John Wayne

Even John Wayne Thinks This Is His Worst Western

Out of his impressive 80 Westerns, this 1973 film is the movie the Duke deemed his worst.

John Wayne was an outspoken actor whose career was marked by sharp outbursts about things he felt passionate about. Whether it was politics or social issues, he never shied away from expressing his feelings. Sometimes his criticism would lean inwards toward his own work. He hated Cahill U.S. Marshala movie that he starred in that was produced by his son Michael Wayne. For an actor with credits in the hundreds to his name in both film and television, around 80 of which were Westerns, singling out Cahill U.S. Marshal as his worst Western speaks a lot about his sentiments toward the 1973 Andrew V. McLaglen-directed film.

John Wayne Plays a Less Conservative Character in ‘Cahill U.S. Marshal’

Accustomed to playing and championing the ideal American conservative man, John Wayne takes up a role in Cahill U.S. Marshal that falls short of this expectation. Wayne’s character in the film, much like his only Oscar-winning performance in True Grit, is that of a lawman tasked with bringing in some of the toughest criminals. However, it is also one in which his conservative views fall short. Starring as the titular J.D. Cahill, Wayne portrays a tough U.S. Marshal with much more liberal views, who is dedicated to the call of duty at the expense of being a responsible father. A widower with two sons coming of age, Cahill has left the two under the care of a much older man in the countryside as he hunts criminals. His dedication to his work has estranged him from his sons, who crave paternal love as he doesn’t spend time with them. Seeking attention, the two sons follow J.D. to town, taking him head-on by joining hands with local criminals, assisting them to escape prison and rob a bank, a deal that goes sour when the town’s sheriff is killed.

John Wayne’s character, Marshal Cahill aka J.D., is then tasked to investigate and apprehend the robbers and murderers with the help of an indigenous American tracker, Lightfoot (Neville Brand). Unbeknownst to Cahill that his sons took part in the robbery, he enlists the older son Danny (Gary Grimes) to help him in bringing the culprits to justice. Unlike his typical roles in Westerns, Wayne’s Marshal Cahill is a flawed character — a conflicted father striving to bridge the gap with his sons while honoring his late wife’s last words: “Go get ’em!” (in reference to criminals).

Before John Wayne Took on Westerns, He Fought a Giant Sea Monster in This Film

This action-adventure finds our favorite cowboy out in the ocean.

Cahill U.S. Marshal is not far from a typical John Wayne Western. He is still the tough-headed cowboy (this time as a lawman) who is better than most at gun-slinging and dedicated to duty. However, one thing sets the film apart from the others: he confronts the man he has played and championed in and outside his many movies. Here, Wayne, unlike in films such as The Searchers and Stagecoach, is more tolerant. He is cognizant of the Indigenous American community, at one point even punishing his son Danny for disrespecting an Indigenous woman. In another scene, he tells a Black character, “I ain’t got a bigoted bone in my body.” This line is ironic given that it is stated by a character played by an actor who, just two years before, had said in a Playboy interview, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

Still, in Cahill U.S. Marshal, John Wayne’s conservative tough love is put to the test. Unlike in Red River, where he teaches his adopted son by way of tough love, in Cahill U.S. Marshal, he faces the challenge of backing down and embracing the unfamiliar “soft father” who must spend time and listen to his sons. He is forced to admit his mistakes and apologize, even if not using the words verbatim. That’s a different John Wayne from the one we had seen before. Given that Wayne also once described Indigenous Americans as “selfish” for resisting occupation, perhaps it is these unfamiliar characterizations for his role that led him to criticize the film, stating, “It just wasn’t a well-done picture. It needed better writing. It needed a little better care in making.”

Is ‘Cahill U.S. Marshal’ Really John Wayne’s Worst Western?

When you consider the quality of Cahill U.S. MarshalJohn Wayne’s sentiments about the film aren’t particularly misplaced. Indeed, it would be interesting to see the movie ranking highly in any cinephile’s list of John Wayne’s Westerns. It is a film that was made in the Duke’s late-career years, at a time when audiences were getting weary of Westerns, and John Wayne’s popularity was waning. While it’s not a remarkable film by any means, considering John Wayne’s other film Rio Lobo, which is also rated lowly by Quentin Tarantino, there are few contenders for the title of John Wayne’s worst Western. Cahill U.S. Marshal‘s shortcomings can be a little more deafening. Apart from the opening scene, which is one of the standouts, there is hardly anything memorable in the first and second acts. This opening scene has Wayne’s Cahill facing off against a gang of five in a bush shoot-out. It sets the tone for the gun-toting John Wayne and sets up anticipation for a showdown. However, beyond this scene and the beautiful but less-satisfying ending sequence, Cahill U.S. Marshal doesn’t reward the audience for their time.

One element that the film suffers from is attaining believability among its audience. The casting, like in some of John Wayne’s other films, is off. Critics were particularly concerned about John Wayne’s casting as the father of the two young sons, suggesting that he might have been better suited to play their grandfather. In the movie, however, it appears that this casting choice was intentional, perhaps intended to be comical. For example, Wayne’s character asks an equally elderly man if a young boy in his company is his son, to which the old man distastefully replies that he is his grandson. Such portrayals drew criticism toward Wayne for falling out of touch with his fans. However, the criticism directed at Cahill U.S. Marshal didn’t peak like that of his earlier 1956 historical drama The Conqueror, in which he was again criticized for being miscast as Genghis Khan, a Mongolian conqueror.

For a film so close to the end of John Wayne’s majestic career, Cahill U.S. Marshal is a disappointment. While it has an interesting set-up, it fails to live up to its hype. Its use of comic relief is welcome as it keeps you engaged in the movie, but some of it falls flat. Some aspects of its narrative are hard to believe — like an unaccompanied ten-year-old-looking boy with no exceptional powers riding a carriage across the dangerous Old West country and primarily being responsible for helping prisoners escape and rob a bank. There is also little development for some of the characters. We know little about Lightfoot’s aspirations for his people as the Chief of the Comanche, apart from the fact that he has a family and cannot afford cigars, even though he loves them to death, literally. As for John Wayne’s character, the film attempts to flesh him out, but his flaw as an irresponsible father who learns nothing until the very end takes away the little care we have for him. This 1973 movie perhaps was an attempt to clear John Wayne of his infamous 1971 interview goofs, but seeing it with so much knowledge about John Wayne available now does little to that course. In fact, it makes Cahill U.S. Marshal a perfect cosmic joke. Even John Wayne thinks this film is his worst Western.

Cahill U.S. Marshal is available to rent on Prime Video in the U.S.

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