“We’re burnin’ daylight!”
Defining the western genre with his grit and gun-slinging skills, John Wayne remains an iconic staple in the film industry. Whether it’s the constant collaboration with supporting character actors, his children’s cameos, or using the same horse for at least seven movies in the latter end of his career, Wayne’s extensive filmography collected a large fan base as his career spanned five decades.
Existing in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Wayne, nicknamed “the Duke,” worked with other cinematic legends and titans of industry in front of and behind the camera. Viewers now can stream various films from the Duke instead of digging through a dusty VHS bin or poorly remastered DVD version. With fan-favorites like McLintock, El Dorado, The War Wagon, and more there is no shortage of movies to watch (and rewatch) when you’re hankering for an old film.
The following article has spoilers for each movie entry.
10) ‘Hellfighters’ (1968)
A burning miss with movie critics, this fiery film still managed to win over Wayne’s loyal fans. His marriage fizzling, international oil rig firefighter Chance Buckman leaves the action behind to his partner Greg Parker (Jim Hutton). When a blaze in Venezuela gets out of hand, Greg is forced to call Chance back on the job.
The film features Hollywood starlet Katharine Ross (The Graduate) as Chance’s daughter, Tish who ultimately falls for Greg. In true Duke style, there are always familiar faces costarring like Vera Miles (Psycho), Bruce Cabot (King Kong), and Edward Faulkner (McLintock!)—all of which have appeared in multiple Wayne films across his career. While it’s no guns blazing western, Hellfighters is a worthy rewatch for any loyal fan.
9) ‘Sands of Iwo Jima’ (1949)
A darker, less lovable character than audiences are used to, Marine Sgt. John Stryker is another exceptional role Wayne brought to the screen. Loathed by his men, Stryker’s disposition isn’t truly understood until their boots hit the sand and are thrust into one of the Pacific’s bloodiest battles of World War II, the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Wayne earned his first Oscar nomination for the role, while the film was nominated for four in total with his nomination. Critics and audience members would revere this character as one of Wayne’s best despite his Oscar loss to Broderick Crawfordin All the King’s Men. Wayne would star in several war films, but Sands of Iwo Jima is the perfect choice to watch back.
8) ‘Chisum’ (1970)
Another cattle-baron role for Wayne, Chisum finds our hero starring as John Chisum as he teams up with historic figures Billy the Kid (Geoffrey Deuel) and Pat Garrett (Glenn Corbett) as a land developer and corrupt sheriff attempt to take Chisum’s ranch in Lincoln County, New Mexico. With praise from all audiences, Chisum adds a notable touch with its recognizable character names and historical context of the Lincoln County Land War of 1878.
As usual, Wayne would bring along familiar faces from his previous films like Cabot, Faulkner, and Hank Worden (The Searchers). Fans would appreciate the wiser, more fatherly role of Chisum, allowing this film to hold a rank in a John Wayne movie marathon.
7) ‘Hondo’ (1953)
Based upon the Louis L’Amour novel, Hondo follows the journey of the title character Hondo Lane (Wayne) as he befriends a woman and her young son after they are abandoned by her husband during an Apache attack. The trio forges a strong bond as Angie (Geraldine Page) refuses to leave their homestead.
Page’s performance would earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Director John Farrow worked alongside Wayne again a few years later in 1955 on The Sea Chase. Hondo features a younger Wayne but is still complete with his iconic vest and bandana. The film earned high praise with movie-goers then and is still worth the praise now.
6) ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962)
Containing a triple threat cast of Hollywood’s finest leading men and another Wayne leading lady, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of cinema’s most revered westerns. When Senator Stoddard (James Stewart) returns home for a funeral with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles), an inquisitive newspaper questions Stoddard’s business in town. Through flashbacks, the story of Stoddard’s unexpected friendship with Tom Doniphon (Wayne) unfolds as Stoddard recounts their involvement and search for justice against local criminal, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).
John Ford directed this film during the height of his career and brought together Hollywood’s finest as the trio of Wayne, Stewart, and Marvin flowed seamlessly throughout the film. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
5) ‘The Searchers’ (1956)
Director John Ford demonstrates his presence in the Duke’s cinematic legacy as he directed yet another notable film starring the Hollywood legend in The Searchers. In this epic and dark western, Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran determined to rescue his niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) after she is kidnaped by a Comanche tribe following the slaying of her family.
Lacking the jolly and cheerful disposition of the usual Wayne-cowboy, Ethan Edwards is an ominous role in which he spends a considerable part of his life after the war searching for Debbie. Surrounded by regular Wayne-film cast members, audiences rallied around this 1956 film allowing it to be a watershed installment for both Wayne and the genre.
4) ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952)
Starring alongside leading lady Maureen O’Hara, Wayne plays retired American boxer Sean Thornton as he retires to his family’s homestead in Ireland where he falls for Mary Kate (O’Hara) despite her brother’s refusal. A romance beloved by critics and cinema-goers, The Quiet Man showcases excellent performances by O’Hara and Wayne.
Nominated for seven Oscars, the movie would take home two for Best Director (John Ford) and Best Cinematography. The movie is another excellent collaboration between Ford and Wayne. Like the title displays, The Quiet Man is a quiet, reserved break for Wayne’s large fan base as it turns the focus from conquering the wild west to love and peace.
3) ‘The Cowboys’ (1972)
Perhaps the western genre’s most iconic villain and the Duke’s most prominent death, The Cowboys is at the top of the list to be watched over and over again. Aging rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) enlists the help of a group of schoolboys to help drive his cattle to market. Things turn south when a group of cattle rustlers and thieves led by Bruce Dern follow the herd and ultimately clash.
One of the few films in which Hollywood’s hero dies, Wil Andersen’s death by the hands of Dern’s character vilified Dern throughout the industry and created career struggles as no one wanted to cast the man who shot the Duke in the back. Supported by a troupe of young actors, The Cowboys casts Wayne in a fatherly light, making his death even more impactful.
2) ‘The Shootist’ (1976)
In his final role, Wayne stars as J. B. Books, an aging gunfighter who devises a plan to avoid dying a slow, painful cancerous death. After renting a room from the widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son Gillom (Ron Howard), Books comes face-to-face with characters coming forth with questionable intentions.
Paralleling Wayne’s real-life cancer diagnosis that ultimately led to his death in 1979, Books refuses to go quietly into the night with his terminal diagnosis. For the final time, Wayne would team up with big-names like James Stewart and Bacall to bring audiences a film to remember. The Shootist is an obvious choice to revisit when remembering John Wayne.
1) ‘True Grit’ (1969)
No character more memorable than the “one-eyed fat man,” Rooster Cogburn in True Grit takes the top spot of most rewatchable films. After her father is murdered, Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) enlists in the help of drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) and a Texas ranger (Glen Campbell) to hunt down the man responsible as he travels with a band of notorious criminals through dangerous territory.
A decade before his death, Wayne would win his only Best Actor Oscar for this role. Cogburn’s unethical and unique methods for hunting down criminals clash against the honest and by-the-book nature of Ross. Fans loved Cogburn so much that Wayne would reprise the role in 1975 with Rooster Cogburn, starring alongside Katherine Hepburn. True Grit is an all-time favorite that withstands the test of time and even successful remake attempts.