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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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 Wayne’s 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.