No one would argue that John Wayne was a true legend. Born Marion Robert Morrison in Iowa on May 26, 1907, he took the stage name John Wayne for his movies, but was also lovingly known as The Duke. He was movie star royalty and became one of the most popular actors in history. He starred in films that were produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age. While he had a variety of roles, he was most famous for his Western and war movies.
While he got his start doing bit parts and small roles, it wasn’t long before Wayne was noticed and became a leading man. Soon his name became synonymous with the American film industry and he left an indelible mark on the world of cinema. Over the course of his prolific 50-year career, John Wayne starred in 169 feature-length films, each contributing to his iconic status, before he passed away in 1979.
17 of the best John Wayne movies, ranked
Here, we look at our top John Wayne movies, although we admit, it was so hard to pick a favorite.
17. The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers directed by John Ford. The film follows Edwards’ quest to rescue his kidnapped niece from the Comanche tribe, exploring themes of racism, redemption and the harsh realities of the Old West. It also stars Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley; Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards; and Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgensen.
16. Rio Bravo (1959)
Directed by Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo is a classic Western that blends action, drama and even some comedy. John Wayne portrays Sheriff John T. Chance, tasked with defending a small Texas town against a powerful rancher and his gang. The film is known for its strong character development. It also starred Dean Martin as Dude; Ricky Nelson as Colorado; and Angie Dickinson as Feathers.
15. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Directed by John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a Western that explores the relationship between law and legend. John Wayne plays Tom Doniphon, a rancher whose actions shape the destiny of a small town. Other stars in the film include: James Stewart as Ransom Stoddard; Vera Miles as Hallie Stoddard and Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance.
14. The High and the Mighty (1954)
We liked this film because it’s a departure from the Westerns John Wayne was known for. Directed by William A. Wellman, The High and the Mighty is a gripping aviation drama that unfolds onboard a troubled commercial flight. John Wayne plays Captain Dan Roman, a seasoned pilot facing a crisis. The film explores the dynamics among the passengers and crew as they grapple with life-threatening challenges. Other notable stars include: Robert Stack as First Officer Gideon; Claire Trevor as May Holst; and Laraine Day as Lydia Rice.
13. How the West Was Won (1962)
This sprawling epic chronicles the journey of a family as they traverse through key moments in Western history. There are a lot of big stars in this film including: John Wayne, James Stewart as Linus Rawlings; Gregory Peck as Cleve Van Valen; and Debbie Reynolds as Lilith Prescott Rawlings.
12. McLintock! (1963)
A lighthearted Western comedy directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, McLintock! features John Wayne as George Washington McLintock, a wealthy cattle rancher. The film explores themes of love and family against the backdrop of the Old West, with Wayne’s character navigating the challenges of a complicated personal life. This movie also starred Maureen O’Hara as Katherine McLintock; Patrick Wayne as Devlin Warren and Stefanie Powers as Becky McLintock.
11. In Harm’s Way (1965)
Directed by Otto Preminger, In Harm’s Way is a World War II drama that follows the lives of naval officers in the Pacific. John Wayne stars as Captain Rockwell Torrey, whose leadership is tested in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film explores the personal and professional challenges faced by those in the military. Kirk Douglas stars as Commander Paul Eddington; Patricia Neal plays Lieutenant Maggie Haynes; and Tom Tryon stars as Lieutenant William McConnel.
10. Hondo (1953) John Wayne movies
In this Western based on a Louis L’Amour book, John Wayne stars as Hondo Lane, a cavalry rider who encounters a woman and her son living on their own in Apache territory. Wayne’s character becomes a protector and father figure as tensions rise between settlers and Native Americans. The movie also starred Geraldine Page as Angie Lowe; Ward Bond as Buffalo Baker and Michael Pate as Chief Vittoro.
9. Red River (1948) John Wayne movies
Directed by Howard Hawks, Red River is a classic Western that explores the challenges of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail. John Wayne portrays Tom Dunson, a determined cattle rancher leading a massive herd. Conflict arises when Dunson clashes with his adopted son, played by Montgomery Clift, leading to a tense and emotional father-son dynamic. Other star include Walter Brennan as Groot and Joanne Dru as Tess Millay
8. Fort Apache (1948) John Wayne movies
This movie was the first in the Cavalry Trilogy directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. The other two movies in the trilogy were She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. The film was considered one of the first to portray Native Americans in a sympathetic light. It won several awards including best director, best cinematography, and best screenwriter.
7. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
In this Technicolor Western directed by John Ford, John Wayne takes on the role of Captain Nathan Brittles, a cavalry officer on the eve of retirement. The film follows Brittles as he navigates the challenges of maintaining peace with Native American tribes and preventing an impending war. It also starred Joanne Dru as Olivia Dandridge; John Agar as Lieutenant Flint Cohill; and Ben Johnson as Sergeant Tyree.
6. Rio Grande (1950) John Wayne movies
This was the third installment of the Cavalry Trilogy. Wayne plays Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke, tasked with defending the Texas frontier against Apache raids. The film explores themes of duty, family, and reconciliation. It also stars Maureen O’Hara as Kathleen Yorke; Ben Johnson as Trooper Travis Tyree; and Claude Jarman Jr. as Trooper Jeff Yorke.
5. The Quiet Man (1952)
What we liked about film is that it’s a departure from Wayne’s typical Western roles. Directed by John Ford, it’s set in the picturesque Irish countryside. Wayne stars as Sean Thornton, an American ex-boxer returning to his ancestral home in Ireland. The film explores romance, tradition, and personal redemption against the backdrop of a close-knit village. Wayne starts opposite of Maureen O’Hara as Mary Kate Danaher. The movie also stars Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen Oge Flynn and Victor McLaglen as Squire ‘Red’ Will Danaher.
4. Stagecoach (1939)
This is the movie that made John Wayne a star. Directed by John Ford, this film serves as a watershed moment in both Wayne’s career and the Western genre. The movie follows a group of diverse passengers traveling through dangerous Apache territory. Wayne takes on the role of the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw seeking revenge. The journey becomes a microcosm of societal tensions, leading to a climactic and unforgettable showdown. It also starred Claire Trevor as Dallas; Andy Devine as Buck; and Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone.
3. The Alamo (1960)
John Wayne directed, produced and starred in The Alamo. In this historical drama Wayne plays Davy Crockett. The film recounts the legendary Battle of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution. Wayne’s portrayal captures the bravery and sacrifice of the men defending the iconic mission in Texas. The movie starred Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie; Laurence Harvey as William B. Travis; and Frankie Avalon as Smitty.
2. Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
John Wayne was nominated for Best Actor in the Sands of Iwo Jima. This 1949 World War II drama follows a group of dedicated marines from their training all the way to the battle fields of Iwo Jima. The film also stars John Agar, Adele Mara and Forrest Tucker. It was written by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant and was directed by Allan Dwan.
1. True Grit (1969) John Wayne movies
Arguably his best film, this is the one that won John Wayne an Academy Award for Best Actor. Directed by Henry Hathaway, True Grit is a classic Western. Wayne plays Rooster Cogburn, a tough and cantankerous U.S. Marshal hired by a young girl to track down her father’s murderer. The film combines elements of adventure and drama, with Wayne delivering a memorable performance. It also starred Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, Glen Campbell as La Boeuf and Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper.
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