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Top 10 Best John Wayne Movies of All Time

by Kali Tuttle
John Wayne

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 might be a little too conservative for some tastes today, his movies are works of art.

Honorable Mentions

The Alamo (1960)

Stagecoach (1939)

Rio Lobo (1970)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Longest Day (1962)

Rio Grande (1950)

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

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Chisum (1970)

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). 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, 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), 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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38 comments

Brenda Jackson May 3, 2020 - 2:43 pm

I wasn’t a big fan of John Wayne, but loved The Searchers, The man who shot Liberty Valance and The three Godfathers.

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Chris St Clair April 30, 2020 - 11:05 pm

I can’t believe “Red River” didn’t make it. I would also thing that “Stagecoach” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” would have made a top ten list of John Wayne westerns.

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Captain Richard Schaefer April 25, 2020 - 1:07 pm

You picked the best…at # 1; But I just love, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” it has ethos/character that you can feel and embrace, but only hope to live up to.

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Kym April 20, 2020 - 8:07 am

The Quiet Man needs to be somewhere in the top 5!

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Kali Tuttle April 20, 2020 - 12:31 pm

John Wayne = cowboys

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Vaughan Griffin April 19, 2020 - 3:59 pm

Quiet Man is #1

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Kali Tuttle April 20, 2020 - 12:30 pm

Man I really just can’t get into that one. I need me some cowboy John Wayne!

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Anonymous April 4, 2020 - 1:44 pm

What about Hatari, In Harm’s Way, Donovanss Reef , Green Berets. Maybe more entertaining, but very enjoyable

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Anonymous April 2, 2020 - 1:56 pm

Did it post

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J April 2, 2020 - 1:52 pm

I am 40 years old and I idolize The Duke because my grandfather loved his movies and some of my best memories were sitting with him as he explained the movies to me. I watch John movies at least once or twice a week and now my young children watch them with me!!!
1. The Searchers (That ending is the best!)
2. The Alamo ( I just loved this movie)
3. The Quiet Man (Best Fight Scene!)
4. Sands of Iwo Jima
5. McClintock!
6. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
7. Fort Apache
8. Flying Leathernecks
9. Operation Pacific
10. Blood Alley
11. Angel and the Badman
12. The Fighting Kentuckian
13. They were Expendable
14. Wake of the Red Witch
15. The Fighting Seabees

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Anonymous February 19, 2020 - 4:28 pm

Stagecoach. Black and white film of 1939 is one his earlier works but never disappoints. Long live Johnny Ringo.

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Kali Tuttle February 23, 2020 - 4:42 pm

I’m personally not a fan of his black-and-white films as much, but his talent sure showed from the moment he hit the screen!

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Robert Johnson February 16, 2020 - 12:31 pm

Sands of Iwo Jima , I was five, when he was killed at the very end I was so sad and heart broken I could barely leave the theater

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Anonymous February 11, 2020 - 5:51 pm

Rio Bravo has nothing to make up for. It was made before Eldorado and done much better.

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Anonymous January 23, 2020 - 7:29 pm

Stagecoach best western ever!!!

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Writergurlny January 12, 2020 - 10:46 am

I’m wondering where The Quiet man is on your list. I don’t adore the sexist view of Maureen O’Hara’s character, but I adore them on screen together.

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Kali Tuttle January 13, 2020 - 10:05 am

I’ve had a couple people ask this! In my personal opinion, it just wasn’t a very Duke movie. I do adore the chemistry between Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne though. It’s definitely been a controversial decision to leave The Quiet Man off this list lol

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Anonymous October 27, 2019 - 3:44 pm

Yep. You nailed this list perfectly. My dad and his John Wayne movies. Good times. And these were his favs–and mine. Thanks for bringing up some memories.

I am happy to see McQ didn’t make the cut. The Duke going “Dirty Harry” and competing with Bullit didn’t work out as well as one would have hoped.

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Kali Tuttle October 27, 2019 - 8:38 pm

Always happy to take a stroll down memory lane! And I agree with McQ — John Wayne was good at a specific genre of movies and when he ventured out it never turned out well.

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Michael Novak December 2, 2018 - 11:16 pm

The quiet man was one of my favorites, also tall in the saddle, fort Apache and can’t believe the cowboys didn’t make the list

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Randall J. Thompson February 19, 2019 - 7:32 am

R..U . .kidding .me?! A Duke Cowboy movie freak Only obviously. Or maybe your just too young to know about some of his other G R E A T movies that even critics sed he SHUD have been nominated for an Oscar, LONG B4 True Grit. Such as In Harms Way.
And (no offense) good thing we know Ur an amateur, for to even say you put one his most crticially acclaimed movies at #7, because “it made you sad”??? What? (Critics, sed prob. His best work showing a vulnurable real self etc. Dying of cancer as you never or fans never saw him b4, Oscar or Globe worthy) but fans wanted a usual Duke shoot-em- up. So it did not score as well at box office. I bought it. Your ten best list is of course Ur entitled OPINION. But, in the Duke world, WAY WAY OFF.

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Kali Tuttle February 19, 2019 - 9:01 pm

Hey Randall! Glad you enjoyed the article! Please enjoy all of the many other articles my cohorts have written for MovieBabble!

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18cinemalane July 27, 2018 - 4:57 pm

Interesting list! The only John Wayne film I’ve seen is Stagecoach.

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Anonymous January 18, 2020 - 9:43 pm

you best get started watching the rest. His movies are to die for. I have watched them so many times and continue to watch because he is the best of the best

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Anonymous June 6, 2018 - 10:52 pm

I am a big fan of the western especially John Wayne western,but for some reason my two favorites of his are not western. Donovan reef and Hatari..

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Kali Tuttle June 8, 2018 - 11:03 am

Interesting! Both great movies though

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Vuava May 4, 2018 - 12:51 pm

Horse Soldiers?

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M.R. Miller March 6, 2018 - 9:26 am

The thing I always appreciated about his westerns is that while they are rife with sexism, the female characters are spunky and strong. I mean, he’s not the only one with “true grit” in that movie. It made the movies more watchable than most of the old Clint Eastwood ones where the women always get raped or almost raped. Rooster Cogburn is one of my favorites because of his relationship with Katherine Hepburn.

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Kali Tuttle March 6, 2018 - 9:29 am

Good point! The banter between Hepburn and Wayne is hilarious in that movie ?

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@lynnsbooks March 3, 2018 - 6:00 pm

I think True Grit is my favourite. And I also loved the Quiet Man.

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Brizzy Mays Books and Bruschetta March 3, 2018 - 3:43 pm

Cannot believe that The Quiet Man, centred in Ireland, did not even make the Honourable Mentions List.

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Kali Tuttle March 3, 2018 - 3:45 pm

Apologize for that. I was trying to focus mainly on his westerns and war movies which he was most famous for. The Quiet Man always felt like more of a romance to me.

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rgswrk January 18, 2019 - 10:55 pm

Your top 10 list are all good John Wayne movies.

One of my favorite John Wayne movies is The Horse Soldiers but it doesn’t usually make the list of his top films so I’m not surprised it isn’t on your list.

However I am really surprised that neither Red River nor The Cowboys made it (not even honorable mention!). You might to go back and watch those because both of them should be in the top 10. I would probably put Red River as #1 or #2.

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Nigel January 15, 2020 - 7:35 pm

Just watched Quiet Man again. One of his few movies that let’s him show everything…hard man, tough man, quiet man, romantic man, funny man. His rapport with Kate O’Hara is one of the best ever! To be honest, probably in my top 5 of his movies. If you were only focusing on his macho films (though Quiet Man has one of the best and longest fight sequences ever surely) then please change the title of your article. Otherwise, put The Quiet Man in where it belongs!

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Nick Kush March 3, 2018 - 2:34 pm

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