Was John Wayne being an old Green Beret stick-in-the-mud when, after seeing High Plains Drifter, he wrote to its director and star Clint Eastwood, “This isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country”?
Wayne was never a lover of nuance, and he had little patience for depicting the darker side of the American psyche, as is evident from his evaluation of another film: “High Noon was the most un-American thing I have ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ol’ Coop [Gary Cooper] putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it. I’ll never regret having run [screenwriter Carl Foreman] out of this country.”
Eastwood second directorial effort was released in 1973, and he wasn’t interested in Wayne’s myth. It was a time of callous selfishness and a vicious appraisal of the institutions so revered by Wayne, hardly the environment for an uplifting Western about the strong stock of the frontier.
Eastwood’s story of a drifter returning incognito to the town that ran him out via a brutal whipping is assured (he was clearly taking mental notes when directed by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel with this bizarre, even trippy revenge flick). It is also supremely cynical. Nearly everyone in the town is guilty of either directing the whipping or standing by when it happened, frauds and cowards all, and these villains unwittingly give Eastwood a run of the place so he’ll protect them from the very same thugs (newly released from prison) the town set on Eastwood. Eastwood enjoys the power, as well as sticking it to townsfolk for their hypocrisy, per this exchange with a preacher upbraiding Eastwood for evicting people from the town hotel:
You can’t turn all these people out into the night. It is inhuman, brother. Inhuman!
I’m not your brother.
We are all brothers in the eyes of God.
All these people, are they your sisters and brothers?
They most certainly are!
Then you won’t mind if they stay at your place, will ya?
All right, folks, let’s go. Put your bags here. Friends, don’t worry. We shall find haven for you in our own homes… and it won’t cost you one cent more than regular hotel rates.
But let’s not dismiss that old fuddy duddy Wayne out of hand. High Plains Drifter is also groundbreaking in a different, uglier way. Eastwood’s character rapes a woman in the first 15 minutes of the film, yet his status as the anti-hero is none the worse for wear. While she was a complicit bystander in his whipping, even cheering, when she tries to shoot Eastwood (and misses), he asks, “I wonder why it took her so long to get mad?” to which a character replies, “Because maybe you didn’t go back for more.”
Compare and contrast Wayne: “I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either” and you can better understand his distaste.