Bruce Willis Nearly Replaced John Wayne In A Remake Of His Best Western (Set In Space!)


Bruce Willis could have stepped into the boots of John Wayne for a sci-fi remake of the latter’s most iconic Western. Few actors are as closely tied to a genre as Wayne is to Westerns. John Wayne starred in 80 Westerns throughout his decades-long career, and while he appeared in everything from romantic dramas to cop movies, his biggest successes tended to feature him as a cowboy. Even his final movie – 1976’s The Shootist – was a Western. The star is so closely tied to his movies that few filmmakers have attempted straight-up remakes of Wayne’s movies either.

The most famous remake would be the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit, where Jeff Bridges inherited the role of Rooster Cogburn from Wayne. Not only did the 1969 original earn Wayne his sole Oscar for Best Actor, but it’s also the only role he returned to for a sequel, with 1975’s Rooster Cogburn being the star’s penultimate movie. 1966 also saw the release of a Stagecoach remake, with the original featuring Wayne’s breakout role as The Ringo Kid. While not exactly a direct remake of the 1960 Wayne film, 2004 also saw a new take on The Alamo.

The Trail Was A Planned Sci-Fi Remake Of John Wayne’s The Searchers

This new take on Searchers set the story on an alien planet

In short, most filmmakers avoided trending on Wayne’s terrority. The Searchers is often cited as featuring Wayne’s best performance and being his best Western, period. The film has been hailed as a masterpiece by everybody from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese, who very loosely remade it as Taxi Driver. The movie’s story follows Wayne’s bitter, violent Civil War vet as he sets out to rescue his kidnapped niece from the Comanche. In 1997, it was announced that Warner Bros would remake The Searchers as The Trail, to be directed by Phillip Noyce.

Screenwriter Richard Jefferies revealed on an episode of the Best Movies Never Made podcast that The Trail took place on an alien planet that humanity had taken over, and that “The residents don’t like us very much.” The original report on the film from Variety stated the new version would loosely follow the plotline of The Searchers, and would no doubt have followed a human protagonist trying to rescue a loved one kidnapped by the planet’s residents.

Warner Bros Wanted Bruce Willis To Play The Wayne Role

The studio wanted a major star for The Trail

The Trail was set to be a major production from the studio; Jon Peters (Batman ’89) was set to produce, while director Noyce was coming off hits like Clear and Present Danger.Warner Bros wanted a major A-list name for the Wayne character, with Bruce Willis being heavily tipped for the role. Little is known about how close The Trail actually came to production, or how interested Willis was in the project. Even with a sci-fi angle, the comparisons with Wayne would have been unavoidable for Willis.

The Trail was likely canned after Warner Bros experienced a costly run of flops in 1998, such as their other sci-fi Western Wild Wild West. This led to the cancelation of other pricy projects like Tim Burton’s Superman Lives or Ridley Scott’s I Am Legend, and The Trail was likely seen as too big a risk, especially considering it was a Western in disguise.

The Searchers Already Has A Great Sci-Fi Remake

The Wayne Western has had many unofficial remakes already

The Trail may have essentially been The Searchers in Space!, but it wouldn’t have been the first time another film riffed on its core concept. As mentioned previously, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver used the central conceit for Travis (Robert De Niro) saving Jodie Foster’s Iris, while everything from Ron Howard’s The Missing to Paul Bettany’s sci-fi horror Priest has secretly remade The Searchers. However, when it comes to sci-fi remakes of The Searchers, it’s hard to beat the original Star Wars.

Lucas has often cited his debt to The Searchers, which can be seen in the 1977 film’s sweeping shots of the desert to its story of a young man – Luke Skywalker, in this case – teaming with an old war vet (Obi-Wan Kenobi) to rescue a young woman. Luke finding the charred remains of his aunt and uncle also recalls a similar sequence from The Searchers. It’s hard to know how The Trail would have measured up to The Searchers, but Star Wars: A New Hope is really the only sci-fi remake the movie needed.