John Wayne is still riding high - A look at 21 of his most memorable films
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Legend of Western films John Wayne was born on May 26 in 1907. Now, 111 years on, he is undoubtedly one of the most iconic Hollywood stars of all time, despite controversy over his political views.
His unmistakable voice has been endlessly imitated, as has his famous walk - but there could only ever be one John Wayne.
The Duke appeared in more than 170 films over his career, more than any other star of the sound era. If you look through the Freeview TV listings for any week, you are guaranteed to find several of his movies in the schedule, a testament to his enduring appeal.
Although he is best-known for his astonishing 80-plus Western roles, he also appeared in acclaimed war films, and in other genres too.
Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, with the surprising birth name Marion Morrison, after his grandfather, an American Civil War veteran. His birthplace has now been turned into a museum, while the road where it is based has been renamed “John Wayne Drive.” An annual birthday celebration is held there, which this year was headlined by singer Red Steagall.
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Wayne’s fame is so great that it’s surprising now to remember he was once mired in B-Westerns - making dozens of them before his breakout role as the Ringo Kid in the John Ford epic, Stagecoach.
In 1933, he even appeared as a “singing cowboy” in one of these pictures, Riders of Destiny, although his singing voice had to be dubbed, unfortunately by an actor who sounded nothing like him!
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Even after Stagecoach, he was still often second or third-billed, before in the late 1940s he finally became one of the biggest stars, making it into the Top Ten box office poll, a position he kept right up until the 1970s.
Wayne finally won the best actor Oscar for True Grit, although many people argue he should have received it for one of his acclaimed earlier roles.
However, his career was famously uneven, with one low point being The Conqueror, where he was wildly miscast as Genghis Khan, which was listed in the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.
Wayne is regularly voted high in polls for favourite all-time stars. In tribute to his continuing popularity, his birthday has even been declared John Wayne Day in Texas, although in 2016 a similar proposal in California, where he spent most of his life, was turned down because of controversy over his political views.
However, a Californian airport was named after him, in Orange County, with a 9ft bronze statue standing at the entrance,and many other locations bear his name,
Another important part of his legacy is the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, founded by his family, which co-ran a melanoma research programme which the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital was chosen to take part in. The charity’s website declares, “We fight cancer with grit.”
Here is a look at 21 key films from Wayne’s long career, but there are many more classics in his filmography. Arts editor Andrew Clarke has also written a personal appreciation of John Wayne.
THE BIG TRAIL (1930)
John Wayne’s first lead role stands up very well if you watch it now, even though it was a flop at the box office. Its lack of success was largely because it was made in an early 70mm widescreen format which most cinemas could not afford, coming so soon after the changeover from silents to talkies. A 35mm version was also made. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh, following a group of settlers attempting to cross the Oregon Trail. Wayne plays a trapper out to avenge the death of a friend. Gary Cooper was reportedly originally offered the lead, but was not available. Watching this now, it comes across as amazingly ambitious and ahead of its time for a 1930 talkie, shot on location with sweeping vistas of the landscape. Wayne could have avoided all those years of B-movies if this had been a hit.
Acclaimed as one of the greatest Westerns of all time, this film has been hugely influential, studied by many film-makers over the succeeding decades. This was the first film that director John Ford made in the spectacular, rugged landscapes of Monument Valley, which is now so closely linked with both him and Wayne. The film follows a group of nine people travelling through Apache territory, with tensions building steadily between them. One of its most memorable moments is the dramatic introduction of Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Stranded in the desert, he stands there twirling his gun, before a close-up of his face. He was over 30, and a veteran of dozens of movies made on Poverty Row, but still looks incredibly young.
THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS (1941)
This may not be one of Wayne’s most famous films, but it’s notable as the first that he made in colour. It’s also a good part for him, as a young moonshiner who has vowed to find and kill the father who abandoned his mother. As in Stagecoach, he is still playing a young lad. The Technicolor looks gorgeous Although this film was directed by Henry Hathaway, who went on to direct three Westerns starring Wayne, it is not actually a Western. Adapted from a novel, the story is set in the Ozark mountains, although in fact it was shot on location in the San Bernardino National Forest. I watched this soon after seeing the 2010 film Winter’s Bone, starring Jennifer Lawrence, also set in the Ozarks, and noticed some surprising similarities between the two.
THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
This great war film follows a torpedo boat squadron defending the Philippines against Japanese invasion. Unlike many propaganda films made around this period, They Were Expendable is largely realistic and feels very authentic. In a contrast with the heroics of some of his other war films, here Wayne’s character spends a lot of the film wounded, with Donna Reed as the nurse who cares for him. Ford, who had a famously volatile relationship with Wayne, reportedly gave him a hard time about not serving in the military while making this film. However, that does not detract from the power of the film, where Robert Mongomery, billed above Wayne, also gives a fine performance.
ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (1947)
Wayne plays a badly injured gunman who is taken in by a Quaker family, whose daughter, Gail Russell, falls in love with him. The contrast between the couple from different worlds looks forward to a film like Witness, with policeman Harrison Ford and Amish woman Kelly McGillis. The first feature produced by Wayne himself for Republic, this romantic Western is one of my personal favourites, but tends to be overlooked, perhaps because it has unfortunately fallen into the public domain. This means there are a lot of dreadful DVDs and web copies around, but better prints are sometimes shown on TV. Johnny Cash was clearly a fan, and wrote a song called Angel and the Badman which recounts the plot, included on his 1991 album The Mystery of Life.
RED RIVER (1948)
The first of five films which director Howard Hawks made with Wayne, this is a hugely exciting and entertaining Western. Wayne was still playing younger roles and romantic leads, but had to age up to play a tyrannical rancher, who sets out on a cattle drive over hundreds of miles. He was only 13 years older than Montgomery Clift, who plays his adopted son. This may just be my personal number one favourite John Wayne film, with many great scenes, including a lot of interplay between Wayne and Walter Brennan. The first time I saw it, though, I had recorded it from TV and was dismayed to find that the last few minutes had been cut off. Luckily, I had a VHS video of the same movie, so was able to run through the tape, with great impatience, to see what happened at the end.
FORT APACHE (1948)
Ford’s celebrated “Cavalry Trilogy” of films are all compelling to watch. In this, the first of the three, Wayne stars as veteran Captain Yorke, who had hoped to take over command at an isolated US cavalry post. But instead the job is given to an overbearing younger lieutenant colonel, played by Henry Fonda, who has no respect for the traditions of the Apaches in the area. As well as Wayne, Fonda and a great supporting cast, the film features a rare grown-up role for Shirley Temple, aged 20, as Fonda’s daughter.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
Ten years is a long time in Hollywood. Just a decade on from his role as the fresh-faced Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, here Wayne plays an ageing cavalry captain who is about to retire. However, first he is given one last mission, to take out a patrol and deal with an attack by Cheyenne. The part of Captain Nathan Brittles was more than 20 years above Wayne’s real age, but Ford decided to cast him in an older role after being impressed by his performance in Red River.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949)
Like They Were Expendable, Sands of Iwo Jima is a more realistic war film. Wayne plays a darker, more conflicted hero than in some of his earlier movies, tough marine Sgt Stryker, who is hated by his men and perceived as a bully because of his relentless training regime. However, as the film goes on, the marines come to appreciate him more and see the value of his training. Wayne received an Oscar nomination for his role here, although he reportedly felt he would have deserved this more for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
RIO GRANDE (1950)
The last instalment in Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, once again set in the Monument Valley, this film sees Wayne assigned to a remote station to train a band of recruits. But he is surprised to find that one of them is his son, who he hasn’t seen for years, and soon his estranged wife arrives on the scene too. This was the first of five films that Wayne made with Maureen O’Hara, and the chemistry between them adds an extra element.
THE QUIET MAN (1952)
This romantic comedy-drama, partly filmed on location in Ireland, seems to be a movie you either love or hate. It has received overwhelming critical approval and won Ford his fourth Oscar for best director. Many people rate it as one of Ford and Wayne’s finest, but others find the portrayal of an idealised Ireland in glorious Technicolor a bit much to take - I’ll admit to being in the latter camp! The story follows an Irish-born American, Sean (Wayne) who goes home to Ireland to claim his birthright, only to fall for the outspoken Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara).
THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954)
John Wayne appeared in several films directed by William Wellman, including one early aviation drama (Central Airport) where his bit-part character dies in the background. This lavish, colourful air disaster movie is a very different affair. In the vein of better-known films such as Airport, it has a star-studded cast of characters who all have their own personal problems. Wayne plays the first officer, haunted by memories of a crash where his wife and son died. In a film where some of the actors go over the top, Wayne makes a powerful impression by underplaying, but, even so, he is fighting back the tears in the opening scene.
THE SEARCHERS (1956)
Acclaimed as John Ford’s masterpiece and Wayne’s career-best performance, this compelling Western is a film to watch more than once. It was named as the greatest American Western in one poll, by the American Film Institute. Wayne plays a conflicted Civil War veteran, Ethan Edwards, who is determined to track down his niece (Natalie Wood), abducted by Comanches. It’s fascinating to watch this film both for itself and for its influence on a host of other films. Anyone who claims John Wayne can’t act, or always plays John Wayne, should take a look at The Searchers.
RIO BRAVO (1959)
Howard Hawks loved this film so much that in effect he remade it twice, first as El Dorado and then as Rio Lobo. All three versions of the Western are strongly laced with comedy, and star John Wayne as a sheriff who has to make a stand against overwhelming odds. In this first version, he only has the help of the town drunk (Dean Martin), a disabled man (Walter Brennan) and a youngster (Ricky Nelson), to hold off a band of men determined to break a prisoner out of jail. It’s all hugely entertaining, however many times you’ve seen it.
THE ALAMO (1960)
John Wayne not only starred in this historical epic, but also directed it, receiving a best picture Oscar nomination as well as five other nominations. This was a real labour of love for Wayne, taking him more than 15 years to get the project on to the screen. Wayne plays Davy Crockett, starring alongside Laurence Harvey and Richard Widmark.
The film follows the battle for Texas’ independence from Mexico. There are two different versions of this, the longer “roadshow” film and the shorter print used for release.
THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)
Western icons John Wayne and James Stewart joined forces for the first time in this Western, yet another great classic directed by John Ford. Stewart and Wayne are both great as contrasting characters, an idealistic lawyer and a cynical rancher, with Lee Marvin as the villainous Valance. Filmed in black and white, this is an elegiac and haunting portrayal of the old West, with the famous line “Print the legend.” I found myself concentrating on Stewart for a long section of this movie, then suddenly realising that I should have been watching Wayne more closely, too. I will next time!
THE LONGEST DAY (1962)
Wayne is one of an all-star cast in this three-hour epic war film, which also features Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton and many more. Filmed in docu-drama style, it follows the build-up to D-Day and events on both sides of the Channel. Wayne plays Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort and gives a fine performance.
EL DORADO (1966)
This is that rare thing - a semi-remake which is just as good as the original, or even better. Drunken sheriff Robert Mitchum joins forces with gunfighter Wayne, helped by an old man and a young gambler, to take on a crooked and violent cattle baron. As in the previous Howard Hawks film with a remarkably similar storyline, Rio Bravo, there is a lot of humour and cameraderie among the strangely-assorted group thrown together. The third film, Rio Lobo, can’t quite match the previous two, though.
TRUE GRIT (1969)
Wayne finally won an Oscar for best actor for his role as overweight, hard-drinking US marshal Rooster Cogburn in this much-loved Western. He is recruited by a young girl, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), to help avenge the death of her father. Wayne has a lot of fun as the larger-than-life, outrageous Cogburn, a role he went on to reprise in Rooster Cogburn (1975), where he teams up with Katharine Hepburn.
However, True Grit is definitely the best of the two. The recent Coen brothers remake, starring Jeff Bridges, is also a great film, with the Dude taking over from the Duke.
Definitely not one of John Wayne’s best films by a long chalk, but I can’t resist including it in this list because it was made in Britain, and starred Wayne alongside Richard Attenborough.
The unlikely storyline sees a Chicago police lieutenant sent to the UK to escort a mob boss back to the US. Full of British and American stereotypes, this used to be frequently shown on TV.
One of the most fascinating pieces of trivia about this thriller is that Tony Robinson of Blackadder fame has a small part, and is pushed into a river by John Wayne.
THE SHOOTIST (1976)
John Wayne’s very last film was also one of the best of his career. He plays an ageing (and, it turns out, dying) gunslinger, JB Books, who goes to stay at a boarding house, run by Lauren Bacall, to meet up with his old friend, Doc Hostetler (James Stewart). Arts editor Andrew Clarke chose this film to feature in his An Alternative Guide to Great Movies series of articles, commenting ”It really was the end of an era but it was played out with great depth and great style.”