Back in 1959, critics were already asking if John Wayne was too old to be playing gunslinger leads.
Rio Bravo was released that year and the romantic age gap between the 51-year-old and his 27-year-old co-star Angie Dickinson received negative reactions in reviews.
Nevertheless, the Hollywood star found ways to play older cowboys over the next couple of decades, even as his health began to decline dramatically.
Wayne was 65-years-old when he shot one of his last Westerns, 1973’s Cahill US Marshall, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today.
The movie had Duke play a widowed US Marshal who neglects his two sons when he finds them mixed up with an outlaw in a bank robbery.
Director Andrew V McLaglen felt Cahill US Marshall was “not the usual John Wayne movie. It’s a very deep, personal story about children neglected by a father who is just trying to do his job.”
The star was far from being in good shape, having had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964. He was also struggling with emphysema on his remaining one.
Being significantly weakened, Wayne was forced to use a stepladder to climb onto his horse in the movie. As for riding shots from a distance, Duke’s Cahill was doubled by Chuck Roberson.
When Cahill US Marshall hit cinemas, both audiences and critics thought that Wayne should really have played the boys’ grandfather. However, at the time, he had three kids around the same age as his on-screen sons played by Gary Grimes and Clay O’Brien. On top of this, many men in the 19th century didn’t have children until their middle age.
Nevertheless, Duke was coming to terms with being in the winter of his own days, having heard that his long-time collaborator, director John Ford, was dying of cancer. Upon news of his death in August 1973, Duke told journalists: “I’m pretty much living on borrowed time.”
Hardly helping matters, Cahill US Marshall was the worst-reviewed of his films since he played Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror. Produced by Duke’s son Michael under his father’s production company Batjac, Cahill had failed to live up to the praise Wayne received for his Oscar-winning role in 1969’s True Grit.
The star later admitted of the 1973 Western: “It just wasn’t a well-done picture. It needed better writing, it needed a little better care in making.”
Wayne would go on to make a couple of better-received Westerns in True Grit sequel Rooster Cogburn opposite Katherine Hepburn and The Shootist. The latter film saw him playing a terminally ill gunfighter. The Hollywood icon himself died of cancer just a couple of years later in 1979.