J.D. Cahill (John Wayne) is the toughest lawman in the west but all those years hunting outlaws across the state have made him a stranger to his sons, Danny (Gary Grimes) and Billy Joe (Clay O'Brien). He returns to his hometown to discover outlaws have robbed the local bank and killed the sheriff and a deputy. What J.D. does not know, but grows to suspect, is that Danny and Billy Joe were part of the gang behind the robbery although they tried to stop the killing. When J.D. arrests a band of drifters found with stolen money, the boys are stricken with guilt knowing these men now face the noose. Meanwhile the real culprits, Fraser (George Kennedy) and his violent gang threaten the boys to reveal where they have hidden the stolen loot.
Critics routinely lambast John Wayne's later westerns for their reactionary politics. While it is true that his conservatism hardened in response to the social unrest of the Sixties and Seventies, one does not have to be a hippie-hating right-winger to appreciate the central message extolled in Cahill, United States Marshal. That a strong, loving, attentive paternal figure should keep kids on the straight and narrow just seems like common sense. Even so, this remains among Wayne's weaker films from this period. By now, the Duke was a monolithic presence onscreen but for all his undoubted charisma and dynamism, particularly in the suspenseful shootouts bookending the the film, seemingly coasts through some scenes on autopilot. In later interviews the star admitted he all but gave up caring about the film following the death of long-time mentor John Ford that same year.
Ford's ghost haunts proceedings with frequent Wayne collaborator Andrew V. McLaglen, in their last film together, straining once again for a similar level of mythic grandeur. Elmer Bernstein's rousing score elevates the sluggish action and the film is handsomely photographed by Joseph Biroc utilising some ingenious camera angles that heighten the Duke's already pretty formidable heroic stature and convey the nightmarish situation in which young Danny and Billy Joe find themselves trapped. Given McLaglen's reputation among critics as a lightweight - somewhat unfair given he made Shenandoah (1965) and The Way West (1967) - it is uncertain whether he lucked out or skilfully drew great performances from Gary Grimes and Clay O'Brien. Following an acclaimed turn in Summer of '44 (1971) Grimes came to specialise in unruly teens out west in The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) and The Spikes Gang (1974) while O'Brien had earlier appeared opposite Wayne in The Cowboys (1972) and starred in its short-lived television spin-off before becoming a Disney regular in films like The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975). Their high quality acting compensates for the unfortunate squandering of a promising premise by screenwriters Harry Julian Fink and Rita M. Fink.
Cahill was the last film penned by the husband and wife writing team behind Dirty Harry (1971) who appear to have recycled several motifs from their previous John Wayne vehicle, Big Jake (1971), e.g. the absent father, generational conflict, young kids menaced by brutal outlaws. Also both films pair the Duke with a crotchety but dependable old half-breed Indian tracker, played here with amiable gusto by Neville Brand, three years away from terrorising the swamps in Tobe Hooper's enjoyable horror film Eaten Alive (1976). The genial relationship and mutual respect between Cahill and Brand’s Lightfoot was supposedly included in the film as a riposte to those who accused Wayne of racism. Nevertheless this skilfully underlines an important facet of Cahill's character and arguably Wayne's screen persona as a whole. He may take a hard line on lawbreakers but is worldly enough to know bad men are judged on their deeds not their race. When Cahill sharply rebukes his eldest son for disrespecting Lightfoot's wife, it is a reminder that while Wayne had his greatest role as the racist Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), more often than not his characters sought to uphold peace with the Indians, e.g. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948), Hondo (1953) or Chisum (1970).
Several familiar faces grace the film, but while two-time Oscar-winner George Kennedy growls menacingly, McLaglen gives him too little to do and wastes a solid cast including film noir favourite Marie Windsor, former child star turned Addams Family favourite Jackie Coogan, and regular Wayne co-star Harry Carey Jr. If, like this writer, you love John Wayne movies, this has enough wry one-liners and solid suspense sequences to pass muster, but merely ambles along when it ought to blast with both barrels.