The Best John Wayne Westerns (Movies)

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Perhaps no single actor best symbolizes the American Western than John Wayne. According to the Internet Movie Database, the man who was born as Marion Morrison in 1907 starred in more than 140 movies during his lifetime, and in 2007, he was voted as the third most popular actor in a Harris Poll survey.  Clearly, this list is not a comprehensive catalog of the Duke’s best films, as it immediately dismisses some of his fine military pictures and some of his other roles. In fact, choosing just ten of his Western films was challenging enough. Without further ado, here’s our top ten list of the best John Wayne Western Movies:

10. The Comancheros


Kicking things off is a personal favorite of this author, The Comancheros. In this film, the Duke stars as Jake Cutter, a captain in the Texas Rangers. Cutter has been charged with arresting “Monsieur” Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a gambler/playboy facing a murder charge in Louisiana. Along the way, the two are forced to work together to bring down a ring of gunrunners who are supplying arms to the Comanche. What helps to make this film so memorable is the comedic chemistry between Wayne and Whitman. Also of note is that this was the final film directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca).

9. McLintock!


While The Comancheros was a Western that mixed comedy and drama, the No. 9 entry on our list, McLintock!, was played mostly for laughs. It is easily the most light-hearted of the Duke’s Western films, despite tackling such issues as divorce and adultery. This 1963 movie is reportedly an adaptation of the Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew. It has Wayne playing the role of cattle baron George McLintock and co-stars Maureen O’Hara as his estranged wife Katherine. There’s plenty of slapstick to be had here, including an impressive fight in a giant mud pit.

8. Hondo

hondo_1953


Once again, the Duke inadvertently channels Shakespeare for our No. 8 film, Hondo. Based on the Louis L’Amore story “The Gift of Cochise”, which in turn was said to have been inspired by Hamlet, Hondo sees the Duke as Hondo Lane opposite well-known stage actress Geraldine Page (Angie Lowe). Clocking in at just 83 minutes, this is one of Wayne’s shortest feature films, but that makes it no less classic. While traveling, exhausted army scout Hondo comes across Lowe. She and her son were apparently abandoned by her husband, who Hondo later meets up with in a fateful confrontation. While this particular film isn’t one of this author’s personal favorites, it is nonetheless considered a beloved classic by many diehard John Wayne fans, and as such warrants inclusion on the list.

7. The Shootist


Plot wise, The Shootist is a film about a legendary gunfighter who is dying of cancer and is seeking to live out his last days in peace, despite the fact that his reputation has made him a mark for many would-be gunfighters looking to make a name for themselves. However, as any John Wayne fan knows, the movie is much more than that. It is a tribute to the man himself, as by the time he made this 1976 movie, the Duke was battling stomach cancer himself. This would be his last movie, as the disease claimed him three years later.

6. Big Jake


One of the Duke’s more underrated films, 1971’s Big Jake puts Wayne in the role of Jacob McCandles, a rancher and businessman who returns home one day to find that his grandson has been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. Instead of giving in, however, McCandles sets out in search of the boy and his kidnappers. Two things make this movie a classic. First, there are the realistic gunfights, in which the heroes and the villains alike suffer casualties. Second is the presence of Richard Boone (Have Gun Will Travel) as John Fain, the leader of the group of kidnappers. Boone here is an excellent foil for the Duke, perhaps the best in any of his Westerns.

5. Rio Bravo


This 1959 Howard Hawks western was reportedly a politically conservative response to High Noon, which itself was believed to be an attack on McCarthyism. Whether you believe that or not, the fact is that it’s an entertaining film. It is one part comedy, thanks to the efforts of Walter Brennan as Stumpy; one part redemption story, as Dean Martin‘s character Dude, a deputy, overcomes his alcoholism to help out Sherriff John T. Chance (Wayne); and even one part musical, as Martin and Ricky Nelson (“Colorado”) sing a few songs during the course of the film. Don’t take my word for it, though. Rio Bravo is also one of director Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films.

4. Red River


A 1948 film, also directed by Howard Hawks, Red River tells the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. The movie received an Academy Award nomination for best writing and best film editing, and in 1990, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry due to its historical and cultural significance. In June 2008, the American Film Institute (AFI) named it one of the five best Westerns of all time, and director John Ford, a longtime Wayne collaborator, was so impressed with the quality of the Duke’s acting in the role of Thomas Dunston that he reportedly said he “didn’t know the big son of a b—- could act!”

3. Stagecoach

Ford must have been speaking ironically, because it was the Duke’s role as The Ringo Kid in the director’s 1939 film Stagecoach that many point to as his breakout performance.  Like Red River, Stagecoach has been entered into the United States National Film Registry, and it ranked ninth on the AFI’s list of the best American Westerns of all time. Stagecoach was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, but despite it being viewed as the role that launched his career, Wayne himself received little to no individual recognition for his work in the movie.

2. True Grit


In fact, Wayne spent much of his career without receiving honors or accolades for his work. It wasn’t until his portrayal of Marshall Rooster J. Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit that he finally earned an Oscar for Best Actor. He won the Golden Globe that year as well. In True Grit, Cogburn is hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) to help her and a Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) track down her father’s killer. It’s an immensely entertaining film, featuring not just Wayne’s award-winning performance but a strong cast that also included Robert Duvall as the villainous Ned Pepper. The Duke would go on to reprise the role in a 1975 sequel, Rooster Cogburn–a quality film in its own right that co-starred Katherine Hepburn.

1. The Searchers


Which brings us to the top-ranked John Wayne Western on our list, the Ford-directed classic The Searchers. The Searchers stars Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who spends years tracking his niece, who has been abducted by Indians. The film is incredibly deep and thought provoking, exploring not only Ethan’s own psychoses but also the issues of racism, genocide, and how revenge can cloud one’s judgment. It influenced films like Star Wars and Taxi Driver, among others. While it received no Academy Award nominations during its day, the movie was named both the Greatest Western of all time and the 12th best movie ever made by the American Film Institute in 2008. Without a doubt, then, it deserves its place atop our list as well.

Written by Chuck Bednar

TopTenz Master Note: While looking for trailers to accompany this list of John Waynes Greatest Westerns I accidentally found this clip from The Cowboys and loved it. I have not watched many John Wayne movies but I think I’ll rent this one and a few above. Thanks for a great list, Chuck. Here is the clip entitled, Great Moments in Speech Therapy.


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22 Comments

  1. Paul from Hamburg on

    Overall, a good list. Personally, I would have found a place for "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance". In that one, John Wayne knew he was the hero, but he also knew that his heroics had to give way and the West would truly be tamed by educated men like lawyers and journalists. Also, I prefer El Dorado over Rio Bravo. I just think El Dorado is more fun plus it has Robert Mitchum and Arthur Hunnicutt.

  2. I agree with Paul from Hamburg. El Dorado over Rio Bravo. The whole singing thing with Dino and Ricky Nelson was just out of place. James Caan as Mississippi was brilliant. Picking 10 John Wayne westerns is a tough task, but I would have found room for Rooster Cogburn on the list.

  3. I totally agree that 'The Searchers' is THE essential John Wayne movie, however you forgot one that I feel should be on this list 'The Sons of Katie Elder' it again has John Wayne and Dean Martin together again along with a very young Earl Holliman and another actor I don't know as the youngest of the four Elder brothers looking for the person that conned their mother out of her land

  4. How could you possibly have a John Wayne li8st and leave off "The Cowboys"? This is one of the all time great western movies!

  5. How dare you put The Searchers on that list! The slaughter of unarmed Comanche women and children is not justified by a missing white child. Typical Anglo-Saxon arrogance to think that a 14-year-old about to get married off to a guy who would ironically play Jesus is worth more than the lives of hundreds. Plus, Plum Creek was in 1842, not 1874. The Palo Duro raids were on the Kiowa.

    • robert shut up on

      robert how dare u take the time to come on here with ur dumb opinion. leave that bs off websites devoted to the duke. would u be pleased if they went back and edited things out like they did for et.

    • The fact that someone does something in a movie does not mean it’s a good thing. John Wayne’s character in the Searchers was a haunted, driven, man.
      Also would comment that native Americans (I’ve got more indian in me than a lot of people who claim tribe status) committed their fair share of evil deeds also. Kidnapping of women as property occurred on both sides.

  6. The coen brothers “True Grit” is a much better film, also why does the writer make a top ten John Wayne list yet admit at the end that he has not seen many John Wayne films?

    • worst remake ever on

      as a matter of principle you do not remake a john wayne movie, his movies had a feel about them that movies now days cant duplicate.

  7. Which of John Waynes westerns features a massive brawl that was said to be a real punch up,did it star the late Randolph Scott.Thanks

  8. Mr. Wayne had made many good movies with superb supporting actors. I believe that some of his most touching shows are Rooster Cogburn, The Sons Of Katie Elder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Cowboys and Hondo. I only wished that he should have acted in some TV Series as a guest star and that would have added more excitement to any TV shows.

  9. Amy E. Macdonald on

    iohn Wayne movie “the Cowboys” – what is the guitar solo played by one of the kids – orchestral background bu John Williams…..

    Thanks…..

  10. This list seems to favor the later Wayne movies from the 1960’s, which were somewhat formulaic in structure.

    I’m not sure if the brilliant Ford cavalry films “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Fort Apache” are excluded as being military instead of Western…but they contain some of the Duke’s finest acting. To me, they are Westerns and in is top 10.

    “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” is a classic movie, and the Duke is awesome in it.

    An older movie that is often overlooked, “Tall in the Saddle” is the Duke in his prime, and I would prefer it to the 1960’s movies.

  11. Rio Bravo is a great movie, but the ‘remake’ El Dorado is better. Robert Mitchum >>>>> Dean Martin
    Also, take out Big Jake and replace with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And where the hell is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon?

  12. So hard to make a list like this because Wayne made so MANY great movies. I think I would put Big Jake up higher like in the top 3. It was such a great movie because Boone and Wayne played off each other so well. The scenes before the final gunfight with those two are classic. They probably are used to show actors how to show to be subtlely and blatantly threatening.

    El Dorado was a great one too. The Cowboys and Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are worthy of high praise. As is the Sons of Katie Elder.

    Great list.

  13. steve croft on

    The Cowboys should be number on on the list as it is one or to me the best western he has done although i have to say being a lifelong devotee of his films (and shall be watching rio bravo today again) i shall say all his films (cowboy genre)are fantastic but the list compiled is still great but shall say one thing to the author of this list if you havent watched many john wayne films may i respectfully submit you get out the popcorn sit down start watching and enjoy

  14. Thank you for the list…always enjoy the John Wayne movies. 🙂 Tough to choose. My son is actually looking for a word from a scene…I hope someone can recall/know: John Wayne rode up on his horse to a campfire. He asked for a drink of the water. He used a term my son did not know(It was not flask, canteen, water bag, or any of the usual words) Does anyone know the word used? John Wayne made a lot of Westerns to narrow the search. I googled it but seems the John Wayne Cancer society is raising money by selling a water bottle and that is all that seems to pop up. Thank you for your help…happy weekend.

  15. I can’t argue with your choices but he made so many great westerns it would be too difficult for me to narrow it down.Love El Dorado and Rio Lobo as well.As someone else said Liberty Valance was brilliant.It kind of signified the end of the Hollywood western era.It was his final western collaboration between him and John Ford and there was something powerful about the Duke playing someone who knew he was a dying breed in the west and a change of character and attitude was the best thing for the frontier.I also like The War Wagon,which is just a fun action comedy.

  16. Just a couple things to start about the Duke. Robert you must watch the Searchers again, Where are all these woman and kids killed? And most of all the Palo Duro battle was the last Dance of the Comanche’s and there leader “Quanah Parker, At Palo Duro canyon here in Randell county ,Texas. Just 20 miles or so south of Amarillo, TX. Next to Canyon ,TX. And John Wayne had the most high regard For are Native Americans!!!

  17. Charles Campbell on

    No El Dorado or the Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance? McClintock and Big Jake shouldn’t have even made the list!

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