John Wayne made 142 films, or motion pictures, as they used to call them. It is tough to narrow down the list to just 10, but I’ll do my best.
More than 40 years after his death, the image of John Wayne is bigger than ever. He represents more than a movie star, to many, he exemplifies the American West, patriotism, freedom and the values that built the country. To others he is primarily an actor who had staunch conservative views and hawked an unpopular war. Still, to others, he is somewhere in-between, more than an actor but not a mythical figure on Mount Rushmore.
Whatever you view of him, John Wayne defined a certain kind of film role and rode that to incredible popularity, and he made some very entertaining films. Here are my favorite John Wayne films, in no particular order.
In Harm’s Way (1965)
The film follows the lives of various Naval officers during the first year of WWII. Wayne stars as Captain Rockwell “Rock” Torrey who loses his ship after Pearl Harbor but rebounds to lead the American assault in the Pacific. All the while, romancing a nurse (Patricia Neal) and trying to develop a relationship with his estrange son, now on a PT boat under Torrey’s command. Wayne plays a flawed man sorting out the right thing to due despite a high personal cost. Directed by Otto Preminger, the film is a little sudsy but tries for realism, and offers insights into a mix of politics, war and struggle with character. As a hired actor in the hands of a strong director, Wayne can subject his impulse to take over the film and instead focus on a better acting performance.
George Washington “G.W.” McLintock is the wealthy rancher whose estranged wife returns, ahead of the return of their daughter from an Eastern college. Meanwhile, McLintock tries to help a tribal leader who returns after being released from prison, in time for the government trying to force Native Americans off of their land. While helping the tribal leader, against the desire of the territorial governor and the federal government, McLintock tries to sort out his problems with his wife and communicate with his now grown-up daughter. Up to his broad-brimmed hat in challenges, McLintock navigates each problem with wobbly swagger in this comedy-Western. Wayne had a talent for light comedy.
Big Jake! (1971)
Wayne plays Jacob McCandles, the estranged husband of a wealthy Texas rancher, who is called back to help rescue his grandson from kidnappers. Jake has never seen his grandson but takes up the task against a gang of ruthless killers who have fled to Mexico. Wayne plays a stock Wayne character, not very creative, but quite enjoyable, an older version of many other roles. Wayne co-directed and produced the film, and got some of his family and film buddies involved. This film is more violent than his earlier films, more contemporary in vibe with films like Dirty Harry. Wayne is comfortable in this role, like a worn and soft leather jacket.
Detective Lieutenant Lon “McQ” McHugh is a Seattle policeman, who is out to find the persons responsible for murdering his colleague. McQ drives a souped up Trans Am and lives on a boat, he’s divorced with a daughter. McQ is convinced that a drug dealer named Santiago is responsible for the death. McQ follows the trail of drugs, stolen from the police department on their way to being destroyed. The real culprit is right under his nose. Wayne was doing his Dirty Harry-Frank Bullitt turn, big gun and fast car against organized crime, and a police department full of bureaucrats. Wayne was in his late 60s when this film was released, a bit over the hill for the character he was playing. Late in life he embraced more contemporary characters, which took his career in a different direction. Can’t blame a guy for trying. He followed this film with Brannigan, another contemporary cop film.
Rio Bravo (1959)
Sheriff John T. Chance has to arrest and hold a murder suspect while the town is under siege to liberate the prisoner. With help from his drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a young cowboy (Ricky Nelson) and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), Chance fends off the prisoner’s brother and his gang of hired men to rescue the prisoner. Mixing it up is a saloon gambler, Angie Dickinson, who falls for Chance. Directed with style by Howard Hawks, mixing action, drama, romance, comedy and a few songs. Wayne settles into an ensemble role in this enjoyable film.
El Dorado (1966)
Hawks remade Rio Bravo, this time with Robert Mitchum as the drunken sheriff and Wayne as Cole Thornton, a hired gun. Mitchum starts out sober, at the beginning of the film. When Thornton accidentally kills the young son of a rancher, the rancher’s daughter shoots him in the back in revenge. Thornton survives and leaves town for business. When he returns, the sheriff is now a drunk, and he has to fight off a wealthy landowner who hired a killing. Thornton sobers up the sheriff and must sit on their prisoner, the wealthy landowner until the circuit judge is due. Thornton is pitted against a rival gunfighter and tries to romance a woman, but he doesn’t try very hard. This updated version of Rio Bravo has great appeal, even though Wayne doesn’t work very hard in the role. He and Mitchum have great chemistry, as he does with a young James Caan. Most of Wayne’s 1960s films are family films mixing adventure and comedy. Although, it might appear slight, El Dorado is filled with Western cliches, in a delightful mix. Arthur Hunnicutt plays the Walter Brennan role to great success
The War Wagon (1967)
Taw Jackson returns home after being released from prison. Swindled by Pierce, the man who now lives in Jackson’s ranch and having discovered gold on Jackson’s land, Jackson plots revenge against Pierce. Jackson forms an uneasy alliance with Lomax (Kirk Douglas), a gunman who has been hired to kill Jackson. Jackson’s plan is to hijack a load of Pierce’s gold being transported by the “war wagon,” which is protected by many outriders and a Gatling gun. This is one of Wayne’s slightest characters, in a film with an equally flimsy plot, but the fun is in the efforts by Jackson to pull together his team and his rivalry with Lomax. As a kid, the build-up over this film was all us kids could think about. The robbery and the war wagon were very exciting stuff. Despite the high body count, the film was pretty harmless, and mixed some innocuous comedy to lighten to the mood.
Wayne is the Ringo Kid, who breaks out of prison after his family is murdered. Ringo catches a ride on the stage, where Curley the marshal put him under arrest. The stagecoach is carrying an assortment of travelers, each with a story, including Dallas, a woman of questionable character. The travelers must deal with a pregnant passenger, a cavalry that isn’t there to meet them, and an Apache attack where some of the prisoners are killed. Ringo develops an affection for Dallas but she is afraid her past and present will prevent a meaningful future. When they reach their destination, Ringo must settle the score of his murdered family. Afterward, he is resigned to the marshal sending him back to prison, but instead, they send him and Dallas off to their future. Directed by John Ford, Wayne shines as the tough but fair Ringo, who shows a soft and respectful side to Dallas that wins her heart. The film elevated Wayne from the B Western fare he was churning out.
Operation Pacific (1951)
LCDR Duke E. Gifford is second in command on a submarine hunting Japanese ships. After rescuing some nuns and baby, their sub tries but fails to sink a Japanese ship. Later, Gifford’s friend and the sub’s captain is killed in an ambush which puts Gifford in command. All the while, the Navy is having a problem with torpedoes that won’t explode on contact. Gifford, while investigating the torpedo problem, encounters his ex-wife who is a nurse. He takes an active interest in her, but so does another guy, a flyer, and the younger brother of the dead submarine captain. Gifford finally solves the torpedo problem and while on patrol, they are able to put the new torpedoes to a test, sinking an aircraft carrier. They are called to rescue downed flyers, one of which is the younger brother. At that point they are attacked by Japanese planes and Gifford is wounded. Returning to Pearl, the nurse is waiting for Gifford and they intend to adopt the baby. Being childless was a factor in their divorce. This is a very effective submarine film, with a realism and great action. The romance was needed to sell the film to audiences. Wayne and Neal were great together in the two films they made. Wayne turns in a nice role as gifford, showing he could do more than just wear a uniform.
Sean Mercer and his pals capture wild animals in Africa for zoos around the world. Dallas, a writer/photographer, shows up, and turns out to be a woman. Mercer doesn’t think a woman should be there, even though they work for another woman, Brandy. Dallas begins to complicate things as the men begin to want to pair up with the woman, while they are struggling to complete their season order for animals. Dallas begins collecting elephants as pets and generally causing Mercer to develop conflicting feelings. She’s a pest but he’s falling for her. A mix of adventure, romance and comedy, this film proved a big hit with audiences. A fine cast including Bruce Cabot, Hardy Kruger, Red Button and Elsa Martinelli, the film was directed with flair by Howard Hawks. Music was provided by Henry Mancini. It’s great fun, and Buttons provides great comic relief as “Pockets.” Wayne as the love interest of a young lady, again, a bit hard to believe but in the end you don’t question it.
Baker’s Dozen: Donovan’s Reef (1963) – Michael “Guns” Donovan is a shipping owner and namesake of a local saloon in French Polynesia. His wife is complicated when his doctor friend’s estranged daughter plans a visit. Donovan takes the doctors other children as his own, to keep the snooty daughter from causing problems for the doc. Donovan at first thinks the daughter is a snooty brat, but he increasingly becomes attracted to her. Wayne’s character is a bit long-in-the-tooth to be an eligible bachelor for a much younger woman, but this is the Hollywood Dream Factory. This was John Ford’s last film with Wayne, and one of his last films. Wayne, Lee Marvin, Cesar Romero and Jack Warden band together to pull it off.
I left many fine films on the cutting room floor, even a few classics. I gave you my favorites, not his best films. These are films I’ve come back to over and over through the years, films I can watch on a rainy day or as “comfort film.” Even “best” is a somewhat subjective term.
Other notable films are: Red River, Back to Bataan, The Horse Soldiers, The Searchers, The Shootist, Flying Leathernecks, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, They Were Expendable, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, North to Alaska, The Quiet Man, Sands of Iwo Jima, Fort Apache, 3 Godfathers.