Below are my ten favorite John Wayne movies. These are not necessarily John Wayne’s ten best critically acclaimed movies; they are simply my personal favorites. There are other John Wayne movies that I enjoy, but I tried to narrow it down as much as I could. You’ll notice that I didn’t include the only film for which Wayne won an Oscar–True Grit. I enjoy the movie, but it’s just not one of my favorites. Many feel that Wayne should also have been nominated for an Oscar for The Searchers, which did make my list.
According to Wikipedia, John Wayne starred in 169 feature length films. The best I can tell I’ve seen about 52 of these movies.
John Wayne is one of the most beloved and well-known movie stars in history. You’ve likely seen many of his movies as well, but if you haven’t I encourage you to start with these below:
10. Donovan’s Reef
This 1963 John Ford directed comedy is set in French Polynesia and stars Lee Marvin alongside the Duke. I like it for two reasons. One, I have a very distinct memory of when I watched it the first time. I was housesitting for someone, and I watched a mini-marathon of John Wayne movies and saw this one along with In Harm’s Way at the same time. Two, the tropical setting ￼combined with a memorable Christmas scene make it somewhat unique within the John Wayne filmography. The movie is light-hearted and provides a nearly two hour escape with the chance to see John Wayne in a non-Western role.
Set in Seattle, McQ is one of Wayne’s two police thrillers (the other one being the London based Brannigan). Both movies provide an opportunity to see Wayne in a different kind of role and setting. If you’re a Trekkie or a Magnum fan, you might enjoy seeing Diana Muldaur and Roger E. Mosley in this film. There is a famous car chase scene on the beach at the end of the movie. The appeal of McQ for me is the Emerald City setting as well as seeing Wayne play a police officer in a modern day urban environment. If I remember correctly, I first saw this movie, as well as Brannigan, on Turner Classic Movies.
This is a classic John Wayne comedy with the usual group fight scenes, this time in the mud. Maureen O’Hara, Wayne’s son, Patrick, and Stefanie Powers co-star. The film is based on The Taming of the Shrew. The chemistry between O’Hara and Wayne help make the movie a hit. The first time I saw this movie I didn’t really like it, but the more I saw it the more it grew on me. I remember seeing the VHS tape of McLintock! at my Grandparents’ house growing up, and that piqued my interest in the movie.
This 1962 Howard Hawks adventure/romantic comedy is a charming and delightful movie. Set in Africa, it follows a group of big game hunters as they chase rhinos and other animals. Hilarious antics are interspersed throughout the film as well. Again, the setting adds a lot to this film. It’s a little odd to see John Wayne in this role, but somehow it works. I was talking with a friend about my fondness for John Wayne movies, and she asked me if I had seen Hatari! I hadn’t, so I checked it out; I wasn’t disappointed. This film is a fun ride.
6. Sons of Katie Elder
Dean Martin, George Kennedy, and a young Dennis Hopper star alongside Wayne in this western about four brothers who reunite after their saintly mother’s funeral. The brothers soon realize something is amiss when a gunsmith claims ownership of their family’s ranch. Look for a shootout between the Elders and the bad guys under a bridge. This is your typical John Wayne western. If you haven’t seen many John Wayne movies, this one might be a good place to start.
5. The Comancheros
Wayne plays a Texas Ranger in this film in which he has to transport and extradite a gambler (Stuart Whitman) who killed someone in a duel. But he soon finds himself joining forces with him to face a common enemy–the Comancheros, a criminal gang that is supplying the Comanches with guns. Directed by Michael Curtiz of Casablanca fame, this film is an enjoyable adventure. Look for a memorable appearance by Lee Marvin as well as a quote from Whitman at a poker table about enjoying the game for its own rewards.
4. The Undefeated
This movie was on television the other night, and I was reminded of what a delightful movie it is. In our day of division, this film is a heartwarming story of how two Union and Confederate officers learn to overcome their differences to fight common enemies in Mexico after the United States Civil War. Rock Hudson co-stars as the Confederate colonel. If you like horses, there are also plenty of equine scenes to enjoy. The Mexican setting adds to the allure and beauty of the film. The revolutionary politics of the era also add an interesting backstory to the film. I still remember the Sunday afternoon that I made spaghetti and watched this film for the first time.
3. North to Alaska
This film is a pleasant departure from Wayne’s typical western roles. Stewart Granger co-stars along with Ernie Kovacs, Fabian, and the attractive French actress Capucine. The film takes place during the Nome Gold Rush. Some of the movie is also set in Seattle. This movie has romance, comedy, and adventure. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when John Wayne speed climbs a tree during a lumberjack competition at a picnic. One of the great things about John Wayne movies is that there are usually random scenes that you don’t expect which make the movies memorable. You truly feel like you’re on a ride, and you don’t know where it’s taking you.
2. The Searchers
This is one of my favorites, and I’m not alone in that assessment. This is considered a classic and one of Wayne’s best films. As mentioned above, he should have won an Oscar for it. This John Ford directed film was named the greatest American Western by the American Film Institute. It was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation for the National Film Registry.
Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who fought on the side of the Confederacy. The story begins in Texas as Ethan arrives at his brother’s house. Comanches attack the homestead while Ethan is away, and his brother and family are killed with the exception of his niece Debbie. Ethan and his adopted nephew set out on a long search for Debbie, hence the name of the film.
The cast includes Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, and Natalie Wood. The cinematography is stunning. Look for the beautifully framed bookend shots at the beginning and end of the movie as well as a hilarious wedding fight scene. This is a movie that gets even better on successive viewings.
1. El Dorado
John Wayne afficionados are familiar with the fact that El Dorado is basically a remake of Rio Bravo with the same plot but with different actors around Wayne. You can also include Rio Lobo in this Howard Hawks trilogy, but the last installment was an inferior film to the other two.
El Dorado is my favorite of the three because it’s the most fun, but Rio Bravo is the one loved by the critics. Basically, El Dorado has everything you would want from a John Wayne movie–the Western setting, adventure, comedy, romance, zany antics, lots of gunfights, crazy characters, and memorable lines. Look for the scene where the Duke and Mississippi, played by a young James Caan, mix up a concoction to sober up the sheriff, played by a pitch-perfect Robert Mitchum. The cast also includes the sultry Charlene Holt as Wayne’s love interest, a young Ed Asner as the villain Bart Jason, Paul Fix as Dr. Miller, a hilarious Arthur Hunnicutt as Bull with a bugle, a spry Michele Carey, and Christopher George as the professional gunfighter, Nelse McLeod.
All three movies revolve around a sheriff and his deputies defending a town against outlaws. The good guys are holed up in the jail as they hold one of the bad guys as a prisoner. You know where the plot is headed, but it sure is entertaining getting there. I’ve watched this movie countless times, and I still enjoy it almost as much as the first time I saw it. I saw it in my last year of college during a difficult semester. It was a refreshing escape.
There are a lot of great lines in the film like when Wayne’s character, Cole Thornton, finds the sheriff, J.P. Harrah, drunk in bed. J.P. asks Thornton what he’s doing there, and Wayne delivers a line as only he can, “I’m looking at a tin star with a….drunk pinned on it.” In my opinion, this movie is John Wayne at his best.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this top ten list. If you haven’t seen these movies, you should check them out. Or maybe you disagree with my picks and have a different list that you’d like to share in the comments. Regardless, watching John Wayne movies can turn into a hobby in and of itself. After all, I’ve been watching them for 20 years, and I still haven’t seen 70% of them. I better get some popcorn and start tackling those other 117 films. Because….
“Sorry don’t get it done, Dude.” –Rio Bravo
Sources: IMDB and Wikipedia