John Wayne was a man’s man. With his nonchalant swagger and his commanding presence, he dominated the screen. From cowboy to soldier, he was the epitome of patriotism and a model American. Though his views may be a little too conservative for some tastes today, his movies are works of art.
Rio Lobo (1970)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Rio Grande (1950)
Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
North to Alaska (1960)
#10: Rooster Cogburn (1975)
While John Wayne was a gruff guy, he had a soft, humorous side about him that shows in this comedic western starring Wayne as his True Grit character Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Starring alongside him is distinguished actress Katharine Hepburn, playing the overly religious Eula Goodnight caught up in the adventure alongside the drunken, grumpy marshal. Packing in laughs alongside suspenseful action scenes, this is a classic family western movie. (Plus, it’s my father’s favorite. Hi Dad!)
#9: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
The classic western trope of avenging a murder formulates the plot of this story. The four sons of Katie Elder–John Elder (Wayne), Tom Elder (Dean Martin), Bud Elder (Michael Anderson, Jr.), and Matt Elder (Earl Holliman)–set out to take revenge on the man who murdered their father and swindled their mother. Family ties, murder, angst, and lots of shooting create this compelling western that will pull you in from the start. The only odd thing about this movie is that John Wayne looks twenty years older than his “brothers,” but you get past it after a while.
#8: Hondo (1953)
Though it includes a racist portrayal of Native Americans and slight sexism (you have to think about the time this was made in), this is a wonderful film. Hondo Lane (Wayne), a member of the US Army Cavalry, is compelled to protect a woman and her son from hostile Apaches because she has no husband. This film includes eminent actors Ward Bond (The Maltese Falcon ) and James Arness (Gunsmoke [1955-1975]). It’s an action-packed movie with murder, love, and (again) lots of shooting and cowboys.
#7: The Shootist (1976)
Some consider this to be one of John Wayne’s best films. I agree–it’s a well-made film with an intriguing subject matter. However, it ranks as number seven in my list solely because the plot was much too weighty and I did not enjoy being sad during a John Wayne movie. The Shootist is about J.B. Books (Wayne), who is dying just like the Old West is in the early twentieth century, and settles in Carson City, Nevada, basically hoping to find a way to gloriously die. This movie also features other prominent stars of classic Hollywood, including Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Harry Morgan, and rising star Ron Howard. Just make sure to have the tissues nearby.
#6: Rio Bravo (1959)
This film has kind of the same plot as El Dorado in that the sheriff is a drunk and all the men end up hiding out in the jail with a dangerous criminal that a group of outlaws want freed. However, it includes attractive actors Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson, so that makes up for it. Plus, this movie includes the use of dynamite in the end in addition to the big shootout, so it’s obviously a pretty great western. And, once again, Dean Martin costars with the Duke as the drunken sheriff (what else?). It has all the great components of a western.
#5: El Dorado (1967)
This is the better version of Rio Bravo. Cole Thornton (Wayne) with a bullet lodged in his spine, Sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), the drunken sheriff, and “Mississippi” (James Caan [The Godfather (1972)]), the terrible marksman, are all holed up in the town guarding a prisoner that dangerous criminals on the outside want released. It’s suspenseful, humorous, and has plenty of shooting and horses–everything a western should have. Plus, it’s got a funny old dude who makes amusing comments every so often, kind of like your Grandpa Dave, but funnier!
#4: Big Jake (1971)
Hostages and kidnappings, family love and hate, shootouts and fights–what more could you ask for in a western? In Big Jake, Jacob “Big Jake” McCandles (Wayne), is asked by his wife, Martha (Maureen O’Hara [Miracle on 34th Street (1947)]), to rescue her little boy Jake who has been taken hostage by an outlaw named John Fain (Richard Boone). With the help of his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne, John Wayne’s real-life son) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum, son of Robert Mitchum) Big Jake sets out on an adventure to save little Jake and exact revenge on the ruthless outlaws. Personally, my favorite part of this movie is the fact that Big Jake named his dog, “Dog.”
#3: McLintock! (1963)
Honestly, some of John Wayne’s best westerns were the ones that were mainly comedy, such as this one. George Washington “G.W.” McLintock (Wayne) is a single rancher whose estranged wife, Katherine (Maureen O’Hara), has returned to town. On top of that, their daughter is planning to marry a banjo player (Jerry Van Dyke) and G.W. has recently taken in an attractive widow and her two children, including dreamy heartthrob Devlin Warren (Patrick Wayne). Sure, this movie has a lot of sexism (you must publicly spank your woman to shame her) and probably a few racist portrayals, but it’s still hilarious and one of my favorites. And drunk John Wayne is always a plus.
#2: True Grit (1969)
This is the first appearance of U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. It’s also John Wayne’s only Academy Award win–and well-deserved, too. This movie is definitely a little more gritty (no pun intended) than Wayne’s other films, and that’s part of what makes it so great. In True Grit, Cogburn must track down and capture an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), who murdered a young girl’s (Kim Darby) parents and is now holed up with another outlaw named “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall). He is aided in his search by La Bouef (Glen Campbell). Featuring supporting roles from Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider ) and Jeremy Slate, it’s a star-studded cast for a phenomenal movie that will grip you with its intensity from the very start. If you like action, this is the John Wayne film to watch.
#1: The Searchers (1956)
It’s hard to find words to describe just how powerful this movie is. Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) must embark on a years-long journey to recover two of their family members after the Comanches took them hostage (after killing everyone else, of course). Though the subject matter is once again quite weighty, it’s a fantastic film. Vera Miles (Psycho ), Natalie Wood (West Side Story ), and Ward Bond costar in this magnificent work of cinema. The final scene (pictured below) is probably one of the most iconic scenes in westerns. It pays tribute to the figure of the lonely cowboy, destined to wander the west for life, a figure that the great John Wayne played well.
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