One of the key scenes in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was inspired by John Wayne’s final movie, The Shootist. Eastwood made his name on the big screen with Westerns like the Dollars movie trilogy, but he largely stepped away from the genre in the late 1970s. Unforgiven was a screenplay he sat on for nearly a decade, as he felt it could be his perfect last statement on the genre and the myth of the Old West. Unforgiven was released in 1992 and not only did it win Best Picture and Best Director at the 65th Academy Awards, but it’s also considered one of the finest Westerns ever produced.
John Wayne – a vet of 80 Westerns from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” – made little secret of his dislike of Eastwood’s darker style of Western. His last performance came with 1976’s The Shootist, where he played a legendary gunfighter dying of cancer. The film was helmed by Dirty Harry’s Don Siegel, and it ended up affecting the screenplay for Unforgiven – one of Clint’s favorites of his own. Namely, the sequence where Eastwood’s Munny fears he’s dying and speaks of being scared came from Wayne’s film. In both instances, this involved two Western icons playing vulnerable, scared men fearful of what awaits them on their deathbeds and reflecting on their legacies.
The Shootist was a success upon release and is now seen as containing one of Wayne’s finest performances. Wayne was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, which resulted in the removal of a lung and two ribs. This greatly impacted his health in later life, and his experiences no doubt informed his turn in The Shootist. Despite reports the actor was also dying of cancer when he made The Shootist, he wasn’t diagnosed with the illness again until 1979, and he passed away from stomach cancer in June of that year.
The Shootist wasn’t designed as John Wayne’s final movie either. He had been planning to reteam with The Shootist co-star Ron Howard on a Western called Blood River, written by a young John Carpenter; Wayne, naturally, would have played an old gunfighter. He rejected an offer by Steven Spielberg to play a supporting part in his war comedy 1941, feeling the movie made fun of those who died at Pearl Harbor. According to Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend (via CheatSheet) Wayne also planned to make a “half-Western thing” called Beau John with director Peter Bogdanovich, but his declining health saw this didn’t come to pass.
Wayne’s Westerns were decidedly old-fashioned and existed in a world where there was a clear line between good and evil. Clint Eastwood’s Westerns – starring with A Fistful Of Dollars – were a great deal more morally gray, violent and cynical. When Clint was pitched a Western called The Hostiles by director Larry Cohen, he then approached Wayne with the idea of the two starring together. Wayne didn’t like the script and hated Eastwood’s 1973 Western High Plains Drifter, which he found too bleak and didn’t reflect the spirit of the people who settled America; future Unforgiven helmer Eastwood didn’t reply.