Two figures stand tallest among the history of American Western cinema – John Wayne and Clint Eastwood both have storied careers in the genre, but when they had an opportunity to work together on a film in 1970, Wayne unfortunately vehemently denied the opportunity and turned it down. In justifying his response, the reason behind Wayne’s decision lay with both Eastwood’s star persona, as well as the changing landscape of the Western film genre, as well as the particular film in question.
John Wayne is famous for being one of the first huge stars of the Western genre of cinema. Finding his start in the 1930s, just as movies that had synch-sound replaced silent films, he was the face of an entire era of Western cinema during a time when the genre dominated the cinema landscape. Films like John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy glorified certain ideals of that time, including black and white morality, American Exceptionalism, and a positive view of Manifest Destiny. More nuance came into Wayne’s persona with later releases such as The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never strayed far from these ideals. The 1960s and ’70s and brought a new era, heralded by movies like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, which were a darker and more violent form of Western. These newer types of Western began to feature more moral ambiguity and, at times, their themes and concepts would challenge closely held American beliefs. Clint Eastwood, the American face of this new era, became almost as big a star as John Wayne was himself at the peak of his career.
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.