In the history of American Westerns, no two figures stand quite as tall as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, yet when they had the chance to work together on a film in the 1970s it was Wayne who vehemently turned it down. The reasoning behind his decision had as much to do with Eastwood’s star persona and the changing landscape of the Western genre as it did the film in question.
John Wayne was one of the first huge stars of the Western. He came up during the 1930s, just as films with synch-sound totally replaced silent films. Wayne was the face of an era of Westerns where the genre dominated the film landscape and films like John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy glorified certain ideals of the time such black and white morality, American Exceptionalism, and a positive view of Manifest Destiny. Later films of Wayne’s like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance added nuance to his persona, but he never strayed too far from these ideals. Then in the 1960s and 70s came a new era. Heralded by Italian films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, these newer Westerns were darker and more violent and began to feature a greater amount of moral ambiguity and often used their themes to question closely held American beliefs. The face of this new era was Clint Eastwood, who became almost as big a star as John Wayne in his prime.
It was in the early 1970s that an attempt was made to bring these two eras of the Western together via the two actors who embodied them the most. Larry Cohen, a director known for B-movies such as The Stuff and Q: The Winged Serpent, wrote a script for a Western titled The Hostiles. The script focused on a gambler who won half the estate of an older man, and the idea was that Eastwood would play the gambler and Wayne the older man. Eastwood was interested, but Wayne outright rejected the part. He didn’t like the script, but even more than that he didn’t like Clint Eastwood as a director and actor or how the script reflected the newer trends of the Western genre. After Eastwood tried again to pitch the film to Wayne, Wayne responded with a letter explaining his reasoning. In the letter, a major point of contention was how much Wayne hated Eastwood’s recent film High Plains Drifter.
High Plains Drifter was a 1973 Western that Eastwood starred in, and it was the first one he ever directed himself. It’s 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, and thought it didn’t properly reflect the lives of, in his mind, noble pioneers who settled the west and expanded America’s borders. He saw The Hostiles as more in line with the spaghetti Westerns that made Eastwood famous. To him, the script was a cynical reinterpretation of the kinds of characters and stories Wayne’s most famous films often portrayed. Eastwood didn’t bother to respond to the letter.
Needless to say, The Hostiles was never made because of this. A version of Cohen’s script eventually got made into the 2009 tv movie The Gambler, The Girl and the Gunslinger but the world was never to see the two giants of the genre on screen together. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood just came up through different generations and different eras of Hollywood, and they both had very different ideas about the genre that made their careers. They’re icons, and will forever be the faces of both sides of the Western: its older traditions and its newer deconstructions.
DONV. About The Author..Brooks Vernon