9 Worst Baddies From John Wayne Westerns

Dealing specifically with John Wayne Westerns only, here’s my list of the most darndest, lowdown, back-shooting hornswaggling varmints that ever graced the screen in a Duke cowboy movie. All of the following apart from one don’t make it to the end of their respective films alive. Just in case you’re not sure I’ll provide the answer at the end. In the meantime, on with the carnage and in at ninth place.
Robert Duvall in True Grit

9. Robert Duvall – True Grit

Duvall doesn’t actually get much screen time in True Grit, only really coming into his own with the climactic shootout with Duke towards the end of the film.

Duvall, as Ned Pepper, riles our boy by referring to Rooster Cogburn as a ‘one-eyed fat man’. With a cry of ‘fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch’, Rooster rides towards Pepper and his gang like a knight in a jousting contest –outnumbered by four to one if I remember correctly – but he takes them all down eventually, leaving Ned badly wounded.

Ned then tries to kill Rooster, who is trapped beneath his horse. The day is saved when Robert Duvall gets shot by Glen Campbell – and there’s another one of those sentences that I never thought I’d ever write. Boo Radley gunned down by the Rhinestone Cowboy. I guess we must have all been on drugs back in the 1960s, including the casting director of True Grit.

Tom Tyler in Stagecoach8. Tom Tyler – Stagecoach

You know the moment you set eyes on Luke Plummer that he’s on a one-way ticket to Boot Hill. Luke knows it too.Drawing a dead man’s hand of cards just before hearing the Ringo Kid is in town kind of gives him and us a clue as to what’s going to happen next.

Thus begins yet another climactic showdown for Duke, this time on the streets of Lordsburg.

The Kid’s brother was killed by the Plummer gang so Ringo has God, a Winchester and three bullets on his side. No contest. In this case, he has the great John Ford on his side as well who shoots the gunfight sequence in the atmospheric shadows and dimly lit deserted confines of the town like a cowboy film noir.

Ford made a lot of silent films and the shootout at the end of Stagecoach demonstrates his mastery of the form, the sequence shot like a silent movie punctuated with the inevitable sound of gunshots and a final despairing scream.

Tom Tyler as Luke Plummer has one last moment in the spotlight as he walks through the doors of a saloon before falling to the floor plum dead. A classic piece of cinema from the best Western director to ever come out of Hollywood. I love it.

Tom Tyler went on to play my all-time favorite Saturday morning serial hero – Captain Marvel. Must do an article on those serials one day. King of the Rocket Men anyone?

Claude Akins in Rio Bravo7. Claude Akins – Rio Bravo

Just like Ford, Hawks also started out his career as a silent movie director.

Just as with Ford and Stagecoach, the almost wordless opening of the first five minutes of Rio Bravo indicates the ease with which Hawks is able to switch from sound to silent film and back again.

Our villain of the day here is one Joe Burdette, played by Claude Akins, who serves as the catalyst around which the rest of the film will revolve. Before he is revealed as a ruthless murderer Burdette indicates his cold-heartedness by throwing a silver dollar into a spittoon for Dean Martin, as alcoholic sheriff Dude, to retrieve so that he can buy a drink.

As Dude goes to get the money JW as John T. Chance seems to appear from almost out of nowhere to kick the spittoon across the saloon floor. Then things start to get really nasty.

Dude clumps Chance for spoiling his drinking plans, Burdette’s men beat up Dude, then Burdette shoots in cold blood a saloon dweller who tries to intervene before moving on to the next saloon. And still not a word spoken until Chance staggers into the saloon after Burdette to inform him he’s under arrest.

The barkeeper gets the drop on Chance, Dude saves the day by getting the drop on the barkeeper and Chance is free to smash Burdette across the head with the barrel of his Winchester.

Of course, we all know Chance would have liked to have done the same thing to Dude after Dude struck him earlier on but for the moment they work in concert as they drag Burdette off to jail. A showdown conducted almost in silence at the beginning rather than the end of the film. Pure genius.

Bruce Cabot in The War Wagon6. Bruce Cabot – The War Wagon

I’m somewhat flummoxed by the number of times Mr Cabot appears in a JW movie. It’s not just confined to the Westerns either.

He literally gets just one scene in the Otto Preminger war picture In Harms Way. Apparently, he was categorized as a Wayne regular, so I guess they were tight off as well as on screen.

Luckily his roles became a bit more substantial in Wayne’s late career Westerns – although he’s in the cast list of Chisum and I’m damned if I can remember what part he played.

As a villain, he was quite effective in The War Wagon and would seem to be more suited towards playing the bad guy in a Wayne movie, just as he was in his first Duke Western, Angel and the Badman.

As the corrupt businessman Frank Pierce in The War Wagon, Cabot frames Wayne’s character, Taw Jackson, then takes his land from him while Duke’s incarcerated before using our hero and his companions as target practice with his newly acquired Gatling gun.

Pierce dies in a shootout trapped inside his own war wagon, the vehicle then crashing into a ravine, putting paid to any ideas Cabot may have had of being resurrected for a sequel.

Cabot played his last role opposite Wayne in Big Jake, as the Native American scout Sam Sharpnose. Somebody should have shot him for wearing that wig.

Forest Tucker in Sands of Iwo Jima5. Forrest Tucker – Chisum

Tucker and Wayne had previous form in Sands of Iwo Jima when it came to trying to punch each other’s lights out. They ended up friends in that film so it’s good to see the fist-fight in Chisum settling matters once and for all between the two of them.

No prizes for guessing who comes out on top so let’s just say Tucker, as unscrupulous land grabber Lawrence Murphy, thoroughly deserves the beating he receives from Duke at the end of the film.

Ending up impaled on a large cattle horn is icing on the cake. Tucker’s role is somewhat overshadowed by another storyline featuring Billie the Kid that also runs through the film but the showdown with Wayne is worth the price of admission.

Richard Boone in Big Jake4. Richard Boone – Big Jake

My early memories of Richard Boone revolve around watching him every week as that nice gunfighter Paladin in the tv series Have Gun Will Travel and his appearance as Sam Houston in The Alamo.

It came as a bit of a surprise later to realize he was also good at playing the bad guy in films such as The Tall T – I think he throws a kid down a well in that one – and he was a real despicable son-of-a-bitch in Hombre too.

In Big Jake, he gets the chance once again to channel his inner psycho as gang leader John Fain. We first encounter him overseeing a massacre at a ranch owned by Jake’s estranged family, although the child-killer for the day is none other than Harry Carey Jr. Fain’s gang kidnap Big Jake’s grandson – big mistake.

In the final shootout, a mortally wounded Fain asks Jake who he is. Upon being told he’s Jake McCandles Fain remarks ‘I thought you were dead’ before rushing off to his appointment with the devil. As if.

John Wayne / Big Jake dead? No way. He had at least another 7 films up his leather waistcoat before barging through the pearly gates.

Bruce Dern in The Cowboys3. Bruce Dern – The War Wagon / The Cowboys

I’ve already written elsewhere on the effect playing John Wayne’s back shooting killer had on Bruce Dern’s career – needless to say, it wasn’t positive.

The thing is, he was always a favourite screen psycho of mine before he did the dastardly deed in The Cowboys. He was particularly unsavoury as the rustler in Hang ‘Em High and one of the Quint family in Will Penny.

I even genuinely remember him as Jack Lord’s (nice) sidekick, along with Warren Oates, in the early 60s tv series Stoney Burke – must have been those shiny teeth of his. My favourite (not so nice) turn of his for me is the psychotic pilot in Black Sunday (1976) in which he attempts to massacre everyone in a football stadium using a large blimp loaded with explosives that he intends to deliver suicide-style himself.

In the same year The Cowboys was released he went postal and murdered his fellow spaceship crew mates in Silent Running, so the boy has definitely got form.

Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance2. Lee Marvin – The Comancheros / The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

How many actors have been killed by John Wayne twice?Certainly the ubiquitous Bruce Cabot but not many others that I can think of.

Another member of this small group is Lee Marvin who got what was coming to him in both The Comancheros and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

It’s Marvin’s turn as the quite outlandishly vicious Valance that guarantees him a spot near the top of this list though. You could argue he’s almost a cartoonish villain as he has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

The sadistic relish with which Valance beats James Stewart towards the beginning of the film with a whip and the way he taunts Stewart in the final shootout before going for the shot between the eyes makes for a memorable villain.

No wonder Duke as Tom Doniphon had no compunction in putting Valance down like the rabid dog that he was – sorry, have I given the ending away?

I remember in the dim and distant past watching a sketch on tv in which Wayne and Marvin go to sleep around a campfire.

Marvin looks across to where Wayne is about to bed down and sneaks the Oscar he won for Cat Ballou out of his saddlebag and holds it close to his chest in case Wayne tries to take it away from in the night.

Anyone else remember that? It may have been back in the 60s so I can’t guarantee that I wasn’t ingesting large amounts of non-prescriptive pharmaceuticals at the time.

Henry Brandon in The Searchers1. Henry Brandon – The Searchers

It should be noted that we’re only dealing with individual villains here otherwise, I would have nominated in my number one spot the whole of the Mexican army as depicted in The Alamo as the worst villains of all in any John Wayne film – ever.

They stuck our boy to a wooden door with a lance, for God’s sake. Where’s the dignity in that? I also note I might be flying too close to the flame of political correctness in making the Comanche chief Scar the best of the John Wayne Western bad guys, but let’s be honest here – he was a very nasty man.

It might be rather fanciful of me but I can distinctly remember seeing The Searchers at the age of about 4 or 5 years old when the film was first released. The reason I’m able to remember this is down to two reasons.

First of all, we were living on the island of Malta as my dad was in the Royal Navy at the time and it used to get quite hot in the evenings so there was some kind of contraption that rolled the roof of the cinema back so that you could look up at the open night sky.

The other reason I remember the film is because there’s a scene early on in which the family are about to be attacked in their cabin and they sneak the little girl Debbie out of a side window. She hides in the cemetery where her grandmother is buried at which point we see the shadow of Scar appear on the gravestone behind her.

As a child, I’m watching another child who is in a highly threatening situation so it obviously had quite an effect on me. My empathy with Debbie quadrupled into sheer terror when the screen was filled with a close-up of Henry Brandon in full Comanche warrior mode.

So, because he scared the crap out of me when I was still too young to go to school I nominate Scar as the most memorable of all the bad guys that appeared in any JW Western.

And the last man standing award goes to Claude Akins in Rio Bravo. He doesn’t die, he just gets duffed up by Dean Martin.

Photo of author
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.

12 thoughts on “9 Worst Baddies From John Wayne Westerns”

  1. Enjoyable article.

    Bruce Cabot was the Sheriff in Chisum shot by Billy the Kid.

    The skit with Lee Marvin wasn’t with John Wayne but John Byner and was part of a tribute to John Wayne which was introduced by Frank Sinatra.

    • Jeanie, thank you for your comments regarding the article. Maybe I’ll get around to correcting some of my assumptions at a later date. In the meantime keep reading our posts but most importantly please stay safe.

  2. You mentioned Bruce Darren in your article. I did like his comic turn in the James Garner film “Support Your Local Sheriff”

    • Yeah Richard, I had forgotten that movie – it was done in an unusual style – Bruce Dern was fun as was James Garner and Harry Morgan. And it’s always great to see Walter Brennan who always makes me smile.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.