10 Best John Wayne Western Movie Themes

Having covered John Wayne Western Theme tunes, I thought I’d give consideration to the best orchestral themes as well.

Just like the previous article, I’m hoping this one will initiate a debate between the readers of MostlyWesterns regarding their own favourite JW theme. For the purpose of this article JW theme music is defined as the music heard over the opening credits of the film.

The Sons of Katie Elder – Elmer Bernstein

I’ve got this one at the bottom of the list because, if I’m honest, it’s not the best Bernstein theme tune to adorn a John Wayne Western.

It’s a bit derivative, almost as if someone is attempting a pastiche of Bernstein’s style, but coming up a bit short. Having said that, it’s quite a rousing intro to the film, but just not up there with the best of Bernstein.

Stagecoach – Richard Hageman / Various

Hageman combines traditional pioneer songs with original composition, as he also did later on with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

The opening theme music for Stagecoach incorporates snatches of ‘Don’t Bury Me On the Lone Prairie’ and ‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’, the former ‘sample’ having turned into a bit of an earworm over the years, the tune automatically popping into my head the minute I think of any cowboy film, not just those with John Wayne in it. Another one for the old funeral list I guess.

The Cowboys – John Williams

John Williams is of course more associated with Spielberg and ‘Star Wars’ than for anything else, but the theme to The Cowboys shows he could compete with the likes of Bernstein and Tiomkin in the cowboy movie stakes as well.

He also composed the music for other Westerns such as the 1966 remake of ‘The Plainsman”, ‘The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing’ and ‘The Missouri Breaks’, but the theme to ‘The Cowboys’ is definitely his most memorable and accomplished Western soundtrack.

Big Jake – Elmer Bernstein

I love the theme to this film for a couple of reasons, the main one being the fact that I didn’t actually get round to hearing it until just over a year or so ago for the very first time.

My bad I guess, not having seen the film itself until fairly late in life. The other reason I like it is because it’s such a great melody, something Bernstein excelled at, particularly with his Western themes. I must try and get hold of the original soundtrack one day.

Rio Grande – Victor Young

Like Bernstein, Victor Young sure knew how to write memorable movie themes. Apart from ‘Shane’, he also composed the music for ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, and ‘The Quiet Man’, to name just a few.

His theme to ‘Rio Grande’ starts out as a rousing military theme, before seguing into one of the most beautiful melodies to a John Ford film I’ve ever heard. In fact, Ford liked this piece of music so much it also turns up on ‘The Quiet Man’ soundtrack, rechristened as ‘Mother’, and it sounds just as good in that film as well.

How The West Was Won – Alfred Newman

If you didn’t know already that this film was actually a Western – I guess the clue is in the title though – you’d certainly have no doubts once this main theme kicks in. Newman received an Oscar nomination for his magnificent soundtrack.

John Ford’s Civil War sequence aside, I don’t really think the film really deserved such a great piece of music. Newman came to Western quite late in life, judging by his filmography, but he made up for last time after HTWWW by composing the scores to Nevada Smith and Firecreek, but this is his cowboy pièce de résistance as far as I’m concerned.

Rio Bravo – Dimitri Tiomkin

The main theme to Rio Bravo is second only to My Rifle, Pony and Me when it comes to this Tiomkin soundtrack. Although Dean Martin recorded Rio Bravo as a single, this is not the version you hear at the beginning.

The theme that opens the film is quite understated, to the point where you actually have to strain your ears at times to make sure you hear it properly. That’s Tiomkin’s masterstroke – the leisurely manner in which he orchestrates the theme music underlines the languid pace of the film as a whole.

My ideal juke-box single would be Dean and Ricky’s version of My Rifle, with this theme on the B side.

Red River – Dimitri Tiomkin

As you all probably know, the opening theme to Red River isn’t purely orchestral, it’s a song called ‘Settle Down’, the melody of which Tiomkin utilizes in Rio Bravo for My Rifle, Pony and Me. I’m nominating it in this list because it’s a great piece of music, with or without the vocals.

I’m not sure if the original score was ever released on CD but I have the Moscow version recorded by the Russian Symphony Orchestra, and the opening title as sung by a a Russian choir is certainly impressive. The notes point out that the choral arrangements for the music heard on the original soundtrack were by Jester Hairston, who played the black slave Jethro in The Alamo. Clever guy.

The Alamo – Dimitri Tiomkin

Talking of which… No apologies for this list being somewhat Tiomkin top heavy. If we were considering JW soundtracks as opposed to isolated themes or songs, then Tiomkin’s magnificent score for The Alamo goes straight to number one.

The theme heard on the opening credits, obviously not to be confused with the Overture for all you Director’s Cut fans, is comprised mainly of the De Guello ‘no quarter’ melody, The Green Leaves of Summer and Legend of the Alamo. The arrangement is quite low-key and somber, pre-echoing the fate of the defenders of the Alamo.

I love Tiomkin’s scores for Red River, High Noon and Rio Bravo, but his music for The Alamo should have won the Academy award for Best Original Music Score in 1961, not Ernest Gold for Exodus. The boy was robbed.

The Comancheros – Elmer Bernstein

I’ll tell you how good Bernstein’s opening theme for The Comancheros is. It’s so good I heard my wife humming it the other day. She might not be able to tell what film it comes from, but definitely recognizes it as a cowboy theme – who wouldn’t? – which means that the composer has done his job.

I rate Bernstein’s score for this film second only to The Magnificent Seven when it comes to his Western soundtracks. I was lucky enough to get to see the great man conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra at London’s Festival Hall on his 75th birthday anniversary tour back in the late 1990s, and I’m pretty sure he played this theme the night I saw him.

When it comes to his music and John Wayne’s films, it’s a partnership made in heaven, and I catch my breath every time I watch the opening credits to The Comancheros and hear Bernstein’s triumphant score. The rest of the soundtrack isn’t too bad either.

Now that we’ve covered both JW theme music and songs, I guess it’s time to mosey on down to the CD corral and consider John Wayne soundtrack scores in more detail. Keep your eyes peeled for an article on that very subject headed your way soon.

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Steve is a film scholar of note, gaining both an MA in film studies and a Ph.D. for his thesis on the silent films of John Ford. Steve, a scriptwriter and published novelist, provides much of the content you see here and is a dedicated aficionado and longtime fan of John Wayne, John Ford and Western films in general.

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