My Ultimate Top 10 Best John Wayne Movies List

What’s your favourite 10 John Wayne Movies?

Not just westerns or war movies but your best Duke films ever.

It all started with my 10 Best John Wayne Westerns From My Childhood now a distant memory.

Well after reviewing approximately 85 John Wayne movies for this website I thought I would have a go at listing my list. Hope you enjoy reading My Top 10 John Wayne Movies as much as I did revisiting these and all the others that didn’t make it.

Let me us know in the comments below. But don’t be brutal this is just my own personal list.

So at number 10…

10. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Republic Studios finally delivers the goods with this film when it comes to Wayne at war. Directed by Allan Dwan who, like John Ford, had started his career in the silent era, the film depicts the savagery of the no-holds-barred fighting at Iwo Jima.

Nominated for his first Academy Award, Wayne’s performance is more complex than usual, something he had started to hint at in Red River the year before and which reached its height in The Searchers a few years later.

He plays Sergeant Stryker, a veteran of Guadalcanal, who is put in charge of getting his Marines in shape for battle.The Japanese, considering that the war had been over for about 4 years prior to the film being made, are now referenced a bit more respectfully. This time around they’re all Nips, or ‘little lemon coloured characters’.

They’re reduced once more, however, to non-characters, the enemy the audience doesn’t get to know apart from watching them bayonet, maim and slaughter their way through the film.

Also, even if I hadn’t picked up on it in the credits, I would have guessed James Edward Grant had something to do with the script. Wayne utters the words ‘I’m going to tell you something’, in exactly the same way he addresses Linda Crystal in The Alamo, which of course Grant wrote the script for.

John Agar doesn’t really convince as the embittered son of Wayne’s previous commander, who has died at Guadalcanal. The not-so-subtle story-line hinges on the idea that the tough Stryker will eventually bring Agar’s character around to stop thinking of him as another version of his father who was apparently somewhat of a martinet, but Agar’s acting abilities just don’t stretch that far.

Forrest Tucker, who is also in the film, might have made a better go of playing Agar’s character, but his part in the film is mainly there to initiate a fist fight with Wayne that doesn’t really get resolved until Chisum 20-odd years later.Although it’s nearly half an hour before the action hits the screen it’s well worth the wait.

The battle sequences, despite being interspersed with stock footage of what appears to be the real fight for Iwo Jima, are quite impressive, and more realistic than previous Wayne WWII films. I think it could have done without the Hollywood practice of giving someone a final word just before they die, one character who has just been shot exclaiming ‘I’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight’ before crumpling to the ground.

On the other hand, it adds to the genuine shock of Wayne’s own sudden death scene because he doesn’t get the chance to say anything at all. One moment he’s telling everyone he feels good, the next thing he’s being shot in the back by one of those nasty Nips and dying instantly.

This realistic depiction of death is somewhat diluted by the sentimentality of Stryker’s last letter to his son being read out loud, then Agar’s unconvincing acceptance to take up Wayne’s mantle. However, all of this is compensated for in the last scene showing the flag finally being raised on Iwo Jima, which is genuinely moving and a fitting tribute to the real soldiers who died there.

So overall I’d have to vote this one of the better efforts of the WWII films Wayne appeared in during the 1940s. In fact, I think he should have got his first Oscar for his performance as Stryker – he lost to Broderick Crawford this time around – although for my money he was even better in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

John Wayne in Hondo poster9. Hondo (1953)

I think I’m correct in asserting that Hondo is the only film John Wayne made in the short-lived 3D fad of the time.

Imagine Wayne on 4D, his fists shooting out of the screen and destroying everyone in the first row. Not sure how the science of that whole thing works, but still, wouldn’t that have been something.

Upon watching this film a while ago I was struck by how much the beginning of the film mirrors the opening sequence of Shane. Assuming that wasn’t intentional I’d have to say the sight of Duke marching steadfastly towards the camera as he appears from the middle of nowhere makes for a much more exciting entrance than Alan Ladd in Shane.

Hondo is probably one of the most action-packed films Wayne ever made.

You get an Apache / Wayne chase sequence, a hand-to-hand combat scene, a climactic cavalry / Apache battle, as well as a couple of punch-ups along the way.

Duke gets into fisticuffs first off with Leo Gordon, who turns out to be the wayward husband of Geraldine Page, left alone with her young son at a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Duke is unaware of the connection between the two until after he punches Mr. Gordon’s lights out in a fairly clichéd but short saloon fight.

Of course, Gordon doesn’t help matters much by pulling a gun on Wayne after the first punch, after which Duke is morally obliged to knock him through the swinging saloon doors – I told you it was clichéd.

The moral obligation goes even further when later on Duke has to shoot him, but that’s another story. Duke also gets to swing a punch at James ‘Matt Dillon’ Arness just to show it’s not just Leo Gordon who gets on his nerves.

I’m making an assumption that Duke’s stand-in, Chuck Roberson, doubled for the horse-breaking scenes and the knife fight between Wayne and the Apache warrior Silva, played by Rodolfo Acosta. If that’s the case, then it’s good to see Roberson getting his own close-up as a cavalry soldier in the battle at the end of the film.

Admittedly it’s a fairly short close-up what with Roberson getting killed a few seconds later but a nice gesture just the same.

On the whole, a good solid Western in which Wayne turns in what has over the years become quite an iconic role for him, up there with Ethan Edwards and Sean Thornton in terms of popularity.

Shame about the dead dog though.

John Wayne in The Shootist poster8. The Shootist (1976)

In his last movie, John Wayne ironically plays an ageing gunfighter dying of cancer, the illness that killed him 3 years later in 1979.

It has quite an interesting and unique introductory sequence over the credit titles worth considering in a little detail. First off we are presented with assorted clips from previous films such as Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo and El Dorado.

Secondly, Ron Howard’s voiceover informs us what kind of person the main character is going to be. He’s ‘not an outlaw’, and he has a creed that he lives by. ‘I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them’. So there you have it. Duke as aged gunfighter J. B. Books is a stand-up guy. Who knew?

Featuring other veteran Hollywood actors such as James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Richard Boone, the film is another example of old men railing against progress and the dying light.

A pre-directing Ron Howard of Happy Days fame plays the innocent youth who wants Wayne to show him how to use a gun. Although Bacall doesn’t get to play Wayne’s love interest in The Shootist, she brings a quiet dignity to her role as a widowed mother attempting to keep her son, enthralled by being in the company of a renowned gunslinger, on the straight and narrow.

The film critic Roger Ebert notes that when you witness the scenes between Wayne and Bacall they’re so authentic that ‘you forget you’re watching a movie’. I agree wholeheartedly. Bacall’s role in The Shootist has been underrated for too long, so time to put that right.

Naturally, the film ends as expected with a gunfight in which Wayne’s character in effect chooses the manner of his own death – shot in the back (again) – this time by a bartender. This was also Elmer Bernstein’s last score for a John Wayne – not his most memorable but I guess you can’t win all the time.

The director Andrew V. McLaglen, who worked on a number of Westerns with Wayne back in the 1960s, mentioned to me in 1998 that he visited Duke on the set of the film and Wayne told him that he’d rather McLaglen was directing instead of Don Siegel, with whom Wayne had not worked before.

Seeing as all of the parties have now sadly passed away I can say that in my humble opinion Siegel was the better director. McLaglen was more of a workmanlike studio director whereas Siegel had a style of his own.

I think The Shootist is a better film because of that and a worthy swansong to probably the best-known cowboy star of all time.

Like a lot of people back in 1979 I was genuinely saddened by the passing of John Wayne and The Shootist is a fitting finale to Duke’s career, particularly as his character in the film is diagnosed with the very disease that eventually robbed every one of the great man himself.

I’d say The Shootist is probably one of the best last films ever made by a major Hollywood star, which is why it is firmly embedded in my top 10 JW movies.

John Wayne in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon movie poster7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Of the unofficial cavalry trilogy that John Ford directed I’d say that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon occupies first position, with Fort Apache and Rio Grande trailing second and third.

I say this because John Wayne’s performance as Nathan Brittles, a character supposedly at least twenty years older than Wayne was at the time he made the film, is definitely up there with Ethan Edwards and Tom Doniphon as one of his greatest character studies.

You could argue that in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Duke couldn’t help being ‘John Wayne’ at times. As Nathan Brittles, however, Wayne convinces completely as the elderly soldier called upon to perform one last mission – to help negotiate peace between the warring Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes – before heading off to retirement.

It’s less an action film and more a rumination on growing old, the scene towards the end of the film when he and Chief Pony That Walks discuss going hunting, fishing and drinking reinforcing the anachronistic nature of the two characters.

For some strange reason Wayne seemed to think when he was interviewed in 1971 for Playboy that he had been nominated for an Oscar for this film. Unfortunately, that turns out not to be the case but he was definitely robbed in my opinion, delivering a more studied and measured performance here than he did in Sands of Iwo Jima which was released in the same year, for which he did actually receive his first Academy nomination.

Joanne Dru is the prevaricating love interest of both Agar and Harry ‘Dobe’ Carey Jr, settling for Agar in the end. In my opinion Dobe should have put up more of a fight, something I forgot to mention to him back in 2007 when I met him.

The love triangle sub-plot comes over a bit clunky and threatens to detract from the main story of Wayne’s impending retirement. That’s a small price to pay though when matched against Wayne’s consummate performance.

Witness the scene where his troop present him with a gold watch ‘with a sentiment on the back’ then dare to tell me John Wayne couldn’t act.

The Oscar-winning cinematographer Winston Hoch captures the landscape of Monument Valley perfectly.

Prior to The Searchers I don’t think the location has ever looked so beautiful.

Add to all of this the performance of Victor McLaglen as the Irish sergeant also on the cusp of retiring – I’m guessing he must have re-enlisted for Rio Grande – and you have a perfect example of how Ford and Wayne could deliver the goods when they were both firing on all cylinders.

John Wayne in The Alamo lobby card6. The Alamo – Director’s Cut (1960)

I make no apologies for including this in my top 10 all-time favourite John Wayne movies.

I’ve watched this movie more times than I can remember over the years but, as with a lot of other things in life, you never forget your first time.

My mother took me to see The Alamo when it was first released locally back in 1960 / 1961. She was a big Richard Widmark fan and I, of course, was a budding follower of JW.

Even though we’re talking about over 50 years ago I can still remember the thrilling expectation of waiting for my hero to appear, which he eventually does after nearly twenty minutes into the film, and, just to put the icing on the cake, he was playing Davy Crockett as well.

On the other hand, watching John Wayne being pinned to a door by a lance – spoiler alert: they all die – has to be one of the most traumatic cinematic experiences of my young life. I’m still not sure even now that I’ve got over it.

Admittedly not exactly Wayne’s finest hour – or finest 3 hours and 10 minutes if you’re checking out the uncut version – mainly because the James Edward Grant script is so risible.

The speech in which Duke as Davy Crockett talks about how the word Republic makes him ‘tight in the throat’ has me cringing even now but the battle sequences and the soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin go a long way to redeeming the end product.

It’s notable for being Wayne’s first directorial effort, which he produced as well.

I visited the actual location of the film in Bracketville, Texas a few years back and I purloined a chunk of the many pieces of white rubble that were scattered around the crumbling set. Also, the first poster I ever bought was for this very film. Not that I’m obsessed or anything.

One other thing the film has going for it is the inclusion of Linda Crystal as Wayne’s love interest. I think I’ve secretly been in love with her since, as a seriously late developing teenager towards the end of the 1960s, I devotedly watched her every week in The High Chapparal.

When she played opposite Wayne, Crystal was at least 23 years younger than her co-star. For some reason, however, their onscreen relationship still appears to work, although the extended version of The Alamo strongly implies that their characters sleep together, which then starts to strain credulity somewhat – or maybe that’s just a case of cinema envy on my part.

She is without doubt one of the most attractive actresses to co-star with Wayne, and The Alamo is a better film for it.

I love this film so much I think I’m going to watch it again next weekend.

John Wayne as The Quiet Man poster5. The Quiet Man (1952)

Let’s be honest here – The Quiet Man is actually a Western in all but name and setting.

A stranger arrives in town, falls for the most beautiful woman going, takes on the local bully then lives happily ever after. It doesn’t have any of the usual iconographic elements that one finds in a cowboy film, but it does have the biggest Western icon of all in it – John Wayne himself.

After The Searchers, I think most people would agree that The Quiet Man is probably the second most popular cinematic outing for the Wayne / John Ford partnership.

Whilst I consider some aspects of the film to be outdated, particularly as regards its attitude towards women and the stereotypical nature of a lot of the supporting characters, it doesn’t detract from the power of the story nor the breath-taking beauty of the Irish countryside, the exterior sequences having been shot on location in and around the village of Cong in County Mayo.

Add to that the ‘illegally beautiful’ Maureen O’Hara and you have yourself a cinematic offering that only the most cynical viewer would not enjoy.

To my mind, the film is the closest that Ford ever came to making a full-blown musical, an Irish Brigadoon if you like. Everyone in the film seems to want to exercise their tonsils at the drop of a hat, with renditions of classic Irish evergreens such as ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, ‘Galway Bay’ and ‘The Humour is on Me Now’ scattered throughout the movie.

In fact, there was an ill-fated attempt to stage a Broadway musical version in 1961 called Donnybrook but it closed after 69 performances. The film itself is a Hollywood depiction of Ireland that’s so ‘Oirish’ you half expect to see a leprechaun emerge from behind the scenery at any given moment – then Barry Fitzgerald appears and if he isn’t a leprechaun in spirit as well as demeanour I’ll eat my green St. Patrick’s Guinness hat.

I’m not going to recount the story of the film here as I’m assuming you’ll know the movie backwards, particularly if you’re a Ford or Wayne fan. Suffice to say that Duke acquits himself well, his performance capturing the angst of an ex-boxer who has accidentally killed a man in the ring back in America, and just happy to live a quiet life as a quiet man in the country of his birth.

The cowboy elements are numerous; the much-anticipated fistfight between Wayne and Victor ‘Red Will’ McLaglen as climactic as any gun-fighting face-off from any Western you’d care to name. The payoff produces the well-worn path towards domestication that all cowboys – Ethan Edwards being the notable exception –are secretly hankering for, finally getting themselves a wife before raising lots of kids and cattle, though not necessarily in that order.

I’ll be honest and say that it’s not my favourite John Ford film – I think I much prefer the Westerns he did with Wayne if I were pushed – but it still stands up as a perfect example of what Hollywood does best when it comes to producing popular movies for a mass audience.

Stagecoach with John Wayne poster4. Stagecoach (1939)

Stagecoach is up there in the pantheon of Westerns along with Shane, The Searchers, Red River, High Noon and The Wild Bunch – and the bonus is that not only did it finally make John Wayne a star but it helped elevate the Western back to its deserved status as a major Hollywood genre.

The nominal star of the film, Claire Trevor, as lady of the night Dallas, is somewhat overshadowed by her co-star. That should not in any way diminish her performance in the film, as well as that of the other actors in Stagecoach such as Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine and Andy Devine.

It’s a great ensemble piece with both Wayne and Trevor complementing each other very well.

Despite Duke being second on the bill, the film revolves mainly around his character, the Ringo Kid, and his determination to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the Plummer gang.

I think the audience is served up with nearly 18 minutes of screen time before Duke eventually appears. And what an appearance it is.

You’re not just being treated to the first sighting of the hero of the film, in this instance you’re witnessing the creation of an iconic legend of the silver screen, if that’s not too hyperbolic a statement.

Prior to Stagecoach, Wayne had languished for nearly ten years in a whole bunch of B movies churned out by poverty row studios such as Republic and Monogram after the misfire that was The Big Trail back in 1930.

By the time John Ford gave Duke a break in Stagecoach he was in his early 30s with approximately 60 films under his belt, excluding those he appeared in during the silent era.

Ringo’s presence is signalled by a shot from his Winchester rifle as he hails down the stagecoach to Lordsburg. The first time we see Wayne / Ringo he is framed against a background of towering buttes and wild landscape, a saddle draped over his left arm as he twirls the rifle with his other hand.

It’s obviously a studio shot but the impact of Ringo’s first appearance is emphasised by the camera moving in from a mid-shot to a close up of Duke, the image going slightly out of focus for a second or two as the camera moves forward.

Ringo’s face registers both surprise and disappointment as he realises that the marshal of Tonto, Curly Wilcox, is riding shotgun. Despite Ringo telling Curly that he ‘may need me and this Winchester’ after pointing out Apache war smoke on the horizon, the fact is that John Wayne’s first appearance in a major Hollywood Western since The Big Trail entails him being relieved of his weaponry.

Wayne is still in his innocent cowboy phase – good with a gun but naïve and inexperienced when it comes to the female sex. On the other hand, nobody watches a Wayne film for the romantic content – The Quiet Man an exception – but to watch him in action, and Stagecoach has more than enough of that to please even the most casual viewer.

You could argue that the whole story of the stagecoach chase and ultimate rescue by the cavalry is a mere anti-climax to the final shootout between Ringo and his brother’s killers.

On the way from Tonto to Lordsburg the audience get everything but the kitchen sink thrown at them when it comes to the components of the Western genre. There’s corrupt bankers, Southern gentlemen gamblers, drunk doctors, smoke signals on the horizon, Indian chases, daring stunts, the magnificent Monument Valley landscape – you name it and it’s all there up on the screen. Throw in John Wayne as a gun-slinging sharpshooter and John Ford as director and you have an instant classic that no one can argue with.So I won’t.

Poster of Red River starring John Wayne3. Red River (1948)

1948 was a good year for John Wayne and Westerns with audiences treated to the release in quick succession of Red River, Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers – one Howard Hawks and two John Ford’s in 12 months.

I don’t think it ever got any better than that. If there is such a thing as a towering Duke performance, then Red River has it in spades.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s thunderous marching theme (which as all you Wayne fans know serves as the melody for My Rifle, Pony and Me in Rio Bravo – and when is someone going to release the original recording of the Red River soundtrack?) immediately announces that we are in the company of a classic Western from the very first frame, and both Hawks and Wayne deliver the goods accordingly.

In John Wayne’s first Western for Hawks, he plays the determined and stubborn Texas cattleman Tom Dunson, a character more in tune with the complexities of Ethan Edwards and Tom Doniphon than the straightforward and uncomplicated cowboys he had played previously.

This is the period in Wayne’s career when he starts to show real range in his acting abilities, famously prompting Ford to declare after seeing Red River that ‘I didn’t know the son-of-a-bitch could act’.

As the film progresses Dunson gets meaner and more unlikeable, and it’s a credit to Wayne that he was confident enough in his acting abilities to play such an aggressive and unpleasant individual as Dunson at this point in his career.

Montgomery Clift would not have been my first choice to co-star with Wayne as the orphaned Matt Garth who is taken under Dunson’s wing as a young boy. Clift more than holds his own against Duke, however, eventually taking control of the cattle drive, whilst Wayne’s character becomes more and more embittered.

At one point Wayne offers to sire children with Joanne Dru’s character, here playing pioneer Tess Millay, like a bull mating with a heffer. Not surprisingly she spurns Dunson’s offer and takes up with Matt Garth instead.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Dru gets pinioned to a wagon by an arrow through the shoulder but doesn’t let on to anyone. A typically stoic Hawksian woman if ever there was one.

Red River is notable for the first time that both Harry Carey Senior and Junior appeared in the same film, although they don’t share any scenes together. Walter Brennan as trail cook Groot (I am Groot?) here plays a younger version of Stumpy in the later Rio Bravo, although he looks exactly the same in both films – I think he must have been born old.

Throw in John Ireland as gunfighter Cherry Valance, cattle stampede’s, wagon train massacres and the like and you have the first real classic Western from director Howard Hawks.

The only false note for me is the ending, in which a murderous Wayne goes gunning for Clift. They engage in a vicious fist fight which is then abruptly terminated by the intervention of Joanne Dru, who scolds the two men as though they were little boys.

It just feels to me as though no one could come up with a more convincing ending – apparently the original ending had to be changed as it bore too close a resemblance to a previous Hawks film, The Outlaw – but I have to admit in the scheme of things it doesn’t hurt the overall impact of the film in general and Wayne’s magnificent performance in particular.

Rio Bravo with John Wayne Dean Martin poster2. Rio Bravo (1959)

At times this film vies with The Searchers for the top spot depending what mood I’m in.

Where The Searchers is mostly downbeat and cynical, Rio Bravo is uplifting and very funny at times. Both films are shown on TV on a fairly regular basis and dropping into Rio Bravo at any point feels like you’re visiting a group of old friends.

Chance (Wayne) and his compatriots Dude (Dean Martin), Stumpy (Walter Brennan) and Colorado (Ricky Nelson) are besieged by a group of outlaws wanting to get their friend out of jail before the marshal arrives.

All the good guys are known only by their nicknames – even card-sharp Angie Dickinson ends up being called Feathers.

I love the opening sequence to this film. The slow strumming of the guitar in the background as Dude slinks in through the rear of the saloon looking for his next drink. The fact there’s no dialogue right up until the moment Duke arrests Joe Burdette. And the first full shot of John Wayne as John T Chance as he tries to save Dude from further degradation, kicking a spittoon away as Dude goes to retrieve a silver dollar thrown into it by villain Joe Burdette, played by Claude Akins.

It’s a superior example of classic filmmaking from one of the few directors to match John Ford in both cinematic style and mastery of film language, Howard Hawks.

What I also like about it is that Hawks throws the audience right into the middle of the action from the very beginning without bothering to indulge in any kind of exposition or explanation on behalf of the viewer.

He takes for granted that his audience is intelligent enough to understand and catch up with what is happening on screen for themselves, which makes this opening scene even more gratifying than usual.

The action is sporadic to say the least, but when it happens it happens quickly, after which the rhythm of the film settles once again into a slow, almost meandering, examination of the dynamics of the group, a theme Hawks explores in quite a few of his other movies.

Angie Dickinson more than holds her own opposite Wayne, even though Duke was 24 years older than her. There’s a palpable sexual chemistry between the two of them that you rarely witness in other Wayne films, so it comes as no surprise within the context of the story when they both end up in bed together midway through the movie.

It’s good to see Duke still capable at the age of 52 of climbing the stairs and then making love – at that age, I could only do one or the other.

So number 1 on my personal list of John Wayne best ever movies… well you may well have guessed it and maybe totally disagree but hey, it’s…


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