John WayneWestern

The 25 Best John Wayne Movies of All Time, Ranked

From 'Stagecoach' to 'The Searchers' to 'True Grit,' this is Collider's ranking of the greatest, most iconic John Wayne movies.


John Wayne might well be the first actor many people think of when they hear the word Western. Few actors can claim to have been in as many movies within that genre as Wayne was, and he did it while frequently having starring roles, to boot. Furthermore, he’s much more than just his Westerns, as in his decades-long career, he lent his distinctive screen presence to a whole host of genres, including war movies, action films, dramas, and even a handful of comedies.

Born in 1907, Wayne’s career began in the silent era, with a handful of (usually uncredited) roles in the mid to late 1920s. He became a prominent star by the end of the 1930s, and continued to act until 1976, a year before his death at the age of 72. With a career spanning 50 years and well over 100 roles (sources vary to a baffling extent; some put the number as high as 250), it can be difficult to list every iconic one, but what follows is an attempt to do just that, ranking some of his best movies from great to greatest.

25, ‘The Alamo’ (1960)

Even though The Alamo isn’t the very best movie John Wayne starred in, it’s worth highlighting because it’s one of the few ones he directed. He has three directing credits to his name, with the other two being for the 1961 Western The Comancheros, and the divisive 1968 Vietnam War movie The Green Berets, co-directed with Ray Kellogg.

The Alamo’s ultimately the best of these, and the most ambitious, being a nearly three-hour movie about the Battle of the Alamo in 1836. It plays around with historical fact to some extent, but certainly works as an epic film that’s both a Western and a war movie, and it’s worth checking out just to appreciate Wayne’s directorial skill.

24, ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ (1949)

When talking about the movies of John Wayne, it’s inevitable that John Ford’s name is going to come up many times, because the two Johns collaborated numerous times over the years. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is one of these, and among the best they made together in the 1940s (their peak as collaborators came later).

It follows various officers on patrol, and the young woman they’re escorting, who seems to catch the eye of many young men in the group. Those worried about it getting too bogged down with romance should rest easy, though, as it’s still a fairly straightforward (yet satisfying) and old-fashioned Western at heart.

23, ‘The High and the Mighty’ (1954)

Released during a particularly good year for cinema, 1954’s The High and the Mighty is a disaster movie, and one made before the genre’s boom in the 1970s. It takes place on an airplane, with John Wayne being its first officer, and therefore the individual most responsible for trying to keep everyone alive when problems strike while the plane’s over the ocean.

While a parody movie like Airplane! may make The High and the Mighty a little harder to take seriously, it still works well overall. It has a decent amount of suspense and keeps things nice and direct, thanks to its straightforward premise and confined location, leading to a pretty good drama/thriller movie.

22, ‘Big Jake’ (1971)

John Wayne plays the titular character in Big Jake, and given the man stood at 6′ 4″ tall, it’s safe to say that Jake was indeed big. His character here is also larger than life, physically powerful, and no-nonsense, so the whole “Big” thing works in a less literal sense, too.

It’s a movie where Wayne’s undeniably old (he plays a grandfather here), but still has what it takes to be tough and heroic, given the plot revolves around him rescuing his grandson after he’s kidnapped. It’s a solidly made late-era Western/adventure movie for John Wayne, and delivers the sort of excitement and spectacle you’d expect from something with such a straightforward premise.

21, ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ (1949)

Sands of Iwo Jima shouldn’t be mixed up with the fantastic 2006 Clint Eastwood-directed war movie Letters from Iwo Jima, despite the similar titles. Beyond the fact they’re both obviously different movies from different eras, Wayne and Eastwood had something of a feud, so it’s unlikely either would’ve ever been thrilled with getting compared or confused in such a way.

Wayne plays a Marine Sergeant who’s disliked by his men, though they come to respect him once they all enter combat during the Battle of Iwo Jima. It’s a fairly well-made look at the notoriously brutal World War II battle, and though it might feel dated in some respects, it can certainly be appreciated as a good war film for its day.

20, ‘The Wings of Eagles’ (1957)

John Ford and John Wayne often made Westerns together, but didn’t exclusively collaborate on that genre, as something like The Wings of Eagles demonstrates. This 1957 film is a war drama that tells the unique life story of Frank W. “Spig” Wead, who was celebrated both for his skills as a Navy aviator and a screenwriter.

Somewhat strangely, Wead even wrote films that Wayne himself starred in and John Ford directed, including 1945’s They Were Expendable. It feels a little strange then that Wayne plays Wead in The Wings of Eagles, with film and reality colliding in a way… but regardless, this film’s a solidly made biopic, and a solid tribute to someone Ford and Wayne clearly held in high regard.

19, ‘Rio Grande’ (1950)

Rio Grande is one of many John Ford + John Wayne Westerns, and though not one of their best, it’s more than solid. Wayne plays Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, a man put under great pressure while fighting Apache forces in Texas, and finds his stress heightened further when his estranged son is sent as a recruit to fight in his regiment.

Both Johns liked exploring men in the army placed in difficult situations during Old West times, with Rio Grande being another successful film of theirs to explore such a premise. It’s also notable for co-starring Maureen O’Hara, who appeared in numerous other movies alongside John Wayne, and in a decent number of John Ford-directed films, too.

18, ‘How the West Was Won’ (1962)

Few Westerns are as epic as How the West Was Won, a movie so vast it needed three different directors to film its five segments (John Ford, George Marshall, and Henry Hathaway). The other thing that jumps out about it is how wide the aspect ratio is, with it being filmed in the unique Cinerama format, which gives it an aspect ratio of 2.89:1.

This means the image is almost three times as wide as it is tall, and the presentation makes How the West Was Won fascinating from a technical perspective. Narratively, it’s also quite compelling, if a little exhausting, spending close to three hours telling the story of several generations of the one family, with the film spanning decades throughout the 19th century.

17, ‘The Horse Soldiers’ (1959)

Not content to make either a war movie or a Western with John Wayne for this 1959 film, John Ford instead did a bit of both when he directed The Horse Soldiers. It takes place during The Civil War, which of course also coincided with the Old West era (perhaps most famously depicted in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, particularly in the explosive final act).

Wayne stars alongside fellow Hollywood legend William Holden, with the premise involving a Union Cavalry outfit going on a dangerous mission involving sabotage behind enemy lines. It might not offer too many surprises, but Wayne, Holden, and Ford are all in fine form, and the film does ultimately satisfy for what it is.

16, ‘The Long Voyage Home’ (1940)

Released not long after John Wayne established himself as a star capable of being a leading man, The Long Voyage Home is a 1940 film that functions as a very early World War II movie. The main characters all find themselves on a dangerous transatlantic trip during the war’s early days, with the chance of survival looking continually slim.

It’s a successful war drama, and also unique for the fact it was adapted from several short plays by acclaimed American playwright Eugene O’Neill. It’s one of the more underrated Ford and Wayne movies the two ever made together, as well as one of their earlier ones, too.

15, ‘They Were Expendable’ (1945)

Not to be mixed up with the frequently less-than-amazing The Expendables film series, They Were Expendable is instead a World War II movie released the same year the war itself ended. It takes place in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and depicts a Navy squadron engaging in various dangerous battles with Japanese forces near the Philippines.

It’s a movie that’s unafraid to look at the toll war takes on those who are enlisted as soldiers, though it does ultimately honor those individuals put into such dangerous positions for the sacrifices they made. It’s an emotionally effective look at America’s early involvement in World War II, and another winning John Ford + John Wayne collaboration.

14, ‘3 Godfathers’ (1948)

3 Godfathers is a movie about a trio of outlaws who find themselves put in a tricky situation when they come across a dying woman and her infant. They find themselves unable to ignore such a thing, and pledge to the woman that they’ll deliver her baby to safety, which involves a long trek across the perilous desert.

It’s an inevitably moving film about heroism coming from unlikely places, and tells its simple story with class and in a more than compelling fashion. 3 Godfathers has also proven to be unexpectedly influential, mainly considering that 55 years on from its release, it was (sort of) remade as Tokyo Godfathers, an animated film by the late Japanese director Satoshi Kon.

13, ‘Fort Apache’ (1948)

A John Ford and John Wayne film that sees the duo returning to a story about the military in the Old West, Fort Apache holds up surprisingly well. Wayne gives a solid performance as a Captain at the titular Fort Apache, but it’s Henry Fonda who arguably steals the show, playing a complex and very flawed Lieutenant Colonel whose pride ends up making him risk everything.

It’s more sympathetic toward Native Americans than many other Westerns of its time, and it ends up serving as a somewhat challenging look at legacy, and the way certain figures are remembered by history. It’s not quite a deconstruction of the Western, but comes close in some ways, perhaps inadvertently challenging some darker Ford + Wayne Westerns to come.

12, ‘The Cowboys’ (1972)

Though it wasn’t his final film, The Cowboys could’ve functioned well as a bittersweet send-off for John Wayne’s film career… though perhaps the emphasis would’ve been on the bitter over the sweet. The Cowboys

 is violent and dark, pushing things further than most Westerns of the 1950s and ’60s in those regards, and being all the better for it.

It follows an aging rancher who’s forced to hire young boys to help him transport a herd of cattle, only for things to get complicated when it turns out a ruthless gang is in pursuit. It’s a great “passing the torch” kind of movie, and easily among the best American Westerns released during the 1970s (a decade when it could be argued that the best Westerns were of the Spaghetti variety).

11, ‘Baby Face’ (1933)

A classic Hollywood movie from the 1930s, Baby Face is notable for being one of the best movies featuring John Wayne before he found breakout success. There are seven other actors billed above the then-25-year-old John Wayne, and he’s only in the movie briefly as one of the numerous partners the main character, Lily Powers, is shown to have.

It’s a movie that belongs to Barbara Stanwyck, who plays Powers, with the plot revolving around her using her sexuality to get money and increased social standing. Not surprisingly, it’s a Pre-Code era film, made before the Hays Code was enacted in 1934, which effectively banned open discussions of sexual themes (among many other things) in American films for decades.

10, ‘The Shootist’ (1976)

While 1972’s The Cowboys was dark to the point of being quite downbeat in places, The Shootist – which ended up being John Wayne’s final film – is more balanced, as far as bittersweet movies go. As such, it’s arguably a better send-off to the Western legend’s time spent in the Western genre, but even without the knowledge that it was Wayne’s final film, The Shootist would still hold up as a very engaging watch.

He plays an aging man who was once a legendary gunfighter, but now finds himself with a terminal illness living out what might be his final days in Carson City. But trouble finds him eventually, and the chance comes to go out in a blaze of glory, which seems attractive to an old-school Old West legend. It’s a near-perfect farewell to the Old West from Wayne, and is expectedly emotional and exciting.

9, ‘El Dorado’ (1966)

El Dorado provided a young James Caan with one of his earliest film roles, though the two top-billed stars here were the more well-established duo of John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. The plot sees an unlikely group of individuals banding together to stand up to a nefarious rancher who’s trying to steal water from another rancher and his family.

It gets a good deal of mileage from its impressive cast, and features plenty of entertaining characters, with it being compelling to see them all clash before working together in the end. It’s an old-fashioned kind of Western made during the decade when the genre’s popularity started to wane, and sometimes, you have to appreciate traditions being defiantly stuck to no matter what.

8, ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952)

John Ford and John Wayne demonstrated they had what it took to make something of a classic romantic comedy when they collaborated on 1952’s The Quiet Man. This is a film that takes place in Ireland and sees Wayne playing an American man who returns to the small village he was born in, finding love in the process (courtesy of Maureen O’Hara’s character).

It’s a movie that both Ford and Wayne likely had personal connections to, given Ford had parents from Ireland and Wayne also had Irish ancestry. As a more sentimental movie from the duo, The Quiet Man naturally has a good deal of heart, but still allows Wayne to be enough of a tough guy (as per usual), and mixes in some surprisingly effective comedy, too, for good measure.

7, ‘The Longest Day’ (1962)

A top-quality 1960s movie about one particularly intense event that took place during World War II, The Longest Day earns its 178-minute runtime and holds up excellently as an epic war movie. Its focus is on the D-Day landings at Normandy, which took place on June 6, 1944, with the film becoming particularly ambitious because of how it shows this event from multiple perspectives.

British, French, American, and German forces all get the spotlight at different stages of the film, with it needing three different directors – Ken AnnakinAndrew Marton, and Bernhard Wicki – as a result. Perhaps Saving Private Ryan will still have the most memorable D-Day-related sequence in cinema history for many, but for tackling just the event specifically, and for having differing perspectives, The Longest Day is something of a different beast altogether, and an overall great movie.

6, ‘Red River’ (1948)

Red River is about an older man (John Wayne) and a younger one, his adopted son (Montgomery Clift) making a difficult journey from Texas to Missouri, herding cattle. Things get even more arduous when it becomes apparent that the two men have differing views on how to get things done, leading to tension and conflict throughout.

It’s a little more subversive than most John Wayne Westerns from this time, and sees him playing a character not exactly like the ones he typically portrayed. The tension stays high throughout, with family conflict explored in a compelling way alongside all the expected Western stuff, making Red River an ambitious and blisteringly effective film.

5, ‘Stagecoach’ (1939)

Without the 1939 classic that is Stagecoach, it’s unlikely that John Wayne would have quite the same stature within pop culture that he had, and still has to this day. He’s part of an ensemble cast, but does ultimately steal the movie as Ringo the Kid, one of numerous people on board the titular stagecoach that’s making a perilous journey through the American West.

There’s plenty of adventure, action, and excitement, but Stagecoach is also riveting because of all the character drama, and the way the story forces so many different people together. John Ford had directed some movies in the late 1920s and early 1930s that Wayne had been featured in as an extra, but this movie marked the first time the former directed the latter in a starring role, in essence kicking off a fruitful partnership that lasted many more years following 1939.

4, ‘True Grit’ (1969)

Not only is True Grit a great 1969 movie, but it’s also a great 2010 release, thanks to the Coen Brothers making a superb remake in 2010. Both films tell what’s largely the same story, centering on a young girl who wants to avenge the murder of her father and sets about hiring a gruff, old marshal (John Wayne) to help her get revenge and enact justice.

It’s noteworthy to mention True Grit when discussing Wayne’s most significant films because it’s the only time he won an Oscar, here getting a Best Actor trophy. It was well-deserved, though it’s worth highlighting Wayne’s not the only one giving a great performance in True Grit, with Kim DarbyRobert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper also delivering when it comes to acting.

3, ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)

Rio Bravo represents the Western genre at its slickest, as well as most stylish and entertaining. It’s the kind of Western you could probably convince those who aren’t fans of the genre to watch and enjoy, with its plot involving a ragtag crew being the only ones who can defend a town from hired guns who want to break a dangerous murderer out of custody.

John Wayne shines and leads a talented cast that also includes Dean MartinRicky NelsonAngie Dickinson, and Walter Brennan, among others. The characters are great, and there’s plenty of action, making it no surprise to see Rio Bravo hold up superbly while also proving influential to filmmakers who must’ve seen it at a young and impressionable age.

2, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962)

Standing as one of the last movies John Ford and John Wayne made together in a period that lasted almost a quarter of a century, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is also one of their darkest and most thought-provoking. Fittingly, for something close to their final Western, it looks back on the past and unpacks it with maturity and clarity, and in a sometimes bleak manner, too.

Not only does it house one of John Wayne’s best performance, but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is also home to one of Jimmy Stewart’s greatest starring roles. It shows a senator looking back with honesty at his role in killing an outlaw, making the film one that interrogates the past; both the history of the Old West and the history of the Western genre itself.

1, ‘The Searchers’ (1956)

Just as The Searchers would have to be John Ford’s greatest work as a director, so too would it have to stand as the greatest single entry in John Wayne’s filmography. It has a premise that seems simple at first, being about a Civil War veteran searching for his niece who’s been captured by Indian forces, but explores deeper, darker themes as it goes along.

It contains visuals and spectacle associated with typical, classic Westerns, but the places its main character goes inevitably makes it darker than your average American Western. It’s sweeping, beautiful, and ugly all at once, being a complex and challenging, yet still entertaining Western, and overall stands as an easy pick for John Wayne’s most exceptional movie, when judging either his greatest single performance or the overall best film he appeared in.


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