According To Clint Eastwood, This Is John Wayne’s Best Western Performance


It’s only fair that the icon of the Western genre and American male heroism of classic Hollywood, John Wayne, influenced the career and work of his successor as the preeminent movie star of the Old West, Clint Eastwood. Without Wayne, the valiant, all-American cowboy and soldier who defined on-screen masculinity for generations, Eastwood could never have evolved the iconography of Western folklore. In contrast to Eastwood’s portrayal of Western outlaws as anti-heroes in films such as High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, Wayne’s contributions to the genre seem pastiche — a simplistic interpretation of figures motivated by violent urges. The Duke’s darkest performances, Red River and The Searchers, were the ones that Eastwood responded to the most. More so than any of Eastwood’s films, these Wayne pictures were ahead of their time as provocative examinations of broken men consumed by a burning desire for vengeance.

‘Red River’ and ‘The Searchers’ Bring Out the Best in John Wayne

John Wayne’s most frequent collaborators behind the camera, particularly in the Western genre, were Howard Hawks and John Ford, with the latter widely considered the author of modern Western iconography and storytelling. In Red River, Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a tyrannical cattle driver leading his pact to market in Missouri, as he causes a mutiny led by his adopted son. They brought the best out of Wayne, who is still rarely celebrated as a stirring dramatic actor. Hawks effortlessly utilized his movie star quality, complementing the director’s status as a master of “hangout” movies. Under Hawks, he was eased of his pressure as the ultimate American hero and relied on his elegance, despite his towering stature. As Ford’s onscreen avatar, Wayne carried an aura of reserved melancholy, and the director’s painterly vision extracted a wistful energy. In the dozen films they made together, the duo shaped modern American folklore through Ford’s picturesque visual language and Wayne’s simple gestures. This is exemplified in The Searchers, the story of a battle-scarred Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), who embarks on a years-long journey to rescue his niece from a Comanche tribe.

No two films valorized the Hollywood legend’s unfussy but soulful acting more than Red River and The Searchers. Hawks scholar Peter Bogdanovich championed the director as one of Hollywood’s finest, and he cites Red River as a breakthrough in Wayne’s abilities as an actor. With the latter film, likely, your favorite director was immeasurably impacted by its greatness. Martin Scorsese sings its praises constantly, even writing retrospective reviews of it and its personal implications. Before embarking on a new picture, Steven Spielberg watches The Searchers for inspiration. Ford’s influence reigns over Spielberg, who dramatized his interaction with the director in The Fabelmans, instructing him never to shoot the horizon in the middle of the frame. These films should have silenced the naysayers suggesting that Wayne was an incompetent actor. His range may have been limited, but few could grace the screen and embody an archetype of American mythmaking quite like the Duke.

Clint Eastwood Praised John Wayne’s Performances in ‘Red River’ and ‘The Searchers’

Clint Eastwood sat down with Paul Schrader, whose script for Taxi Driver was indebted to The Searchers, at an event conducted by the Director’s Guild of America to commemorate Ford’s Stagecoach, ground zero for the modern Western. Sporting his iconic cowboy hat, fringe shirt, and a bandanna around his neck, the classic 1939 Western introduced audiences to Wayne. Shifting their conversation to Wayne’s career, Eastwood claimed that he once believed Red River to be his best performance. However, he felt the film was hindered by exposition in the latter half. What captured him was Wayne’s seamless ability to play a character older than his age. Wayne also played above his age in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as a cavalry general in his final days before retirement.


For Eastwood, it was The Searchers that cemented Wayne as a special screen performer and not just a viable movie star. Among all of Wayne’s roles, Ethan Edwards shares the most DNA with Eastwood’s Western protagonists. A common thread between Eastwood’s characters, The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and the nameless outlaws in High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, is ambiguity. They operate under a unique code that straddles between good and evil. Eastwood’s taciturn behavior compounds the ominous nature of these characters. Ethan’s burning desire to unleash havoc on the Comanche people is never explicitly outlined, and his emotional distance from his family after years of combat only makes him more inscrutable. He parallels one of Paul Schrader’s archetypal lonely men, a la Travis Bickle, amid the backdrop of a Western about a conflict between cowboys and Native Americans. In Unforgiven, Eastwood’s William Munny convinces himself that he is a reformed family man, but the prospect of violence and exacting revenge against a band of outlaws who assaulted a sex worker lures him back to the world of bounty hunting. Ethan is more or less ambivalent about saving an innocent girl’s life, but instead, his voyage is a vessel to fulfill the racist and violent urges that carried over from the war.

How Has John Wayne Influenced Clint Eastwood’s Career?

John Wayne and Clint Eastwood never collaborated, as the former was disgusted by the latter’s grisly depiction of the Old West in High Plains Drifter and declined the opportunity to work with the young actor. History will remember this feud as an indicator of the stark differences between Wayne and Eastwood, but the Duke’s influence on Eastwood’s revisionist approach to the genre is undeniable. Speaking to Film Comment, Eastwood commended Wayne’s bravery in playing an unbridled bigot. In this interview for his twisty neo-noir, Mystic River, the director explained that he prefers to “provoke certain emotions and let the imagination take over” rather than spelling everything out directly to the audience. This sentiment is breathlessly capitalized by Wayne in the scene when Ethan returns home after discovering the corpse of his niece, where he says, “Never ask me what I saw.” “When you look at his eyes at that moment you know it wasn’t something good that he saw,” Eastwood said of this scene that expressed the unspeakable tragedy.

Film criticism likes to segregate movie stars from actors, arguing that the most bankable movie stars draw in audiences, but are incapable of giving a deep and resonant dramatic performance. John Wayne, along with the likes of Robert Redford and Tom Cruise, have erroneously been labeled with the backhanded “movie star” epithet. Clint Eastwood is also no stranger to this form of gatekeeping. Even though he’s given rich and three-dimensional performances in beloved movies, some people will never elevate him to a prestigious status, particularly because he has played a similar archetype throughout his career in a genre mold. A transcendent performance by a movie star lingers with the audience and culture, as they can draw the attention of casual viewers and seamlessly connect them to the text of the story. Wayne’s groundbreaking turn in The Searchers changed everything, as he showed that the most heroic and idyllic characters can have an immoral soul.