John Wayne made his final ten films between 1970 and 1976; eight of them were westerns with the other two being ill-advised attempts at the cop movie genre.
The decade got underway with Chisum (1970). A meandering retelling of the Billy the Kid story, the film featured one memorable image – Wayne on horseback looking out over his land from a high plateau. Several Wayne regulars were on hand, including Ben Johnson and Bruce Cabot, and the film is pleasant enough if a little unfocused. This was followed by the final teaming of Wayne and Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo. It fails to live up to their past glories (as did the final Wayne/Ford film), with Duke too old for the part of Cord McNally, an ex-civil war colonel.
Wayne’s final big hit, Big Jake (1971) was followed by his first classic of the ‘70s – The Cowboys (1972). Wayne reunited with The War Wagon director Burt Kennedy for another ‘heist’ movie, The Train Robbers (1973) but it lacked the earlier film's exuberant sense of fun, not to mention Kirk Douglas, with Rod Taylor a poor substitute. Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973) had its moments, featuring an enjoyable turn by George Kennedy as the main villain, but at 63 Wayne was too old for the part and audiences couldn’t accept him as the father of a twelve-year-old boy (although in reality he had a son a year younger than that).
Having turned down the part of Dirty Harry, he attempted to rectify this perceived mistake (it was in fact the right choice — he was too old for Harry and the film was a hit because of Clint Eastwood) by making a pair of cop movies. McQ (1974) doesn’t really work; Lon McQ would have been retired years before, but veteran director John Sturges keeps things moving, crafting some good action set pieces. The following year Wayne came to England for the fish-out-of-water thriller Brannigan (1975) as an American cop on a mission to return a mobster to the US. Brannigan is definitely not a good film; you could (and I’m sure some would) say it’s a bad film, but good or bad, it is without doubt a fun film. Car chases, bar room brawls — this has it all, and in Wayne and Richard Attenborough it has the ultimate mismatched cop partnership (eat your hearts out, Gibson and Glover).
The misjudged True Grit sequel, Rooster Cogburn (1975) followed before Wayne’s final film, The Shootist (1976). Let’s take a closer look at that film and the other high points of the decade.