The Movies John Wayne Died In & How – The Ultimate List

We’re updating this particular article as yet another contender for the films in which John Wayne died has come to our attention, meaning there are now 14 movies in which poor old Duke meets his maker.

These films fall into two categories: those in which we see John Wayne’s character actually die on screen, and those in which his character has already passed away, or there’s some ambivalence regarding his fate. 

The Deceiver (1931)

Lobby card featuring The Deceiver movie.

I must admit I’m not familiar with this particular film, mainly because I’ve yet to take a closer look at Duke’s 1930s oeuvre in detail, something I am looking to correct in the near future. Apparently, the character played by Ian Keith dies, after which his corpse morphs into Duke.

I guess when you’re starting out on your acting career you take whatever comes along, and why not? Kevin Costner played the corpse in The Big Chill – although his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.

The Sea Chase (1955)

The Sea Chase movie poster

You don’t actually find out at the end of the film whether Duke and Lana Turner make it after JW scuttles his ship, but let’s be honest here – of course they’re going to make it. They were made for each other.

It’s obvious Lana lives to stroll off into the sunset with her tall lanky hero, although it’s Duke who does the strolling.

Ms. Turner looks so small in this film compared to JW I wouldn’t be surprised if he just put her in his pocket before gluing her to the dashboard of his car.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

No ambivalence here. Duke’s character, Tom Doniphon, is as stiff as a board and awaiting burial at the beginning of the film, presumably having died either of natural causes or too much whiskey.

Man Who Shot Liberty Valance poster

The movie then proceeds to tell in flashback the real story of the man who actually curtailed Liberty Valance’s career as town bully of Shinbone.

It can’t help but cast a slight pall of despondency over the film as a whole to know right from the start that JW doesn’t make it to the final reel, and to be frank this is John Ford at his most pessimistic, but seeing as this is the last of the classic Ford / Wayne Western partnership you just go with the flow.

Hangman’s House (1928)

His first appearance is in a flashback sequence in which hanging judge, Justice O’Brien, is visited by a hallucinatory roll call of his victims.

Wayne is seen in profile as a condemned man about to be hung, then he is shown in close-up with a noose around his neck. This sequence, as with a lot of silent films, is more a collection of posed shots, or tableaux vivant as it is known.

Also, Ford was never one to move the camera that much anyway, but you can definitely see it’s a young-looking Duke at the end of the rope.

He pops up later on in the film, very much alive, as an excitable member of the crowd at a horse race. In fact, he’s so excitable he pulls the fence on the racing course out of the ground at the climax of the race.

The film is now widely available on DVD and worth a watch.

Central Airport (1933)

Not actually listed in the cast, JW plays a co-pilot who tries to save a passenger from drowning when their plane crashes in the sea.

Duke heroically throws himself into the stormy waters after a whisky-swilling passenger slides off of the wing and disappears beneath the waves.

Central Airport movie [pster

Unfortunately, it appears as though JW has yet to learn how to swim and he drowns along with the passenger. Personally, I’d have let the drunk guy go under on his own.

West of the Divide (1934)

In this film, a young JW appears to play dual roles, one as the good guy, and one as a baddie who casts off his mortal coil within the first few minutes of the film.

From 1931 onwards, right up until Stagecoach eight years later, Duke appeared in numerous Poverty Row oaters during his exile from stardom after the box-office failure of The Big Trail in 1930. On the face of it, West of the Divide doesn’t have that much to differentiate it from the other eight features he churned out in 1934 for the Lone Star production company.

Their conversation is suddenly interrupted by a stranger appearing from out of nowhere on foot. He staggers towards them then clutches his throat before collapsing to the ground.

As Duke and Dusty run to the stranger’s aid, he utters the words “poisoned waterhole… I didn’t know”, crawls along the ground a bit then expires. They search him and find a letter of introduction to the man Duke thinks killed his father.

The dead man also has a reward poster identifying him as “Gatt Gans – Murderer”. Dusty points out that Duke sure does “resemble this bozo”, prompting Duke to take his place and avenge his father’s death.

If you watch the scene closely you’ll notice you don’t see the face of the actor playing Gans whenever Wayne is also in the shot.

Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

Duke’s a bit of a rascal in this colourful DeMille sea-faring epic, wrecking his own ship because he mistakenly thinks he’s been passed over the captaincy by the main star of the film, Ray Milland.

reap the wild wind poster

In sinking the ship, he ends up drowning poor old Susan Hayward, who unknowingly to him has secretly stowed herself aboard. There’s only one thing for it – JW has to pay for his inconsiderate behaviour.

Cue death by giant squid and everyone else lives happily ever after.

The Fighting Seabees (1944)

A gung-ho war movie about the Pacific War made whilst the war was still being actively waged, Duke plays the wonderfully named Wedge Donovan, heading up a construction crew employed to work under battle conditions.

The Fighting Seabees with John Wayne poster

The presence of a love triangle incorporating Duke, Susan Hayward and Dennis O’Keefe inevitably points to the demise of one of them, with Duke pulling the short straw in this one.

His ends up being shot by a sniper as he tries to clear out a nest of Japanese soldiers with a bulldozer – that’s one way to fight a war I guess.

Wake of the Red Witch (1948)

Duke really should stop sinking boats. This is the second movie in which he either wrecks or scuttles a ship which serves as justification for his demise in the final reel.

wake of the red witch poster John Wayne Gail Russell

He does the same thing in the later film The Sea Chase but the jury is still out as to whether he goes down with the ship.

In Wake of the Red Witch he drowns whilst trying to recover gold from the very ship he’s scuttled. Poetic justice I’d say.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Duke’s role as the bad-ass SergeantStryker gained him his first Oscar nomination – but he ended up with a bullet in the back instead.

He and his fellow Marines have captured Iwo Jima, the flag is famously hoisted at the top of the island, Stryker and his men are at ease with each other then he catches a sniper bullet in the back.

I reckon the sniper was a bit short-sighted. I have a theory he was actually aiming at John Agar as punishment for Agar’s dearth of acting talent.

The Alamo (1960)

I get a catch in the throat every time I see poor ole Davy go down fighting at the end of Duke’s three-hour epic. Check out the extended road show version and you’ll see his death scene, in which JW gets lanced through the side and staked against the mission door, extended by a second or two.

The Alamo lobby cardHe wrenches himself off the door, staggers away, wobbles a bit (that’s the extra two seconds) then stumbles off to blow the arsenal up, an act which I found rather selfish if I’m honest.

Then again, if you’ve just been run through with a bloody great lance you’re not exactly in the right state of mind to consider the safety of others.

I remember years ago reading that Pete Townsend of The Who had bought one of those new-fangled VHS video players. He said he loved it because he could watch John Wayne die over and over again any time he wanted. I’m not sure he meant that in a good way.

The Cowboys (1972)

I have to be honest here. Duke’s character, cattle rancher Wil Andersen, kind of brings his demise on himself in The Cowboys.

He and his child cowhands are surrounded by a bunch of murderous rustlers lead by Bruce Dern at his most psychotic, and what does JW do? He punches Dern’s lights out then turns his back on him.

The Cowboys image

I mean, what’s a snake-eyed psycho killer like Dern supposed to do when faced with that? Duke might just as well have painted a target on his shirt with a big arrow and the statement ‘Shoot Here’ emblazoned on the back.

Dern dutifully obliges and kills Duke in cold blood. I think next to Stryker dying in Sands of Iwo Jima, Duke’s death scene in The Cowboys is the most shocking and I guess unexpected by audiences of the time.

The Shootist (1976)

In his last film, JW as dying gunfighter J.B. Books gets to choose the time and the place of his own death, not wanting to suffer the indignity of dying of cancer.

The Shootist with John Wayne poster

The rest of the film, therefore, serves as a long climax towards the inevitable, Books arranging a showdown with numerous killers who want his notch on their belt.

JW inconveniently kills them all, only to end up being gunned down by a bartender. Not quite the noble and fitting end Duke’s character envisaged, but his demise ensures that Ron Howard avoids the life the doomed Books endured.

So, in the end, Books’ death is an act of self sacrifice as well as a somewhat messy attempt at self-imposed euthanasia.

Let’s summarise the nature of John Wayne’s onscreen deaths:

Drowned – 6 (once with the aid of a giant squid)
Shot in the back – 4 (assuming he also drowns in The Sea Chase)
Lanced to death by an angry Mexican – 1
Drinking poisoned water – 1
Hanged – 1
Natural causes – 1

Most of the above are acts of heroic self-sacrifice, the most heroic and the most memorable in my opinion being The Alamo. On balance though, my advice to Duke, if he were around today, would boil down to one thing – don’t go near the water.

48 thoughts on “The Movies John Wayne Died In & How – The Ultimate List”

  1. yep he was tough and brave in the movies and really patriotic and love fighting in the phoney wars in the movies , but in real life he was a coward and afraid to fight in a real war in support of his country.

    • Check your facts
      Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (34 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and family status (classified as 3-A – family deferment). Wayne repeatedly wrote to John Ford saying he wanted to enlist, on one occasion inquiring whether he could get into Ford’s military unit.

    • After doing a little research it looks like you are WRONG about the DUKE! You sound just like hilary & that group she runs with “The Liberal Alpha Mafia.”

    • That’s a naive and gullible view. Many stars were recruited to use their talents in the war. You think Elvis went to fighting in the service? Wayne was too young in first and too old in second world wars. Wayne did more for morale at home same as Bob Hope who entertsined the troops and was 4 yrs older than Wayne. Do you call Bob a coward???

    • That’s not fair.
      John Wayne was exempt from conscription because of his age at the time. Regardless of this he wanted to enlist however, the man was under movie contract and could not negotiate a way out.

  2. Must admit I can’t watch films where John Wayne dies. Grew up watching him and 50 yeares later I still love watching him.

    Saw the Shootist when it came out in the pictures and I wept buckets. Shortly after saw John at the Oscars when he looked visibly thin and frail, he died shortly afterwards. I have been unable to watch The Shootist since. I love John Wayne and James Stewart but I just can’t bring myself to watch it again.

    Some of the pictures here I have seen once and never again, others I avoid because he dies in them.

    His other films I could recite the scripts because I have seen them so often. You can never watch a good John Wayne film too many times. 🙂

  3. Sands of Iwo Jima was filmed in 1950. Many Americans still had fresh wounds towards the Japanese. The war horrors that were kept from the American people were starting to surface. Just to keep the dislike alive a little longer they kill off John Wayne. Propaganda machine was still working.

      • Theresa, I think you’ll find that John Wayne actually makes it to the final reel in one piece in ‘They Were Expendable’. It might be you’re suggesting that the title implies the characters have already passed but in Wayne’s case he flies out of the battle zone at the end of the film and thus survives to fight another day. Thank you for your comment.

      • JW did not die in “They Were Expendable.” The title makes it sound like no one survives, but actually several of them .
        Many years ago, I read an article about JW and the movies he died in. The article mentioned, it was a common mistake that people believed JW died in the movie because of the title.

        • Shannon, thanks for your comment. Strictly speaking, assuming Wayne’s character was based upon a real person, PT boat commander Robert Kelley, who made it back from WWII in one piece then the film cannot be considered in the list of movies in which the actor died. However, according to screenwriter Lem Dobbs in the documentary “Becoming John Ford”, he maintains that the very title of “They Were Expendable” suggests everyone has already passed away prior to the start of the film. In the end I guess it’s a matter of opinion. As for our opinion we humbly subscribe to the idea that Rusty makes it through the conflict and lives to fight another day.

          • Sage, I’ve seen it referred to by both critics and reviewers as a Giant Squid and a Giant Octopus. What we can be sure of is that it was an unconvincing rubber model of a cephalopod. No doubt you’ll let us know whether there was one originally in the book.

      • John Wayne’s character is very much alive at the end of They Were Expendable. He and Robert Montgomery fly back to DC in a R4D:C-47 to sell top Navy brass on PT boats—which were considered expendable.

    • Wayne was actually the studio‘s second choice in “Sands”; they’d actually wanted Kirk Douglas for the lead, but he chose to do “Champion” instead because it was a better part. Douglas was right artistically, but not commercially.

    • We say in the article that of course they make it out alive in the end but the actual ending of the film is ambiguous to say the least which is why we thought we’d throw The Sea Chase into the mix. Thanks for your comment Rick

  4. I loved the scenes leading up to Wayne’s character being shot and killed in the Cowboys. Where he tells Bruce Derns character that even on his worst day he could still kick his butt. Great way to go, true hero.

    • That movie was one of my JW favorite’s. Except of course John’s startling death. I heard once that when the film was being made John went to Dern and told him that he was going to be one of the most hated actors in Hollywood because his character was killing John Wayne. Hate to say it but it’s true. Have hated Dern since I was a kid and saw him kill Americas hero. Still won’t watch a movie if Bruce Dern is in it.

    • John Wayne’s characters were often heroic. But there was nothing heroic about his characters fight with the Bruce Dern Character. Yes it was a plot point to push the boys into manhood, but not entirely as it left Roscoe Lee Browne’s character to help them. Heroic would have been swallowing his pride for the sake of the boys, or dieing saving one of the other characters. It wasn’t manly it was foolish and pointless. All it did was anger the a hole leader and open up the possibility of his killing all the boys just for spite.

  5. For me, I think there are two John Wayne deaths that seemed the best in his many films, The Cowboys and The Shootist.
    The Cowboy’s really brought home the dichotomy of Wayne’s sadness over the way his two sons turned out in life but his love of this “new” sons, those cow-boys. Wayne died showing those boys how to live.

    The Shootist really brought together the genre of the gunman with the ultimate test- his own death. True, he did win out in his last gunfight against three of his known assailants, so much like Wayne here, but dying by a coward’s bullet(s) in the back was a good ending. “To live by the sword is to die by the sword”. It is rumored Wayne actually knew of his upcoming real-life death that he would be facing soon when he took on this film, his last.

  6. I would also count True Grit. We don’t see a death scene, but Mattie is informed of Rooster Cogburn’s death at the end of the movie.

    • Dee, we think you might be referring to the 2012 Coen Brothers remake in which Mattie does indeed find out that Rooster, played by Jeff Bridges, has passed away. In the John Wayne version the film ends with our hero still very much alive and then memorably jumping a four-rail fence after telling Mattie to ‘come see a fat old man some time’.

      Thank you for your comment and we hope you liked the article.

      • Remember, there was a sequel to “True Grit,” “Rooster Cogburn (and the Lady),” though one can argue that the events in that film take place before those depicted in the earlier film (though then you’d have to explain why Rooster looks six years older).

  7. I can’t stand to watch any movie he is killed in !
    And I’m glad he wasn’t to smootchee in his films. I just wanted to watch the Man!!!
    At least we didn’t have to have all that sex that we have to have today!!

  8. this was very informative; didn’t know about the earlier “deaths”. I agree with the others about “Sands of Iwo Jima”, left me in shock. Didn’t like it. How dare they kill off Wayne? To this day, when “The Cowboys” and “The Shootist” are shown on TV, I won’t watch it. Saw his last movie when it was released, but after his death, I can’t bear to watch it as it parallels what happened in real life. Meaning, he came to a sudden, violent, end. And I don’t believe anyone can disagree that cancer is violent. I still miss John. Like granny of “Beverly Hillbillies” said; “John, where was ya when we needed ya?” We need him in today’s movies; most of what’s put out now is evil trash.

    • I have to disagree that John Wayne’s death in Sands of Iwo Jima was abrupt and unfair . Although no one wanted to see JW die in his movies, for his character in this movie this may have been the way he would have wanted to go. He was a marine surrounded by other marines enjoying their camaraderie. His last line in the movie was “as a matter of fact, I never felt better in my life”. And as in war, death many times is shocking, sudden, and violent.

  9. I recall a JW western where at the end, JW and team of cowboys/soldiers (all on horse-back) are trapped against a cliff/valley wall and facing hoards of attacking indians. Can you advise the film?



    • Tony, the only two John Wayne films that come to mind with an ending such as that are either Fort Apache, in which Henry Fonda and his cavalry troop are overrun by a harde of Apaches, or Hondo, featuring a “circle the wagons” sequence, which also features a horde of Apaches.

  10. I did not like the ending of the Sands of Iwo Jima. After working hard to get all his men through the battle and getting to the top. He is killed by a sniper. I hated that

    • I agree – it happens so quickly it takes a few seconds before you realise what’s happened. Personally, I think his death scene in The Alamo is probably the best – and very traumatic for me because I saw it when I was 8 years old.

    • I served in the Marines, Tim, as a scout/sniper and that actually is the way we are told to interdict the enemy. Command (like Sgt Stryker), Communications (Radiomen) and Supply. Those little holes that the Japanese kept popping out of, were called “spider holes” after the Trap door Spider. We dealt with the enemy in spider holes in Korea and Vietnam as well.


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