John Wayne bestrode the Western genre, his iconic image writ large across the range, but it’s easy to forget he was also a major player in (usually jingoistically patriotic) war films like Sands of Iwo Jima and The Green Berets. But his career could have taken a rather different turn in the 1970s if he hadn’t rejected a grittily noir thriller that went on to confirm Clint Eastwood‘s superstardom instead. Two years later, Eastwood personally approached Wayne to co-star with him but he was bluntly turned away. The Duke also turned down Steven Spielberg for very similar personal reasons.
High Plains Drifter, which is back on TV later tonight, was the first Western film Eastwood both starred in and directed. It firmly established him as a bold filmmaker who could unusually appeal to every audience from art-house to conservative middle-America.
Everyone, that is apart from The Duke. Wayne was a famously very loud and proud bastion of the most conservative views within society and within his own beloved Westerns. He was outraged by High Plains Drifter and told Eastwood so in the bluntest terms when the chance came for them to work together.
Although Eastwood was primarily working in television on the western Rawhide from 1959 to 1966 while Wayne was riding across the big screen, there was a golden opportunity to share the screen in 1973. By then, the younger star was an acclaimed movie star himself, thanks to the The Good, The Bad and The Ugly franchise.
Eastwood, meanwhile, had become very hot Hollywood property and in 1973 directed his first western, High Plains Drifter. The challenging portrayal of morally ambiguous antihero, something that always attracted Eastwood throughout his career, was a commercial and critical hit – but The Duke hated it.
Wayne was infamously conservative and opposed to anything without a clear moral (in his view) code. He refused to shoot enemies in the back on screen or do anything to dishonour what he saw as the heroic past of his beloved nation.
The veteran star even blasted the ending of iconic Western High Noon as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.”
Similarly, Wayne also famously turned down an offer from Steven Spielberg, blasting his comedic fantasy war film 1941 as “Un-American drivel.”
In 1973 Eastwood sent Wayne the script for a new project, The Hostiles, that he thought would be perfect for the two of them. The film was about a younger man who won half of a ranch, owned by an older cowboy/rancher. Their initial antagonism changes to comradeship when they have to fight off attacks on their land.
After Wayne rejected the script the first time and was sent a revised version, he replied with a personal letter to Eastwood which clarified his rejection and also made some very blunt points about High Plains Drifter.
Eastwood later recalled: “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.”
Even so, Eastwood sent the script for The Hostiles to Wayne one last time. Wayne’s son Mike handed it to him while they were out sailing. The star simply grunted “This piece of sh** again” and threw it overboard into the ocean.