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John Wayne

The 27 Best John Wayne Films, Ranked

John Wayne once described himself as “just the paint for the palettes” of directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, the filmmakers who steered him in films such as “Stagecoach” and “Red River.” Such modesty was characteristic of “The Duke,” whom Orson Welles described as one of the best-mannered actors in Hollywood. Yet Wayne was doing himself a disservice, for while he did benefit from the tutelage of two great filmmakers, he also worked long and hard to create the persona of “John Wayne,” a figure with a distinctive gait, an easy drawl, and tough morality.
To explore the career of John Wayne is to explore five decades of Hollywood history. Wayne acted opposite everyone from Barbara Stanwyck and Maureen O’Hara to Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Kirk Douglas. The list of directors he worked with is just as impressive, too.
So, where does one start with John Wayne, both the complicated man and the cultural construct? Here are 27 films that trace the good — and some of the bad — of one of America’s most enduring icons.
27. The Horse SoldiersUnited Archives/Getty Images“The Horse Soldiers,” a Civil War drama, pitches John Wayne against one of my favorite actors of the era, William Holden. Such a pairing is interesting at face value, but their characters share a dynamic that makes the match up even more compelling. Wayne plays Colonel John Marlowe, a hard-nosed Union soldier with a clear sense of what’s right for his men. However, Holden’s Major Henry Kendall, a doctor conflicted by his medical and military oaths, has no such certainty. Naturally, these sensibilities cause conflict; first, the two men trade terse words, and later punches.
“The Horse Soldiers” is a middling entry in Wayne’s career, but the production is notable for several reasons. For the film, Wayne and Holden earned $775,000 each and 20% of the box office, which was an extremely lucrative deal by the standards of the late 1950s. Another anomaly is the death of stuntman Fred Kennedy, who was killed when he fell from a horse and broke his neck. John Ford knew Kennedy for years, and was so devastated by his death that he lost all interest in the production.
26. McQWarner BrothersIn the closing months of the 1960s, high on the success of “True Grit,” John Wayne turned down the lead role in “Dirty Harry,” a film and a character that would become a pillar of Clint Eastwood’s career. The Duke lived to regret his decision and, joining a wave of imitators, accepted the lead in “McQ,” a stodgy police procedural about drugs, corruption, and a mean anti-hero cop called Lon “McQ” McHugh.
Several measures are taken to spice up McQ’s anti-hero credentials. First is the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, which Wayne never looks right in. That McQ would drive something American made is unquestionable, but I think he would have chosen something better suited to his age and padded stature. Something leisurely like a Lincoln, Cadillac, or Oldsmobile.
The other, more successful anti-hero measure is the Ingram MAC-10 submachine gun, which is Lon McQ’s answer to the .44 Magnum revolver. The Duke’s porky fingers are a better fit on the trigger than the Trans Am steering wheel, but the gunplay does not save “McQ” from being a bit of a damp squib.
25. HondoWarner Brothers/YouTubeWayne gives another easygoing turn in “Hondo,” a short film about homesteading and conflict. The latter may seem the better fit for a John Wayne vehicle, but it is actually the homesteading that charges the appeal of John Farrow’s late career feature.
The 84-minute film establishes the main characters within the first ten minutes. Hondo (Wayne) and his dog Sam arrive at a homestead run by Angie (Geraldine Page) and her six year old son Johnny (Lee Aaker). You sense her fear but Hondo is another of Wayne’s chivalrous gentlemen. It’s a familiar and easy role, yet watching Angie fall for the Duke’s amiable ruggedness makes for a watchable old fashioned romance.
A few years ago, back when the “thug life” meme was popular on social media, you may have seen a clip of John Wayne throwing a boy into a river as a very literal “sink or swim” approach to parenting. Well, that scene was taken from “Hondo,” and it is a harsh but playful example of Wayne’s no-nonsense philosophy.
24. The Long Voyage HomeUnited Artists“The Long Voyage Home” is about seafaring men during the early days of the Second World War. It may be a smaller title in the John Wayne and John Ford canon, but it is a very curious artifact for any student of film history.
One of the oddities is Wayne’s performance as Olsen, a Swedish seaman. It was the actor’s second leading role in a John Ford picture and it required the budding A-lister to drop his easy drawl and adopt a Swedish accent, which, as you can imagine, was executed with mixed results. I’m not sure what Swedes will make of it, but I think the Duke does an admirable job. His attempt relies on grammar rather than pronunciation — “I go home,” “We live on farm” — but Wayne captures Olsen’s youthful softness, which is an important part of the story’s pathos.
Another notable element is cinematographer Gregg Toland, who implemented his deep focus technique on this film, something he’d replicate to industry-changing effect the following year in the immortal “Citizen Kane.”
23. 3 GodfathersLoew’s Inc.Another collaboration between John Wayne and John Ford, “3 Godfathers” is a western reimagining of the story of the Three Wise Men that exchanges Bethlehem for the Arizona desert (although anyone who has visited Zabriskie Point will notice that it was actually filmed in Death Valley, California). Riding through this vast milieu are criminals Bob (Wayne), Pete (Pedro Armendáriz), and William, who’s better known as “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey Jr.). Arriving in Welcome, Arizona, the three men rob a bank and are chased out of town by Sheriff Buck Sweet (Ward Bond). Buck loses the outlaws, but not before shooting their water bag, leaving the trio dry in the desert.
Soon, Bob and his partners are caught in a struggle to survive. The scenery is classic Fordian beauty, but the film is honest about the danger of the oppressive landscape. Yet, even under this stress, the robbers prove their altruism when they find a pregnant woman dying in the back of a stranded stagecoach. After delivering the baby, the men become godfathers to the child and promise to get him to safety. “3 Godfathers” is another of Ford and Wayne’s minor collaborations, but  it’s still an adequate western with a benevolent, biblical heart.
22. The Sands of Iwo JimaParamount/YouTubeJohn Wayne was keen to impress American troops during WW2. In 1943 and 1944, he toured Australia and the Pacific Islands, appearing before crowds of battle-hardened veterans, who jeered and booed the strapping young actor. Wayne may have been a star, but he had not reached the peak fame that would charm Vietnam troops two decades later. He was of fighting age, too, which can’t have endeared him to his audience, no matter his excuses for deferment. Wayne’s third wife, Pilar Pallette, wrote that accusations of draft dodging haunted the actor for the rest of his life, causing him to build a “super patriot” image to “atone for staying at home.”
“The Sands of Iwo Jima” is an early example of Wayne’s campaign to build an all-American screen persona. Wayne stars as John M. Stryker, a hard case sergeant tasked with whipping his men into shape before they storm the island of Iwo Jima. Wayne goes hard in the role, trying his best to embody the blood-and-guts toughness of George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. The troops of ’43 and ’44 may not have cared for Wayne, but the Academy nominated him for best actor in a leading role.
21. BranniganUnited Artists“Brannigan” is another of Wayne’s “Dirty Harry”-inspired vehicles, but it learns from the mistakes of “McQ” by sticking to a simple formula: Wayne, a bad guy, and the streets of London. The location may be gimmicky, but these ingredients create what “McQ” should have been — two hours of brawny, eye-winking fun. You know you’re in for a good time during the gratuitously ’70s credits sequence, which ogles a .38 special revolver while the soundtrack goes hard on rolling drums, brass instruments, and funky guitar chords that are, for want of a better term, all very “boom chicka wah-wah.”
Now, “Brannigan” is not a shining example of the anti-hero cop genre, but it is a better time than it’s given credit for. Much of that is down to the Duke, who plays it easy with a mix of machismo and playfulness, especially during a farcical pub brawl that’s more Detective Frank Drebin than Inspector Harry Callahan. In addition, “Brannigan” doesn’t miss an opportunity to make fun of the British, particularly their perceived arrogance and fussy manners, both of which are personified by Sir Charles Swann, a Scotland Yard commander played by a posh but plucky Richard Attenborough.
20. The ComancherosUnited Archives/Getty Images“The Comancheros” is the penultimate film of director Michael Curtiz, one of the most prolific directors in cinematic history. His enormous filmography includes “Angels with Dirty Faces,” the proverbial 1930s gangster flick; “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” the swashbuckling Errol Flynn actioner; and “Casablanca,” one of Hollywood’s most celebrated films. “The Comancheros” hasn’t endured like those three classics, but it is a robust farewell to the workmanlike director.
John Wayne stars in the film as Captain Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger in 1843 who captures Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a fugitive wanted for the killing of a judge’s son. Cutter transports Regret back to Louisiana until they run into the Comancheros, an outlaw gang who trade in weapons, liquor, and murder. It’s effectively a buddy film in which men on opposite sides of the law must work together in the face of a greater adversary. In other words, it’s “Midnight Run” with cowboy boots and spurs.
19. Big JakeUnited Archives/Getty Images“Big Jake” premiered on May 26, 1971, John Wayne’s 64th birthday. It was already his third western of the decade, and Wayne was so comfortable in felt cowboy hats that he must have known the genre by rote.
By this point, a mass of filmgoers had accused Wayne of playing the same character over and over again. The actor was fully aware of this, and mentioned it during an interview with Roger Ebert in 1969, reasoning that he played different characters in films such as “The Quiet Man” and “Yellow Ribbon.” He also challenged his critics with an interesting comment on the qualities of movie stardom. “Thousands of good actors can carry a scene,” Wayne said, “but a star has to carry the scene and still, without intruding, allow some of his character into it.”
This point is relevant to “Big Jake.” Everything about it is old hat, but through some combination of cadence, swagger, and legacy, John Wayne lifts a project that could have been thoroughly cut and paste. What is “Big Jake” about? Well, there’s a hostage, a ransom, and a gunslinging posse hired to collect it. There’s also a level of violence that is above that usually found in a John Wayne western, although still below that of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Perhaps the most unique element of “Big Jake” is the appearance of Wayne’s son, Patrick, who gives an angsty performance as Big Jake’s first born.
18. The Sons of Katie ElderParamount Pictures“The Sons of Katie Elder” is another western saga about land, feuds, and gunfights. The titular sons are John (Wayne), a notorious gunslinger; Tom (Dean Martin), a career gambler; Matt (Earl Holliman), a former shopkeeper; and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.), an unruly student who wants to be like his siblings.
The brothers convene after the death of their mother, Katie Elder, an honorable matriarch beloved by all but the Hastings family, a cynical clan of gunsmiths who lay claim to the Elder ranch. They say that Bill, the Elder patriarch, lost the land during a game of blackjack, after which he was shot dead by an unknown killer. Smelling a rat, the Elder brothers investigate their father’s death, leading them to an explosive confrontation with the Hastings men. It’s a competent if unremarkable film with fair action scenes and a noticeably anxious turn from a young Dennis Hopper, who would become a counter-culture icon just four years later in “Easy Rider.”
17. They Were ExpendableMGM/YouTubeReleased in December 1945, just three months after Japan’s formal surrender, “They Were Expendable” takes audiences back to the Battle of the Philippines, which raged from December 8, 1941 to May 9, 1942 (via Britannica). This was a time long before Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the numerous other American victories in the Pacific war. It was a time when America, shaken by the attack on Pearl Harbor, surrendered to the advance of a swift, organized, and merciless enemy.
Dire though this context may be, the Japanese are not the only enemies in this surprisingly cynical war film. Lt. “Rusty” Ryan (John Wayne) must also contend with his complacent superiors, who dismiss his squadron’s PT boats as weak and ineffective. Respect is granted only once their base falls under heavy attack, which is obviously too late.
Much of the film’s driving force comes not from Wayne but from Robert Montgomery, who received top billing on the picture. Like Wayne’s other roles prior to “Red River,” he is an easygoing presence, particularly when contrasted with Montgomery’s fiery turn.
16. Rio BravoWarner Bros.“Rio Bravo” is a film with many admirers. The western is one of John Carpenter’s five favorite films and Quentin Tarantino described it as “one of the greatest ‘hang out’ movies of all time.” I’m happy for Carpenter and Tarantino, I really am. I hope that any new viewer will share their enthusiasm, too. But for me, the “towering” qualities of “Rio Bravo” are elusive.
Personally, I did not want to hang out with Sheriff Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin), Colorado (Ricky Nelson), Feathers (Angie Dickinson), Carlos (Pedro Gonzales) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Indeed, I found their exchanges all rather strained. Dude is washed up and strung out, Carlos fizzes with neurotic panic, and Feathers flits between seduction and histrionics. I wasn’t gripped by their purpose, either, which is to hole up, organize, and confront Nathan Burdette, a violent rancher.
In case you were wondering, the similarities to “High Noon” here are intentional. Wayne and Hawks sought to counteract that film — in which Gary Cooper must defend cowardly townsfolk alone — by telling a story of kinship and crackpot defiance. The problem is the leisurely “hang out” pace. Both films hinge on an encroaching climactic shootout, but “High Noon” does so in real time, winding tension with much skill. “Rio Bravo,” meanwhile, dilutes the prospect of conflict with about an hour of fraternizing. Still, personal reservations aside, “Rio Bravo” is an interesting landmark of the genre that must figure in any conversation about John Wayne.
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John Wayne

John Wayne Was ‘Disappointed’ He Didn’t Get an Oscar Nomination For His ‘Best Achievement’

John Wayne made it to the Academy Awards three times over the course of his career. However, he only ultimately won a single golden statue. Wayne was “disappointed” that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which he considered his “best achievement” over the course of his career. Here’s a look at how that impacted the legendary Western star.

John Wayne played Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles in ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’

'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' Ben Johnson as Sgt. Tyree and John Wayne as Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles posing with hat over chestBen Johnson as Sgt. Tyree and John Wayne as Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles | Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon follows Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) through the final job of his career before he retires. He seeks to settle an intense situation between the Cheyenne and Arapaho. However, he’s also busy transporting the wife (Mildren Natwick) and niece (Joanne Dru) of his superior. Brittles must do all that he can to stop an all-out war from taking place and get them to safety.

John Ford directs a screenplay written by Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings. It’s the second installment in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, which also contains Fort Apache and Rio Grande. It was one of the most expensive Western movies of its time. Wayne plays a character much older than he was in real life, but Ford trusted him with bringing the character to life.

John Wayne was ‘disappointed’ that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’

John Farkis’ Not Thinkin’ … Just Rememberin’ … The Making of John Wayne’s ‘The Alamo’ walks readers through the iconic actor’s career. Wayne wasn’t afraid to call out a bad film when he had them, but he also openly talked about the films that he was proud of. His performance as Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon remains a huge fixture of his career. However, he wasn’t the only one singing praises of his own performance.

“I feel strongly that Duke should have been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” co-star John Agar said. “He was just brilliant. Remember, too, I have a lot of scenes with him. He played a guy 20 years older. To me, Yellow Ribbon was the best thing Duke ever did.”

Public audiences even felt a similar way. The movie brought in a stunning $9.15 million at the worldwide box office, making it a huge hit. As a result, Wayne knew that he had something special here that kept him involved in acting.

“For the first time, Pappy was treating me like an actor, and he showed me great respect, which I appreciated,” Wayne said. “I felt that I’d worked hard and long to reach the stage of my career, having been thinking of giving it up.”

Wayne continued: “I was disappointed at not even being nominated for Yellow Ribbon. I had played a man 60 years old, which was 17 years older than I was. I have always believed that this was my best achievement in pictures.”

‘True Grit’ won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon won an Oscar, but Wayne didn’t even get a nomination. Rather, the film won for Best Cinematography. However, the Academy Awards wouldn’t ignore Wayne forever. He would get two nominations and the eventual win.

Wayne earned his first Oscar nomination for Sands of Iwo Jima. Next, he got another nomination for The Alamo in the Best Picture category. Finally, he won his only Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his legendary performance in True Grit. However, he would prove to have a bigger effect on Hollywood than its top award, influencing fight sequences forever.

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John Wayne

John Wayne Once Explained Why He Turned Down so Many ‘Petty, Mean’ Movies

Actor John Wayne is one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures to ever work in movies. However, he was very specific about the roles he would accept and the ones that he refused to involve himself in. Wayne once explained why he turned down so many potentially big movies that he described as “petty,” “small,” and “mean” through the evolution of Hollywood.

John Wayne played particular movie roles

John Wayne in one of his last movies 'The Shootist' alongside Ron Howard. He's wearing a Western outfit and holding a gun, pointing it out standing next to a stunned Howard.L-R: Ron Howard and John Wayne | Bettmann / Contributor

Wayne has over 180 acting credits to his name, spread across movies and television shows. He became a household name for the Western and war genres, ultimately contributing huge star power to the projects later in his career. However, Wayne also wasn’t afraid to speak up when he didn’t like something about the movies that wanted him involved. This held true for both prospective projects and ones that he already signed on for.
The actor ultimately turned down projects that earned attention at the Academy Awards, including High Noon. However, it wasn’t always because he didn’t like the roles themselves. Rather, Wayne was a patriot, who didn’t want anything to do with movies that he deemed insulting to the American image.

John Wayne explained why he turned down so many ‘petty, mean’ movies at the time

The official Wayne Twitter account shared a behind-the-scenes look at one of his movies, The Shootist. He talked about the state of violence in cinema, but he also touched on how he chose what to star in. The film hit theaters in 1976, so it’s worth taking the time period in mind for what he has to say about “modern” filmmaking.

“The whole idea of our business is illusion and they’re getting away from that,” Wayne said. “They’re putting electric squibs in livers and blowing them up in slow motion and then having blood all over everything. I mean, it’s not that there’s more violence in pictures today. It’s that it’s done with such bad taste that people turn their stomachs, not their emotional insides are affected. It turns their stomach. I just don’t want to play anything petty or small or mean. I don’t mind being rough and tough and cruel, but in a big way, no little petty things.”

The actor believed that cinema should be family-friendly

Wayne had a very firm stance when it came to violence in the movies. The rating board once even reached out to the actor to get his input. However, Wayne didn’t want any part in it because he didn’t think a rating system was necessary. He believed that Hollywood should make motion pictures aimed at the whole family.

Wayne starred in a wide variety of movies that included violence, but they never reached the extremes of what he talked about while filming The Shootist. Today’s filmmaking would certainly give him a shock if he were to see how much some movies push the boundaries and make audiences squirm.

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John Wayne Once Confessed the ‘Stupidest Damn Thing I Ever Did in My Life’ Involving His Romance

Actor John Wayne had three wives over the course of his life. However, the couples would always go through various hardships. Wayne always publicly embraced family life and would combine his image as a father with his tough, Western one. The actor once confided in a friend and told them the “stupidest damn thing” he ever did over the course of his lifetime.

John Wayne married his second wife 3 weeks after his divorce became final

John Wayne and Esperanza Baur, the second wife over the course of his life smiling sitting in a car wearing hats

L-R: John Wayne and Esperanza ‘Chata’ Baur | Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Marc Eliot’s American Titan: Searching for John Wayne touched on personal and professional aspects of the actor’s life. The divorce from his first wife, Josephine, was finalized on December 26, 1945. However, that certainly didn’t stop the actor from jumping into another relationship soon after. Wayne married Esperanza Baur, also called Chata, exactly three weeks after his divorce in the Unity Presbyterian Church of Long Beach, which is where his mother married her second husband, Sidney Preen. Actor Ward Bond was Wayne’s best man.

However, everything in Wayne’s life would change when he returned to Los Angeles after his honeymoon with his new wife. They purchased a new home in Van Nuys, California, and made sure to have a separate room for his mother-in-law. As a result, the newly-married couple started to have some difficulties.

John Wayne said that marrying Chata was the ‘stupidest damn thing I ever did in my life’

American Titan: Searching for John Wayne mentioned that Chata wanted to get a real role in a movie, but Wayne didn’t want her to have the life of a movie star. As a result, he told her that she belonged at home. Chata didn’t take this very well and turned to alcohol, developing an addiction.

Wayne ultimately turned to Bond to complain about Chata and his mother-in-law speaking Spanish and their desire for a bigger home. His new wife and her mother would often sleep in the same bed, forcing the actor to sleep on the couch in the living room.

Eliot wrote that Wayne took pride in his physical appearance and kept it in a specific condition for the camera. His ex-wife also took care of her physical appearance, but Chata refused to remove her facial hair, as she had a bit of a mustache. She also wouldn’t bathe very often and refused to shave her legs, which would make Wayne angry. Their arguments became increasingly frequent, which Wayne told Bond.

“Our marriage was like shaking two volatile chemicals in a jar,” Wayne said, admitting that marrying Chata was “the stupidest damn thing I ever did in my life!”

The actor would marry one final time

Wayne’s life moved on past Chata, as they divorced in 1954. Tragically, she died from a heart attack in 1961. Wayne married one final time to Pilar Pallete in the same year that he divorced Chata. They would ultimately remain married until the actor died in 1979, although they no longer lived together. The couple separated, but it was never legally so.

Meanwhile, Wayne became romantically involved with his former secretary, Pat Stacy, until his death.

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