John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are the two biggest icons of the Western movies, however, Wayne wasn’t always a fan of Eastwood’s work. In fact, Wayne hated one of Eastwood’s Westerns so much he sent him a letter decrying the film. Here’s how Eastwood reacted to the letter — and how the public reacted to this movie.
This Clint Eastwood movie was a lot darker than John Wayne’s films
Firstly, a little background. The Western was a staple of American cinema from its early days. It often presented a glorified view of American expansionism. During and after the civil rights movement, Westerns began to evolve, often presenting a critical or at least cynical view of the Old West. Movies like that became especially popular during the 1970s, but by the 1980s the genre was no longer an American staple.
One of the more famous dark Westerns from the 1970s was High Plains Drifter. The film is about a mysterious criminal who comes into town, seemingly to get revenge for his brother who was murdered as many of the townsfolk watched by idly. No one in the film is very sympathetic — they’re all either evil or passive in the face of evil. It’s a far cry from the more uplifting films which made Wayne famous.
What John Wayne said in his letter to Clint Eastwood — and how Eastwood responded
It’s very easy to see High Plains Drifter as a critique of the American West. According to the book Ride, Boldly Ride: The Evolution of the American Western, that’s how Wayne saw the film. In addition, he saw it as inaccurate.
Eastwood told Kenneth Turan “John Wayne once wrote me a letter saying he didn’t like High Plains Drifter. He said it wasn’t really about the people who pioneered the West. I realized that there’s two different generations, and he wouldn’t understand what I was doing. High Plains Drifter was meant to be a fable: it wasn’t meant to show the hours of pioneering drudgery. It wasn’t supposed to be anything about settling the West.” According to the book John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Eastwood did not write back.
How the public reacted to ‘High Plains Drifter’
Clearly, Wayne was upset by the film. This raises an interesting question: Did High Plains Drifter resonate with the public? According to Box Office Mojo, High Plains Drifter earned over $15 million. Even by the standards of the 1970s, High Plains Drifter was not a tremendous hit. For comparison, Box Office Mojo reports a less dark 1970s Western starring Eastwood called The Outlaw Josey Wales earned over $31 million.
Regardless, High Plains Drifter has a bit of a legacy. It was the first Western that Eastwood directed himself. Eastwood would go on to direct several other Westerns including the Oscar-winning Unforgiven. Wayne wasn’t much of a fan of High Plains Drifter — and neither was the public.