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.
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.
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.
10. THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (1945)
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.
9. THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (1940)
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.”
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.
7. SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
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.
6. THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962)
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.
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.
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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
AND IN THE FIRST PLACE FILM FROM 1956
1. THE SEARCHERS (1956)
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…
Zach Laws, Chris Beachum