Connect with us

John Wayne

The Searchers Ending Explained: Wandering Forever Between The Winds

John Wayne starred in dozens of Westerns during his lengthy career, but he very rarely played the bad guy. One of his darkest roles came in “The Searchers,” his 14th and greatest collaboration with John Ford, the director who helped the Hollywood icon make his name in “Stagecoach.” It was a film that inverted Wayne’s heroic screen persona by casting him as Ethan Edwards, a bitterly racist former soldier who spends many years on an obsessive quest to track down his niece after she is abducted by Comanches.
For a director-star combo that had often portrayed Native Americans as a faceless marauding horde in many of their earlier pictures, “The Searchers” is a soulful and sometimes awkward attempt to reckon with that past and, in turn, America’s legacy of genocide and Manifest Destiny. While its comedic moments seem to belong to another film and its use of Redface is cringe-inducing, the main thrust of Ethan’s relentless search, driven by his hatred for Native Americans, was ahead of its time and remains incredibly pertinent to this day. It wasn’t the first Revisionist Western, but it is one that challenged the norm in the fading era of classic Hollywood horse operas, introducing shades of grey to a genre that previously boiled down to simplistic “white hats vs. black hats” or “cowboys vs. Indians” narratives.
After almost 70 years, despite changes in attitudes and its star becoming widely reviled for his problematic views on just about every minority group including Native Americans, it maintains its status as one of the greatest American movies ever made, still riding high in Sight and Sound’s esteemed Top 100. To top it all off, the film closes with one of the most iconic shots in cinema history. But what does that famous ending mean?
The set upWarner Bros.“The Searchers” opens with a breathtaking vista as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother’s isolated homestead after an eight-year absence. His past is shadowy; after finishing on the losing side in the Civil War, he became a decorated campaigner in the Mexican revolutionary war and carries a big stash of Yankee gold that may well be stolen.
He is cautiously welcomed by his family. There is brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan), their eldest son Ben (Robert Lyden), daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood), and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man with Cherokee blood who was adopted by the family when he was orphaned as a baby.
His homecoming rest is short-lived. The cattle of his neighbor Lars Jorgensen (John Qualen) are stolen and Reverend Captain Sam Clayton (Ward Bond), who Edwards knew during his time in the Confederate Army, is rounding up a posse to recover the animals. The theft turns out to be a decoy by the hostile Comanche tribe to draw the men away from their homes, and Ethan and Martin find the ranch burnt to the ground upon their return. The family has been massacred and the two girls have been abducted.
Initially assisted by a dwindling posse that includes Lucy’s boyfriend Brad Jorgensen (Harry Carey Jr.), Ethan and Martin spend years on the trail of the Comanches trying to discover the whereabouts of the girls. Over time, Ethan’s attitude toward the Natives becomes increasingly hateful and his motives change into something far more murderous: Instead of rescuing the young women, he plans to murder them since they’ve been violated by Comanche “bucks.” Once they learn Debbie is being held captive by Scar (Henry Brandon), a fierce and proud chief with his own vengeful agenda, will Ethan really carry out his threat to kill her?
The true story behind The SearchersWarner Bros.The story of “The Searchers” was based on a strange phenomenon from the dangerous days of the American frontier when pioneers frequently found themselves under attack from the Indigenous Americans they had taken the land from. By way of retribution for the atrocities committed against them by the settlers, tribes launched deadly raids against isolated settlements, slaughtering families and snatching their children. Much like the protagonists in John Ford’s film, surviving family members often spent decades searching for their missing loved ones; in the case of Frances Slocum, her brothers kept up the hunt for 60 years before they finally saw her again. Unlike little Debbie, many of the abductees fully integrated into their new communities and were unwilling to come home.
John Ford’s film was based on Alan Le May’s novel of the same name. The author researched dozens of Native American child abduction cases in Texas, but his main source of inspiration was Cynthia Ann Parker, a nine-year-old girl taken when a 700-strong raid descended on her family’s stockade in 1836 (via Texas Public Radio). Five of her relatives, including her father and grandfather, were killed, and the raiders made off with her and four other young people. Her uncle James Parker spent the next 24 years searching for her, during which time he managed to get the other four back.
Cynthia Ann was eventually discovered when the U.S. Cavalry and Texas Rangers launched a murderous raid on a Comanche settlement. The attackers were about to kill her too but noticed she had blue eyes, a rarity among Comanches. During her time with the tribe, she married a Chief and had three children. She was captured and taken away with her daughter, Prairie Flower, but was never able to re-adjust to a world she no longer felt a part of.
Ethan’s motives in The SearchersWarner Bros.The young women who were taken by Native Americans in these abduction cases ended up, willingly or unwillingly, having sex with their captors. Necessarily for the era, “The Searchers” largely skirts around saying that outright, yet implied sexual assault looms heavily over the entire film and drives Ethan Edwards forward on his mission. As we learn early on, he doesn’t have much time for Indigenous people in the first place, yet the idea that Debbie has been violated by her captors twists his hatred even further. In his eyes, such an existence for his niece is a fate worse than death, as we see in his horrified reaction when he and Martin visit a fort where young women recovered from the Comanches are being held. They are portrayed as being deeply traumatized by their experience, but Ethan has no pity; when a soldier remarks it’s hard to believe they are white women, he fires back bitterly, “They ain’t no more.”
As he sees it, Ethan’s goal to murder his niece is almost an honor killing. It says far more about how he feels about her becoming a sexual object for the Comanches rather than how she might feel about it. He even tries to justify his intent, stating, “Living with Comanches ain’t being alive.”
Ethan’s racist views are shared by some of the more benign characters in the film. Martin’s love interest Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) seems like Ethan’s antithesis, but when she learns they have discovered Debbie’s location, she reveals her own attitude on the matter: “Fetch what home? The leavings of a Comanche buck, sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?” She goes on to say that Edwards will put a bullet in Debbie’s brain and, what’s more, the girl’s own mother would have wanted the same.
Did Ethan and Martha have a thing?Warner Bros.When Ethan Edwards returns home at the beginning of “The Searchers,” there definitely seems to be a little awkwardness. His brother Aaron welcomes him with a few stiff handshakes while Ethan shares several long, lingering glances with Martha. They don’t say much to each other, but there is clearly some tension between them. She can’t keep her eyes off him at the dinner table and when Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) comes to enlist the men’s help in tracking down Jorgensen’s cattle, he tries not to notice as Martha lovingly caresses Ethan’s coat before sharing a wordless, emotional goodbye.
These moments have resulted in the popular theory that Ethan had an affair with Martha before leaving to join the Confederate Army and that Debbie is his daughter. The timeline checks out because Ethan has been away for eight years and it is made clear that the girl is now eight years old. Of course, the family might just greet Ethan’s return with trepidation because he’s a domineering a******, but an affair would certainly explain the awkwardness. If it seems obvious to us that something went on between Ethan and Martha, surely Aaron would also pick up on the pair making eyes at each other right under his nose.
If Debbie is Ethan’s daughter, it would justify his feelings a little better. He’s good with Aaron’s kids, yet he noticeably softens in the presence of Debbie. An uncle can have strong feelings for his niece, of course, but it would be more understandable that a tough guy like him would melt at the first sight of a daughter he’s never met before. It would also make his hellbent desire to track her down more potent, and his goal to kill her even more abhorrent.
Racism in The SearchersWarner Bros.It can be a little tricky grappling with “The Searchers” from a modern perspective, especially armed with the knowledge that John Wayne himself was a racist and a bigot. There is no doubt that Ethan Edwards is a bitterly racist character; he is openly contemptuous of his adopted nephew Martin because he has Cherokee blood and would rather slaughter buffalo rather than let them provide food for Native Americans in the winter. Most alarming is the scene when he vindictively desecrates the corpse of a Comanche warrior by shooting out the eyes, condemning its soul to wander among the winds rather than reach the spirit land.
If Ethan was portrayed by an actor who wasn’t such an outspoken bigot in real life, it would be easier to commend Wayne’s performance for flipping the attitudes of his earlier Westerns where Native Americans were often dispatched like zombies or evil aliens, much in the same way Clint Eastwood interrogated his violent “Man With No Name” persona with “Unforgiven.”
As Roger Ebert pointed out, however, many audience members at the time would have uncritically bought into the film’s portrayal of the Comanches as savage murderers, perhaps even feeling that Ethan’s actions and intentions were justified. As for Wayne, how much of Ethan’s malice came from the character, and how much from himself? After all, he was the man who reportedly needed holding back from assaulting Sacheen Littlefeather when she gave a speech on behalf of Marlon Brando at the 1973 Oscars and said in his infamous 1971 Playboy interview:
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them… Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
The Searchers Ending ExplainedWarner Bros.Ethan Edwards seems pretty clued up on Native American customs and language, but even holding more knowledge about their culture than the average rancher does nothing to awaken any empathy toward them. It only seems to fuel his hatred even more, and he genuinely seems ready to gun Debbie down when they first find her before Martin stands in the way. Thankfully, when they return with a posse to raid the Comanche camp, he has a change of heart and embraces her, saying, “Let’s go home, Debbie.”
He returns his niece to the Jorgensen ranch and suddenly finds himself redundant and out of place. The famous final image mirrors the first shot of the movie, viewed from inside the darkened interior of the home. The family all enter, not giving him a second glance. Even Martin, whom he has spent so many years on the trail with, walks past him with Laurie as if he isn’t there. It may be he doesn’t feel welcome anymore after so long away or the family resents him for his belligerent behavior, but it is presented as if he has simply ceased to exist.
Prefiguring the world-weary outlaws of “The Wild Bunch” 13 years later, Ethan has become a figure out of time, an anachronism of the Old West with no real place in the domesticity of the modern world. With his close family dead and finding himself on the losing side in the Civil War, he is lost and alone. Unable to cross the threshold of the home, he cradles his arm forlornly before turning and walking away across the sands, recalling the earlier scene when he shoots out the Comanche’s eyes. Like that fallen warrior, Ethan Edwards is doomed to wander between the winds.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

John Wayne

John Wayne battled crippling injuries and heartbreaking loss on Rio Lobo set

The sight of The Duke thundering across The West on horseback remains one of cinema’s most indelible images.
Meanwhile, “Get off your horse and drink your milk” has frequently been attributed as one of John Wayne’s most famous ‘quotes.’

Despite some claims that it came from an advert he shot, it is actually almost certainly an urban myth, most likely started by comedians doing drawling impressions of the Hollywood Westerns legend.
Sadly, though, by the time the star came to film 1970’s Rio Lobo (a blatant remake of Rio Bravo) towards the end of his career, he was in so much pain struggled to get on and off his horse.
In fact, the entire film shoot was surrounded by personal tragedies for the actor.
DON’T MISSJohn Wayne revealed his own three favourite films from his career

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

John Wayne starred in Rio Lobo
John Wayne was in agony in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY )

It was director Howard Hawks’ final film and the third film he made with John Wayne about a beleaguered sheriff standing against outlaws.
In a 1971 interview Hawks said of Rio Lobo: “The last picture we made, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’
“He said, ‘Good, I’ll be all ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I told him the story. He never even read it, he didn’t know anything about it.”

Famously, when Wayne realised it was a remake of Rio Bravo and El Dorado, he quipped: “Yes, he said, ‘Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

Hawks was less jocular after the film bombed and blamed it on 63-year-old Wayne being too old and out of shape for the role.
Critics and audiences agreed and the film took just over $4million against a production budget of $6million plus all the extra promotional costs which are often the same again.
Wayne’s physical difficulties were not due to his age, however. He had piled on weight for 1969’s True Grit and then while filming The Undefeated the same year, The Duke fell from his horse and fractured three ribs, leaving him unable to work for two weeks.
Later in the shoot, he tore a ligament in his shoulder. With no movement in one arm, he had to be filmed only from the other side.

John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo
John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

Wayne came into Rio Lobo in considerable pain, out of shape from True Grit and still suffering from a torn shoulder.
Most of his fight scenes had to be filmed with stand-ins or carefully from restricted angles. Some fights even happened off-camera. And he struggled greatly getting on and off his horse.
He also suffered two devastatimg personal blow when his mother died during filming and then his younger brother Robert E. Morrison lost his battle with lung cancer the month after filming ended.
But there was one shining moment of happiness also.

John Wayne in True Grit
John Wayne in True Grit (Image: GETTY)

Always a dedicated workhorse on set, no matter the physical injuries or personal pains, Wayne took a rare break from filming.
He had a very good reason, since it was to attend the 1970 Academy Awards. After exactly 40 years on screen, The Duke finally won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit.
Touchingly, when he returned to the Rio Lobo set, he was greeted by the cast and crew all wearing eye patches like True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn.

Continue Reading

John Wayne

Ann-Margret recalls ‘gentle’ and ‘welcoming’ John Wayne who did her a big favour

Legendary actress Ann-Margret turns 80-years-old today on April 28, 2021. The singer, dancer and performer made quite the name for herself in Hollywood in a number of films during the early 1960s, including Bye Bye Birdie and State Fair. She is perhaps best known for her epic performance in 1964 hit Viva Las Vegas alongside Elvis Presley, with whom she shared a passionate love affair. Shortly after working with the King, she joined wild west star John Wayne in his 1973 movie The Train Robbers.

Ann-Margret played the lead in the movie – one of her first lead roles – Mrs Lowe.

The story followed her character after her husband had been killed, leaving her half-million dollars.
Mr Lowe had acquired this money from robbing banks in the wild west, however, she was keen to return it to the government to clear her name. John’s character, Lane, had different ideas. He wanted her to help find the money and claim a reward for it.
Ann-Margret recently gave an interview about her time on the silver screen, where she touched upon working with the legendary John.

Ann-Margret continued: “He was so great with my parents. So absolutely welcoming and gentle with them. And anybody who was great to my parents was on a throne in my eyes.
“I was friends with him forever. He was never [pretentious]. He had so many friends and every single person loved him.”
Ann-Margret also previously praised John for doing her an enormous favour in her time of need.
During the filming of The Train Robbers, Ann-Margret was up for an Oscar alongside her co-star Ben Johnson.
However, considering Ann-Margret was filming in Mexico she was struggling to find a way to attend the ceremony.
Without a second thought, John gave her and Ben his own private plane to allow them both to attend the ceremony.
Ann-Margret said later: “The next day, we were back on the set, and Ben had won and I hadn’t.
“I don’t know what Mr Wayne said to Ben, but he got me in a corner, and he just said some wonderful things to me.”
Ann-Margret also spoke candidly about her relationship with Elvis.
The pair enjoyed a relationship together for just over a year while filming Viva Las Vegas.

Speaking in the same interview, Ann-Margret said: “Just thinking about Viva Las Vegas, or anytime someone mentions it, I smile.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. George Sidney, who directed Bye Bye Birdie also directed Viva Las Vegas. And believe it or not, I had never seen [Elvis] perform.”

Continue Reading

John Wayne

John Wayne movies: 25 greatest films ranked worst to best

Oscar winner John Wayne, better known as “The Duke” to his fans, starred in over 165 movies throughout his career, oftentimes playing the swaggering, macho hero of westerns and war epics. But how many of his titles remain classics? Let’s take a look back at 25 of his greatest films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1907 as Marion Robert Morrison, Wayne worked his way up from bit player to leading man, appearing in a number of poverty row, Z-grade westerns throughout the 1930s. He shot to stardom with his role in John Ford‘s “Stagecoach” (1939), which brought new shades of nuance and artistry to the Cowboys and Indians genre. It also kicked off a lucrative, decades-long partnership between the director and star, who would make over two dozen films together, including “The Quiet Man” (1952), “The Searchers” (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962).
Despite being one of the top box office draws for most of his career, Wayne only received two Oscar nominations as Best Actor: one for “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), another for “True Grit” (1969). The latter, in which he played the drunken, one-eyed Texas Ranger Rooster Cogburn, won him his long-overdue prize, as well as a Golden Globe. He also competed in Best Picture for producing “The Alamo” (1960), which he directed and starred in. He received the Cecil B. DeMille prize in 1966.
Tour our photo gallery of Wayne’s 25 greatest films, including some of the titles listed above, as well as “Red River” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), “Rio Bravo” (1959) and more.
– Original text and gallery published in May 2019.


Photo : Bernie Abramson/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
25. THE ALAMO (1960)

Directed by John Wayne. Written by James Edward Grant. Starring John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey, Frankie Avalon, Patrick Wayne, Linda Cristal, Joan O’Brien, Chill Wills, Joseph Calleia, Richard Boone.
“The Alamo” was a passion project for the Duke, who first decided to direct and star in it all the way back in 1945. The results are a lumbering, interminable epic that contains momentary excitements surrounded by long-winded elocutions. Wayne casts himself as Col. Davy Crockett, who helped lead a small group of soldiers in their defense against Gen. Santa Anna in the Battle of the Alamo. The climactic fight is quiet spectacular, but the journey there is a long one. Though reviews were mixed, the film scored a surprising seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture for Wayne (who lobbied the Academy hard) over such worthy contenders as “Psycho” and “Spartacus.” (It won for its sound.)


Photo : Fox Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
24. THE BIG TRAIL (1930)

Directed by Raoul Walsh. Story by Hal G. Evarts. Starring John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tyrone Power, Sr., El Brendel.
Although he became a star with John Ford’s “Stagecoach,” Wayne’s first leading role came with this epic western from Raoul Walsh. (Ford was reportedly so angry at Wayne for accepting the role that he refused to work with him again for nearly a decade, having groomed him as a bit player in several films.) Though dated in many aspects, “The Big Trail” is still a rousing entertainment about a young trapper (Wayne) leading a Wagon Train through perilous terrain from the Mississippi River to the West. Walsh shot in 70mm Grandeur film, an early widescreen format, giving the film an epic scale. Following its release, Wayne would slum in poverty row, z-grade westerns for nine years before reuniting for Ford.


Photo : Snap/REX/Shutterstock
23. 3 GODFATHERS (1948)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent, story by Robert Nathan, based on the novelette Peter B. Kyne. Starring John Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., Pedro Armendariz, Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond, Mae Marsh, Jane Darwell, Ben Johnson.
A lesser known entry in the canon of films from Wayne and his favorite director, John Ford, “3 Godfathers” is a sweet, sentimental fable about three outlaws (Wayne, Harry Carey, Jr., and Pedro Armendariz) who come across a dying woman giving birth in the desert. They vow to protect and care for the child, risking their lives as they bring the infant to the nearest town. This was Ford’s second rendition of Peter B. Kyne’s novelette following 1919’s “Marked Men,” which starred Harry Carey, whose son appears in this version (this one is dedicated to the late actor’s memory). At times beautiful, funny, and heartbreaking, it shows a softer side to Wayne’s hard-edged persona.


Photo : Malabar/Cinema Center/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
22. RIO LOBO (1970)

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Burton Wohl, story by Wohl. Starring John Wayne, Jorge Rivero, Jennifer O’Neill, Jack Elam, Victory French, Susana Deosmantes, Christopher Mitchum, Mike Henry.
“Rio Lobo” was the last film directed by Howard Hawks, and it reunited him with frequent leading man Wayne, who appeared in his westerns “Red River” and “Rio Bravo.” Though this one fails to live up to their previous collaborations, it’s still a fitting farewell from one of Hollywood’s pioneering filmmakers. Wayne stars as an ex-Union officer who teams up with some former Confederates (Jorge Rivero and Christopher Mitchum) to track down the traitor who sold information to the South during the Civil War, causing the death of his close friend. Their quest leads them to Rio Lobo, a town run like a dictatorship by the very outlaw (Mike Henry) they’re searching for.


Photo : Snap/REX/Shutterstock
21. DONOVAN’S REEF (1963)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by James Edward Grant and Frank S. Nugent, based on a story by Edmund Beloin. Starring John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Elizabeth Allen, Jack Warden, Cesar Romero, Dick Foran, Dorothy Lamour.
“Donovan’s Reef” was the final collaboration between Wayne and John Ford, who made nearly two dozen films together. It’s far from a career highlight for either man, but it’s a nice sendoff for one of the great actor-director pairings in cinema history. Wayne stars as Col. Cord McNally, a World War II hero living on an island with fellow veterans Lee Marvin and Jack Warden. When Warden’s adult daughter (Elizabeth Allen) arrives, Wayne falls head-over-heels in love with her. This is just plain fun, with a message of racial harmony between the Polynesian natives and their white visitors sewn in. Ford’s own ship, the USS Araner, makes an appearance.


Photo : Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
20. EL DORADO (1967)

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, based on the novel ‘The Stars in Their Courses’ by Harry Brown. Starring John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, James Caan, Charlene Holt, Paul Fix, Arthur Hunnicutt, Michele Carey.
Wayne reunited with director Howard Hawks for this spiritual sequel to their western classic “Rio Bravo.” “El Dorado” casts the Duke as Cole Thornton, a gun-for-hire who teams up with his old pal, drunken sheriff J.P. Hara (Robert Mitchum), to help a rancher family fight off a rival trying to steal their water. James Caan pops up as the gambler Mississippi. With a crackling script by Leigh Brackett (who also penned “Rio Bravo”), Hawks creates yet another expert blending of excitement and laughs, featuring two of Hollywood’s golden age veterans turning in outstanding late-career work. A third semi-sequel, “Rio Lobo,” followed in 1970.


Photo : 20th Century Fox/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
19. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

Directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki. Screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, based on his book. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Eddie Albert, Curd Jurgens, Richard Todd, Richard Burton, Peter Lawford, Rod Steiger, Irina Demick, Gert Frobe, Edmond O’Brien, Kenneth More.
Wayne is one of many A-list celebrities from around the globe crammed into this WWII epic that recounts the harrowing events of D-Day, told from the point-of-view of both the Allied and German soldiers. He plays Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, a real life CO in 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Shot docudrama style in black-and-white and recreating the battle on a massive scale, “The Longest Day” set a high water mark for war epics to come. The film received a Best Picture Oscar nomination and won prizes for its cinematography and special effects.


Photo : Mgm/Cinerama/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall. Written by James R. Webb. Starring Carol Baker, Walter Brennan, Lee J. Cobb, Andy Devine, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Agnes Moorehead, Harry Morgan, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, Thelma Ritter, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, narrated by Spencer Tracy.
There wasn’t a movie star alive in the early 1960s who didn’t make an appearance in “How the West Was Won,” a sprawling, lumbering epic tracing America’s Westward expansion. Divided into five sections — “The Rivers,” “The Plains,” “The Civil War,” “The Railroad,” and “The Outlaws” — it centers on a family through four generations from 1839 to 1889 who experience every landmark moment of history during that period. Wayne appears in “The Civil War” (directed by frequent collaborator John Ford) as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. More famous for its scope than its content (it was one of only two fictional films shot in the three projector Cinerama process), it’s an impressive feat nonetheless. Oscars went to its screenplay, sound and editing.


Photo : Snap/REX/Shutterstock
17. RIO GRANDE (1950)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, based on the short story ‘Mission With No Record’ by James Warner Bellah. Starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman, Jr., Harry Carey, Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers.
“Rio Grande” was the third and final film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy (following 1948’s “Fort Apache” and 1949’s “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”), and while it can’t match the greatness of the first two entries, it’s still an under-appreciated gem. Wayne stars as Col. Kirby York, a cavalryman tasked with protecting an outpost on the Rio Grande from murderous Apaches. At the same time, he’s dealing with his son (Claude Jarman, Jr.), a daring young recruit, and his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara), both of whom have come second to his devotion to duty. The film features lovely folk songs by Sons of the Pioneers.


Photo : Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by William A. Wellman. Screenplay by Ernest K. Gann, based on his novel. Starring John Wayne, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling, Phil Harris, Robert Newton, David Brian.
A predecessor for the highly lucrative disaster movie genre, “The High and the Mighty” is high gloss, highly entertaining trash. A sort of “Grand Hotel” for the air, it finds a large cast of characters aboard a trans-Pacific flight that undergoes the one-two punch of engine failure and a nervous pilot. Luckily, copilot Wayne is there to save the day. Director William A. Wellman ratchets up the tension by playing with the aircraft’s confined space, while the ensemble cast hams it up with glee. The film earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Supporting Actress bids for Claire Trevor and Jan Sterling, winning for its score. Surprisingly, it was snubbed in Best Picture and Best Actor.


Photo : Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
15. HONDO (1953)

Directed by John Farrow. Screenplay by James Edward Grant, based on the story ‘The Gift of Cochise’ by Louis L’Amour. Starring John Wayne, Geraldine Page, Ward Bond, Michael Pate, James Arness, Leo Gordon, Lee Aaker.
John Farrow’s “Hondo” is one of the quintessential Wayne westerns, showing new shades of the actor’s macho screen persona. He plays the title character, an army dispatch rider who comes across a widow (Supporting Actress nominee Geraldine Page) and her son (Lee Aaker) living in the wilderness, unaware of the impending threat by the Apaches. Hondo hangs around to protect them, forging a paternal bond with the young boy. Originally shown in 3-D, allowing the Duke to literally jump off the screen at you. Louis L’Amour earned an Oscar nomination for his original story, which first appeared in Collier’s magazine, leading to an eligibility dispute that caused the bid to be disqualified.


Photo : Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
14. THE SHOOTIST (1976)

Directed by Don Siegel. Screenplay by Miles Hood Swarthout and Scott Hale, based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Starring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, James Stewart, Richard Boone, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, Richard Lenz, Harry Morgan, Sheree North, Hugh O’Brian.
Wayne’s cinematic swan song features one of his very best performances. Don Siegel’s “The Shootist” casts him as a cancer-ridden gunfighter hoping to die with dignity. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t escape his past. Lauren Bacall costars as a widow who rents the dying man a room in her boarding house, and frets when her teenage son (Ron Howard) starts looking up to him as a father figure. The film is both an effective drama and an ode to the Duke’s career, even featuring an opening montage comprised of clips from some of his earlier westerns. James Stewart, his costar in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” shows up as a kindly doctor.


Photo : Republic/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
13. SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949)

Directed by Allan Dwan. Written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant. Starring John Wayne, John Agar, Forrest Tucker, Adele Mara.
While many of his Hollywood contemporaries were fighting overseas, Wayne kept the masses entertained at home playing America’s favorite WWII hero (a distinction that director John Ford, who served in the Navy, would forever ridicule the actor for). In “Sands of Iwo Jima,” Wayne plays an heroic sergeant in the historic battle in the Pacific. Low on originality (especially after countless other war pictures), it’s nevertheless an exciting, rousing tribute to the real life soldiers who fought and died at Iwo Jima. The role brought Wayne his first Oscar nomination as Best Actor, which he lost to Broderick Crawford (“All the King’s Men”). It earned additional bids for its writing, editing and sound.


Photo : Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
12. HATARI! (1962)

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Leigh Brackett, story by Harry Kurnitz. Starring John Wayne, Else Martinelli, Hardy Kruger, Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot, Valentin de Vargas, Michele Girardon.
“Hatari!” has a little bit of everything: comedy, adventure, romance, and some exotic animals. Wayne stars as the devil-may-care leader of a group of wild game trappers (including Hardy Kruger and Red Buttons) who round up beasts for export to zoos. Their all-boys club is shaken up by the arrival of a female photographer (Else Martinelli) who spars with Wayne before falling in love with him. Director Howard Hawks once again proves a master of blending tone and pacing (at two-and-a-half hours, the film breezes right by). An Oscar nominee for its vibrant Technicolor cinematography by Russell Harlan.


Photo : Rko/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
11. FORT APACHE (1948)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the short story ‘Massacre’ by James Warner Bellah. Starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple, Victor McLaglen, Pedro Armendariz, John Agar.
The first of John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” (followed by “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”), “Fort Apache” creates such an authentic portrait of frontier life, you’d think you were transported back to the 1860s. Henry Fonda plays against type as Lt. Col. Owen Thursday, who is placed in charge of a U.S. cavalry post over the honorable veteran Capt. Kirby York (Wayne). York soon finds himself at odds with Thursday, who thirsts for glory and despises the local Native American tribe. Though the film gives the director an opportunity to explore some of the western’s darker themes, he still finds time for some laughter and romance in carefully observed vignettes.


Photo : Mgm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank Wead, based on the book by William Lindsay White. Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, Donna Reed, Jack Holt, Ward Bond.
John Ford returned from his WWII service and made one of the most realistic and grim examinations of warfare ever committed to film. “They Were Expendable” recounts the futile efforts of a U.S. Navy PT unit to combat a Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Real life war hero Robert Montgomery stars as the commander, Wayne as his second-in-command. During shooting, Ford ridiculed Wayne for his lack of actual military service, often pointing to Montgomery as an example of how to act (when Montgomery confronted the director about his behavior, Ford allegedly broke down in tears). On-set tension aside, this trio created an enduring classic that stands above more simplistic combat films of the period.


Photo : United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on four ‘Sea Plays’ by Eugene O’Neill. Starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, Ian Hunter, Barry Fitzgerald, Wilfrid Lawson, John Qualen, Mildred Natwick, Ward Bond.
John Ford long dreamed of being a sailor, serving in the Navy during WWII and often taking his friends out to sea on his boat, the USS Araner, for some alcohol-fueled fun. So it’s not surprising that this adaptation of four Eugene O’Neill “Sea Plays” feels so personal to him and it’s star, Wayne. “The Long Voyage Home” centers on the ragtag crew of a British tramp steamer who embark on a perilous journey from the West Indies to Boston and finally to England. The story unfolds in a series of beautifully contained scenes exploring the camaraderie of the men, shot in moody black-and-white by cinematographer Gregg Toland. Ford pulled off the rare feat of earning two Best Picture nominations in one year: one for this, the other for “The Grapes of Wrath.”


Photo : Ned Scott/United Artists/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
8. STAGECOACH (1939)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on ‘The Stage to Lordsburg’ by Ernest Haycock. Starring Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, Andy Devine, George Bancroft.
The western exists in two realms: one before “Stagecoach,” the other after. Before, it was simply B-grade entertainment meant to play on the second half of a double bill. After, it was one of the great American genres. It also launched Wayne from Poverty Row bit player to A-list leading man, kicking off an enduring partnership between him and John Ford. He plays the Ringo Kid, a wanted murderer who joins a motley group of passengers traveling through treacherous terrain via a horse-drawn coach. It’s clear Ford knew he had a leading man in his midst, and he introduces him as such with a dramatic push-in that signals Wayne’s arrival in the movies. The film won two Oscar, including Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell as a drunken doctor traveling aboard the stagecoach.


Photo : Rko/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, based on ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ stories ‘The Big Hunt’ and ‘War Party’ by James Warner Bellah. Starring John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O’Brien, Arthur Shields.
“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” was the second film in John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” — proceeded by “Fort Apache” and followed by “Rio Grande” — and it’s by far the best. Wayne gives one of his best performances (aided by some heavy makeup) as Nathan Brittles, a retiring US Cavalry Captain tasked with protecting his troops from an impeding Indian attack. Haunted by the defeat of General Custer, Brittles does all he can to prevent a violent confrontation and protect the many women on the base. The film won an Oscar for Winston C. Hoch’s vibrant Technicolor cinematography. Wayne reaped a Best Actor bid that year for “Sands of Iwo Jima,” though he really should’ve competed for this role.


Photo : Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck, based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson. Starring James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, Ken Murray.
With this late-career masterpiece, John Ford created his most thoughtful and nuanced examination of the differences between myth and truth. It’s also one of the great American westerns, with Wayne and James Stewart finding new shades in characters they’ve often played. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” centers on a U.S. Senator (Stewart) who became famous for killing an outlaw (Lee Marvin). When he returns to his hometown to bury an old friend (Wayne), the facts about the legendary event that binds them become clearer though flashbacks. The film earned a lone Oscar nomination for Edith Head’s costumes, though both Wayne and Stewart were deserving.


Photo : Republic/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
5. THE QUIET MAN (1952)

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ story by Maurice Walsh. Starring John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford.
“The Quiet Man” was a longtime passion project for John Ford, a romantic, sentimental journey back to his Irish roots. It was also a major departure for the director and his favorite leading man, better known for their more macho collaborations. Adapted from a short story by Maurice Walsh, the film centers on an ex-boxer (Wayne) who leaves America and returns to the little village of his birth, where he falls in love with a fiery red head (Maureen O’Hara). Most viewers probably remember this one for the climactic fist-fight between the Duke and Victor McLaglen, who plays O’Hara’s loutish brother. Ford won his fourth Oscar as Best Director, while Winston C. Hoch and Archie Stout were also recognized for their luminous color cinematography. Shockingly, Wayne was snubbed in Best Actor.


Photo : Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
4. RIO BRAVO (1959)

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett, based on the short story by B. H. McCampbell. Starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell.
“Rio Bravo” is one of the great entertainments, a seamless blending of action and comedy, music and romance. Directed with expert skill by Howard Hawks, it’s the quintessential western, a rousing story about a small-town sheriff (Wayne) who’s gotta fend off some tough outlaws trying to get a murderer out of his jail. He rounds up a ragtag group to help him, including the town drunk (Dean Martin), an aging deputy (Walter Brennan), a young crooner (Ricky Nelson), and a beautiful gambler (Angie Dickinson). There isn’t a wasted moment in the film’s 141 minute runtime, which allows room for some character development within the action. Dismissed in its time, the film has now been recognized as a classic, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and Quentin Tarantino counting it amongst their favorites.


Photo : Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock
3. TRUE GRIT (1969)

Directed by Henry Hathaway. Screenplay by Marguerite Roberts, based on the novel by Charles Portis. Starring John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin, John Fiedler.
After 43 years in the business and over 150 movies, Wayne clinched his long overdue Best Actor Oscar for this rousing western entertainment. “True Grit” casts him as “Rooster” Cogburn, a craggy U.S. Marshall hired by a 14-year-old girl (Kim Darby) to track down the malicious Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) for killing her father. They soon find him holed up with a posse of violent baddies, including Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper. Though they’re a tough bunch, it’s nothing that the Duke — even with an eye patch and a pot belly — can’t handle. In addition to the Oscar, Wayne also won a Golden Globe for his performance. He reprised the role in a 1975 sequel, “Rooster Cogburn,” and a 2010 Coen Brothers remake starring Jeff Bridges followed.


Photo : SNAP/REX/Shutterstock
2. RED RIVER (1948)

Directed by Howard Hawks. Screenplay by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee, based on ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ story ‘The Chisholm Trail’ by Chase. Starring John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, Joanne Dru, John Ireland, Noah Berry, Jr., Paul Fix, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, Jr., Harry Carey, Sr., Chief Yowlatchie, Hank Worden.
Legend has it that when John Ford watched “Red River,” a western starring his favorite leading man and directed by one of his few rivals in the business, Howard Hawks, he proclaimed, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” And indeed, he could. Wayne dons heavy makeup to play Tom Dunson, an aging, headstrong rancher who spars with his adoptive son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his movie debut) during a cattle drive. Tom’s tyrannical behavior leads to a mutiny and a bitter rivalry between the two. The film is notable for its buried gay subtext between Matt and the rambunctious cowboy Cherry Valance (John Ireland). (“You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun,” says Cherry to Matt, “a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?”) More emotionally and psychologically complex than your average shoot-‘em-up, this is one for the ages.


Photo : Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Directed by John Ford. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent, based on the novel by Alan Le May. Starring John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Wad Bond, Natalie Wood.
With “The Searchers,” Wayne and John Ford took a long, hard look at the darkness lurking beneath the genre that made them famous, creating perhaps the greatest of all westerns. Wayne gives the performance of a lifetime as Ethan Edwards, a lonely, angry Civil War veteran with a rabid hatred of Native Americans. When a band of Comanches kidnap his niece (Natalie Wood) and burn down her family’s home, he embarks on an obsessive search to find her. But this is not a rescue mission: rather, it’s a quest to kill her because she’s lived with Indians for too long to be pure. Ford’s beloved Monument Valley has never looked more magnificent than it does here, thanks to Winston C. Hoch’s Technicolor, VistaVision cinematography. The moral ambiguity at the center of its hero’s journey has continued to inspire filmmakers decades later (most notably Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader with “Taxi Driver”).

Continue Reading