Clint Eastwood Broke John Wayne’S Biggest Western Rule


As the prominent faces of the Western genre and idealist representations of traditional leading men, it’s easy to compare John Wayne and Clint Eastwood to each other. Playing heroic archetypes of cowboys, law enforcement officers, and combat soldiers, Wayne and Eastwood defined a vision of American masculinity for multiple generations. Their artistic sensibilities put them in conversation with each other. Still, the two movie stars differed in more ways than one, especially concerning their self-consciousness evoking a pristine image as heroes. Wayne portrayed dignified Western sheriffs with a proud sense of nobility, while Eastwood’s postmodern take on the outlaw presented an uglier and nefarious underbelly of the Old West. The divide between the two stars is exemplified by Wayne’s refusal to shoot someone behind the back, but Eastwood is always quick with the trigger, even if his enemy combatant is caught off guard.

John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Played Very Different Western Heroes

An American icon from the Old West to the Vietnam War, John Wayne was a larger-than-life figure. His films, notably with his prolific collaborator, John Ford, ostensibly represented American culture and history. While Ford’s greatest achievements as director, including The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, poetically deconstructed Western heroes as creations of mythmaking, Wayne separated art from himself in his personal life. Unlike his contemporaries, he chose not to serve in World War II, and following this controversial decision, he adopted staunch conservative principles. He cooperated with the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) during the 1950s to blackball alleged communists working in Hollywood, and he was quick to label films as “un-American.” His gate-keeping of proper American values on the big screen evolved into pure bigotry, as evidenced by his infamous 1971 Playboy interview.

Clint Eastwood, beginning with his breakout into the mainstream with Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, deployed the best qualities of Wayne’s screen presence and matured his onscreen sentiments. Wayne, whose dramatic chops were often dismissed, excelled as a dramatic actor when stripped of his affectation of being the consummate All-American. In his roles as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers and Thomas Dunson in Howard Hawks’ Red River, Wayne showed a more cynical side to his heroism, as these characters fulfilled selfish desires involving years’ worth of pent-up bigotry and capital gains, respectively. With The Man With No Name, the titular lone ranger in The Outlaw Josey Wales, and William Munny in Unforgiven, Eastwood codified a character archetype found across multiple genres: the rogue outlaw, a killer with a suppressed heart of gold, and a clinical professional who talks sparsely. Westerns, in the wake of Eastwood’s revolutionary genre deconstruction, Unforgiven, were expected to follow anti-heroes with haunted souls.

“When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk!” This astute Western logic offered by Tuco (Eli Wallach) in Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly served as the backbone to Eastwood’s Western characters. He seldom talked and fired his gun on instinct. Inspector Harry Callahan of the Dirty Harry series adopted a vigilante approach to due process: shoot first and ask questions later. The quick trigger of these characters saw no boundaries, even within the unwritten rules of the Western genre. Not only did Eastwood’s outlaws shoot people unsuspectingly, he didn’t care if his opponent was drawing their gun. Due to their ominous names (such as the nameless “Preacher” in Pale Rider) and limited amount of dialogue, Eastwood carried an inscrutable screen presence. His conniving ways cast a dark shadow on characters glorified as noble vigilantes. In Eastwood’s darkest films, including High Plains Drifter, his cowboys embody a satanic spirit cursed on society, and true evil sneaks up on you while unguarded.


Unlike John Wayne, Clint Eastwood Would Shoot People Behind Their Back

The stark contrast between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood is exemplified by an anecdote orated by Eastwood as a guest on Inside the Actor’s Studio. Host James Lipton noted that Leone’s Dollars trilogy shattered the black-and-white/good versus evil conventions of the Western genre, evident by Eastwood’s nameless outlaw refusing to wait for his enemy combatant to draw their gun before shooting. When describing the rationale behind shooting first, Eastwood wryly asked, “It doesn’t make sense, why would you wait for somebody?” which drew a big laugh from the Actor’s Studio audience. Despite being the face of the modern Western, Eastwood analyzes the genre like a stand-up comic performing a routine mocking its illogical components.

Eastwood then recalled a story he heard from Don Siegel, director of Dirty Harry and a handful of Eastwood films, who also served as a mentor for the actor’s foray into directing. In 1976, Siegel directed John Wayne in The Shootist, The Duke’s final movie, which tracks a dying gunfighter as Wayne’s health was deteriorating in real life. When filming a scene where Wayne sneaks up behind an enemy gunfighter, Siegel told him to shoot him. “‘You mean, I shoot him in the back?'” Eastwood recalled Wayne’s comments. “‘I don’t shoot anyone in the back,'” Wayne told Siegel. The director, as Eastwood put it, “made a terrible error,” by informing his star that Eastwood would have shot this person in the back. Needless to say, Wayne, a man of sanctimonious pride, was livid over this comment. Eastwood, speaking in a broad impression of Wayne, said, “‘I don’t care what that kid would have done. I won’t shoot him in the back!'”

The Drastic Differences Between John Wayne and Clint Eastwood Sparked a Feud

Despite their physical similarities, tall stature, intense gaze, and imposing body language, Wayne and Eastwood’s artistic sensibilities differed. It’s not just that Wayne disagreed with Eastwood’s interpretation of the American frontier, he found his worldview an affront to his country. In the ’70s, the two movie cowboys engaged in a duel of their own after Wayne turned down a chance to work with Eastwood. Vehemently opposed to Eastwood’s vision, the Duke sent him a scathing letter critiquing High Plains Drifter.

Eastwood cited the film, about a violent gunfighter hired to protect a town in peril, as a cautionary fable, but Wayne decried it as a treasonous text. Perhaps the film hit too close to home for Wayne, as Eastwood’s nameless outlaw unflinchingly presented Western myth as a curse on society. In the film, the boundaries between a noble vigilante and a ruthless savage are broken, as Eastwood’s character serves justice through violence, but the town loses all of its morality. Wayne, who built his career off upholding patriotic values in the Western genre, could feasibly recognize the sobering reality that his roles represented.

Western outlaws and gunfighters are designed to kill beyond the parameters of the law. Either way, whether they do it to their face or behind their back, murder is their calling card. While John Wayne opted to sanitize the depiction of cowboys, Clint Eastwood presented the raw truth of American folklore. His knack for portraying unfettered darkness in his characters made him the ultimate revisionist director — paying tribute to Wayne’s iconography while expanding upon his messages for the modern era.