Last Updated on August 31, 2019 by Steve Mayhew
I originally posted an article on my favourite top 10 John Wayne Movie Westerns that I caught at the cinema at the time they were released. Bearing in mind that I was 4 years old when my parents took me to see The Searchers this means there’s a whole bunch of Westerns Wayne made before that period that didn’t make the cut on my original list. I will now seek to redress that situation by expanding my favourite list of John Wayne Westerns to 20 titles which you’ll find below.
I have already made quite a few observations on all of the films in the following list so I’m not going to repeat them here other than to make further comments where appropriate. As with my first list, I’ll present the films in ascending order – that is, will keep the best till last. But first…
John Wayne – The Man and the Actor
Having spent the best part of the last six months writing numerous articles on the subject of John Wayne I think it’s true to say I’ve come to see my childhood hero in a different light. By that, I mean that for a long time I felt that Wayne’s reputation as the staunch Republican right-wing WASP supremacist that a lot of people of my generation looked down on with distaste served to eclipse and overshadow his screen persona.
The thing is, having recently watched practically every war movie Wayne ever starred in and taking the time to catch up on the Westerns of his I had missed or purposefully avoided when released in the late 1960s / early 70s, it’s obvious to me it’s not that cut and dried.
The overwhelmingly positive comments from those of you who have read the articles I’ve written on Duke and his films reveals a deep-seated admiration for someone who, 37 years after his death, still attracts a faithful and devoted group of fans literally the whole world over.
If truth be told, John Wayne was a complex and flawed individual like practically every person who’s ever walked the planet. The fact that he was also, for a considerable period of time, one of the most famous actors to have ever appeared on the silver screen means that his faults and complexities were magnified a hundred times over for all to see.
Even today he still divides opinion. I note that in the latest John Wayne Film Society journal there’s an article concerning a recent protest against declaring his birth date – 26th May – as John Wayne Day in California. Due to some of the comments the actor made in his 1971 Playboy interview regarding African Americans and Native Americans, the resolution was defeated by 36 votes to 19.
I have to admit I wasn’t that impressed with Wayne’s interview back in the day which was why, in my late teens, I only intermittently checked out the latest Duke release. This meant it was only in the last few months I came to appreciate more fully some of Duke’s late career movies such as Rio Lobo, Big Jake and Cahill US Marshal – although the jury is still out for me on The Green Berets, so maybe the less said about that one the better.
As I grew older I gravitated towards actors who I felt were more sophisticated in representing my growing awareness of the world around me. Step forward Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and a whole host of others who didn’t bring to their cinematic work the kind of baggage that, in my view, weighed down Wayne’s onscreen persona.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d still watch reruns of Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and Rio Bravo and The Alamo and a host of Duke’s earlier work whenever they turned up on tv but that was because I felt those films weren’t, for want of a better word, tainted by the outmoded political views that came to define John Wayne towards the end of his life.
As you grow older and realise there are more years behind you then there are in front then your thoughts obviously take you back to a time when life wasn’t blighted by the trials of adulthood.
I was talking with an acquaintance recently about the articles I was writing on John Wayne and he articulated something that struck a familiar chord in me. He said that when he was a child back in the 60s he felt safe that there was someone like John Wayne in the world, and that when Wayne passed away, that childhood comfort factor fell away as a result. I think that’s the way a lot of people who were around while Wayne was still making movies feel about him today.
His personality, both onscreen and off, was that of someone who didn’t take crap from anybody, stuck to a rigid moral code that he expected others to live by and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. It’s an unchallengeable fact that we now live in an age where it seems a lot of people do not possess the ability to tolerate or debate alternative opinions to their own, taking offence at the slightest hint of criticism or any attempt to question the strait jacket of political correctness that threatens to restrict the right of the individual these days.
I’m not campaigning for a return to the blind racism and gender inequalities of the past but I do understand why someone like John Wayne is revered by a lot of people of my generation. It’s because if he were around today he’d certainly have something to say about the way the world turns right now. I think this quote from the American comedian Denis Leary puts it much better than I could have done:
“John Wayne isn’t dead, he’s frozen! Have any of you ever taken a cold shower? Okay, multiply that by 150,000,000 and that’s how mad the Duke is gonna be whenever he wakes up and finds out what’s happening today.”
There may have been times when Duke sounded like a bible beater yelling up a revival at a river crossing camp but in the final analysis, it’s all about the films. The other stuff, the right-wing politics, the rigid position of ‘my country right or wrong’ that alienated so many back in the 1960s, that all pales into insignificance once John Wayne strides onto the screen.
The catch in his voice when he reads the sentiment on his retirement watch in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The almost balletic fluidity of movement in Red River when he swivels, shoots John Ireland, then continues towards Montgomery Clift even though he now has a bullet in him. Appearing from out of almost nowhere with a saddle slung over his shoulder at the beginning of Hondo.
Slowly moving towards his destiny with the Plummer gang in the climax to Stagecoach. Facing down Liberty Valance after Valance has caused James Stewart to drop Duke’s steak. The sheer delight on his face as Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan break into their singing session in Rio Bravo.
The way he was able to make his hat ride up on his forehead to indicate surprise or sudden anger. Embracing Natalie Wood at the end of The Searchers. “Not thinkin’, just remembering”. Pulling Maureen O’Hara close for warmth as they’re both drenched to the skin in The Quiet Man.
These are just some of the enduring memories from John Wayne movies that will stay with me forever and that go a long way to pushing reservations on his off-screen persona into the shade.
One of the interesting aspects in checking out John Wayne Westerns chronologically is seeing how he matures as both a character in his films and also in his acting ability. It’s obvious that he has charisma to spare from the moment he gets his first close-up in Stagecoach but, and I’m only talking about his cowboy films here, it’s not until She Wore a Yellow Ribbon that you start to appreciate his range as an actor.
His turn in Red River, playing the trailhead Thomas Dunson, famously prompted John Ford to exclaim that ‘I never knew the son-of-a-bitch could act.’
It’s in The Searchers of course that we finally get to see what he was capable of – that look of hatred and contempt at the white women rescued from the Comanches contains just the right amount of sympathy to show that the bigoted racist Ethan Edwards still has a trace of humanity located deep within his damaged soul. Damn right the son-of-a-bitch could act when the need arose.
By the time we get to the late career films such as The Cowboys and Big Jake there’s a thin dividing line between the man and the actor but by then it doesn’t really matter. This is John Wayne we’re talking about, as the poster for Rio Lobo proclaimed. Different hat, same man.
So on with my favourite John Wayne western movies and at no. 20…
20 – Cahill US Marshall (1973)
If I had to list my favourite John Wayne / Andrew McLaglen films then this would take second spot…
19 – Chisum (1970)
… and this would take top place. Both qualify as good solid Duke late career cowboy vehicles. Apologies to all you McLintock lovers out there but if push comes to shove it would take third place in the Wayne / McLaglen canon.
18 – The Comancheros (1961)
If you met someone who has been on a desert island for the last 80 years and they asked who the hell is John Wayne then just show them the opening credits to this movie. There’s just something about the combination of Duke riding across the screen in Cinemascope accompanied by one of Elmer Bernstein’s best ever soundtracks that still takes your breath away.
17 – The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
A great ensemble piece, with Dean Martin vying with Duke for the acting honours just as he did in Rio Bravo. Despite in recovery from lung surgery our boy still gives good cowboy.
16 – The War Wagon (1967)
There’s a story about when Kirk Douglas invited Wayne to a private screening of his latest movie, Lust for Life, in which Douglas played the doomed painter Van Gogh. After watching the movie Duke criticised Kirk for playing flawed and and weak characters. Douglas replied that he was an actor, that he liked to play interesting roles. ’It’s all make believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know’.
How wrong can you be?
A genuine delight and I’m so glad I finally got to realise what a good classic John Wayne Western this is. It makes you appreciate just how many other good calibre films Duke might have made if he’d lived another ten years.14 – El Dorado (1966)
Rio Bravo Part 2. Also, when I reviewed this film before I forgot to mention the theme tune. Apparently, the Western Writers of America association voted the song you hear over the credits into the top 100 Western songs of all time. Now there’s a list that might prompt a number of interesting discussions.
13 – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford was the best director ever to have worked in Hollywood. Bar none. Nearly everything he made with Wayne, apart from a few exceptions, retain classic status to this day. Liberty Valance is one of those films. Definitely, the best thing actor and director worked on together in the 1960s.
12 – 3 Godfathers (1948)
Another Ford Western with Wayne playing Harry Carey Senior’s role from the original Ford silent version, Marked Men. Check out Carey Junior’s brilliant book, Company of Heroes, on some of the background to the shooting of the film.
11 – True Grit (1969)
What was it Wayne said when he finally landed his one and only Oscar for this film? ‘If I’d known this I’d have put that patch on 35 years ago’. It’s fairly obvious watching his acceptance speech on You Tube that he was the most popular choice for the award that night. Obviously it was in recompense for missing out on the awards he should have received for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Quiet Man or The Searchers (take your pick), but still a considerable achievement considering he was up against Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Not exactly a bunch of lightweights yet Duke beat all of them to the draw.
10 – Hondo (1953)
Duke in 3D. What more could you want?
9 – The Cowboys (1972)
This features Wayne’s best death scene next to The Alamo, along with a career death performance from killer Bruce Dern to match.
8 – Fort Apache (1948)
The film in which Wayne took over from Henry Fonda, who was the main star of the film, as Ford’s go to leading man in future.
7 – The Shootist (1976)
I don’t think you could have asked for a more poignant send-off to John Wayne’s acting career than this film. Not one I can watch too often as I know it’s Duke’s last film. If he hadn’t got the Oscar for True Grit then he would have surely nailed it with this one.
6 – She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Just as in Red River, Wayne plays a character older than himself. No wonder he mistakenly thought he’d been nominated for Best Actor in this film. It’s a great performance. 5 – The Alamo – Director’s Cut (1960)
I’m opting for the director’s cut this time around as I genuinely feel that the complete version is the only one to consider from now on. I love that little extra few seconds when Davy Crockett gets lanced against the mission door and he starts to pull himself towards the ammunition room, falls back into frame – this bit was cut from the release version – before blowing himself and anyone else within a half-mile radius to hell and back. I feel an article brewing on the differences between this version and the one they show on tv all the time.
4 – Stagecoach (1939)
Although Duke had been around for some time before finally hitting pay-dirt in Stagecoach, his introduction to the audience where he twirls his rifle in his right hand then fires a shot as the camera rapidly moves in for a close-up heralds the real beginning of his career. Cinema history in the making.
3 – Red River (1948)
I could be wrong here but I think this is where Duke took a break from playing the sad-eyed innocent cowboy with the white hat as in Angel and the Badman and began to show he could be a mean-eyed gruff son-of-a-bitch when prompted. Great soundtrack too.
2 – Rio Bravo (1959)
Still number 2 in my favourite Duke Western list, although I’m all out of things to say about this film really. I got my hands on a CD of the original film score recently with 6 different versions of My Rifle, Pony and Me and 11 takes on the Rio Bravo theme. I love it. I play it all the time. I’ve told my wife to make sure they play the Dean Martin / Ricky Nelson version of My Rifle, Pony and Me, complete with Duke’s intro to the song, at my funeral. She looked at me as if I’d just escaped from a special needs home and assured me it was no problem at all. I think I want that in writing.
And so to my number 1…
The Searchers (1956)
My all-time favourite John Wayne Western, my all time-favourite John Wayne / John Ford film and my all-time favourite film – ever. What a surprise, and, just like Rio Bravo, I can’t add anything to what I’ve already written on the subject of The Searchers. I should point out that no less a personage than the great Keith Richards himself featured the trailer for the film on his recent late night curatorship of the BBC4 television channel. He commented on the wide open spaces of America then said ‘John Ford Westerns. Monument Valley. Amazing. You can’t go wrong with Monument Valley.’ And if Keef says it, then it must be true.
So we really are at the end of the trail – kind of.
If push comes to shove I could probably continue to write about all things John Wayne until I drop off the perch and go to that great cinema in the sky where they run Westerns on a Cinemascope screen for all of eternity – I’d like to think they throw an ice cream lady in there somewhere during the interval but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I haven’t even touched upon the numerous cowboy titles he made during the 1930s for Mascot, Monogram and Republic before hitting the big time in Stagecoach.
There’s also the not-inconsiderate list of non-Westerns dotted throughout his career such as Island in the Sky, The High and Mighty, Legend of the Lost, Barbarian and the Geisha, McQ, Brannigan, Donovan’s Reef, not to mention The Quiet Man etc. that merit some kind of consideration. So it’s actually not really the end of the trail – just adios for now.