John Wayne, known as “The Duke” to his fans, starred in upwards of 150 movies throughout his 50-year career. While he had hits in a wide range of genres, he is best known as the macho hero at the heart of some classic westerns. Wayne made a slew of low-grade oaters throughout the 1930s. It wasn’t until John Ford‘s “Stagecoach” (1939), an Oscar-winning adventure epic that took the genre to new artistic heights, that he finally achieved stardom.
In all, the Duke and “Pappy” Ford, as his crew called the famously cantankerous director, made 14 films together. Among these are such other spurs and saddles classics as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), “The Searchers” (1956) and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). All of these feature on our list of John Wayne’s best westerns ranked.
Despite being a top box office draw for decades, Wayne was only nominated for two acting Oscars for his starring roles in the WWII epic “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) and the western “True Grit” (1969). While he lost his first race toBroderick Crawford (“All the King’s Men”) he prevailed in his second, winning a Golden Globe as well.
10. ‘Hondo’ (1953)
John Farrow’s “Hondo” casts Wayne as an army dispatch rider who comes across a widow (Oscar Supporting Actress nominee Geraldine Page) and her son (Lee Aaker) living in the wilderness, unaware of the impending threat by Apaches. Hondo hangs around to protect them, forging a paternal bond with the young boy. The film was originally shown in 3-D, allowing the Duke to literally jump off the screen at you.
9. ‘The Shootist’ (1976)
In what turned out to be his cinematic swan song, Don Siegel’s “The Shootist” casts Wayne as a cancer-ridden gunfighter hoping to die with dignity. 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. It’s 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.
8. ‘Fort Apache’ (1948)
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 Tuesday, who thirsts for glory and despises the local Native American tribe. (NOTE: The original text mistakenly referred to Fonda’s character as Tuesday.)
7. ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ (1949)
Wayne was only 41 when he donned heavy makeup to convincingly play 60-year-old Nathan Brittles, a retiring US Cavalry Captain tasked with protecting his troops from an impeding Indian attack. Haunted by the defeat of General Custer, he does all he can to prevent a violent confrontation and protect the many women on the base. Though Wayne reaped a Best Actor Oscar bid that year for “Sands of Iwo Jima,” he really should’ve competed for this film, the best of John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy.” (NOTE: The original text mistakenly referred to General Custard.)
6. ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962)
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, centering on a U.S. Senator (James 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.
5. ‘True Grit’ (1969)
After 40 years in the business and over 150 movies, Wayne took home the Best Actor Oscar for this rousing western entertainment. Henry Hathaway‘s “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.
4. ‘Stagecoach’ (1939)
Before “Stagecoach,” the western was simply B-grade entertainment meant to play on the second half of a double bill. After its release, 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.
3. ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)
Directed with expert skill by Howard Hawks, “Rio Bravo” is 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). 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.
2. ‘Red River’ (1948)
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 plays 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 that lasts years. More emotionally and psychologically complex than your average shoot-‘em-up, this is one for the ages.
1. ‘The Searchers’ (1956)
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 stars 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. The moral ambiguity at the center of its hero’s journey has continued to inspire filmmakers decades later (most notably Scorsese and Paul Schrader with “Taxi Driver”).