After Eastwood again tried to put the film to Wayne, Wayne replied with a letter explaining his reasoning. In the letter, a major point of contention was how much Wayne hated Eastwood’s latest film High Plains Drifter.

High Plains Drifter Clint Eastwood

High Plains Drifter was a 1973 Western who Eastwood played in, and it was the first he ever directed himself. It is an incredibly dark and violent film that is often read as a critique of the Old West, or at least a very cynical portrait of it. Wayne hated it, believing that it did not properly reflect the lives of, in his mind, noble pioneers who settled west and expanded America’s borders. He saw The hostile as more in line with the Spaghetti Westerns that made Eastwood famous. To him, the script was a cynical reinterpretation of the kind of characters and stories Wayne’s most famous film often portrayed. Eastwood did not respond to a request for comment.

Needless to say, The hostile was never made because of this. A version of Cohen’s script was eventually made for the 2009 TV movie The Fiddler, The Girl and Gunslinger but the world should never see the two giants of the genre on screen together. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood just came up through different generations and different eras in Hollywood, and they both had very different ideas about the genre that made their careers. They are icons and will forever be the faces on both sides of the Western: its older traditions and its newer deconstructions.

Next: Why Clint Eastwood was fired from Universal in the ’50s


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