John Wayne, arguably the greatest movie star of the 20th century, died on this day in 1979. Since becoming a star in the 1939 western classic Stagecoach (1939), Wayne ranked as one of the Top 5 box office stars (often at #1) until his death.
I am sad to say that Wayne is starting to recede from our collective consciousness. Many of my film students under the age of 30 have never heard of him. His movies get played less and less on TV. Clint Eastwood is their John Wayne. I wonder if this is how the older generation felt when John Wayne was huge. Did they think Wayne was great but nothing compared to earlier western stars like William S. Hart or Harry Carey (the star Wayne modeled himself after)?
For those unfamiliar with John Wayne he is, arguably, the greatest western star of all time. Eastwood and Kevin Costner et al all follow in his footsteps and mimic what Wayne already did. On the anniversary of his passing, I offer up these ten iconic performances to tell you all you need to know about the Duke (as he was called):
10. Stagecoach (1939)
John Ford’s classic made the western fashionable again and made Wayne a star at the same time. He holds his own against an all-star cast of Andy Devine, Thomas Mitchell, John Carradine, and Claire Trevor. Wayne’s entrance is one of the most famous in movie history. In one shot, a star is born.
9. The Quiet Man (1952)
John Ford’s Oscar-winning Irish romance finds Wayne searching for his roots in Ireland and romancing his best leading lady, Maureen O’Hara. Funny and romantic at the same time.
8. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Wayne’s first genuine great performance as cavalry commander Nathan Brittles facing both impeding retirement and an Indian war. John Ford again.
7. Red River (1948)
Howard Hawks’ classic cattle drive western finds Wayne channeling Captain Bligh as he mercilessly drives his cattle herd north until he’s forced to face off with his son, Matt (Montgomery Clift).
6. Rio Bravo (1959)
Another Hawks masterpiece, Wayne plays John Chance, an embattled sheriff holed up in his office and surrounded by an army of gunmen looking to free Wayne’s prisoner held for murder. Fabulous supporting performances by Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, and Angie Dickinson. Remade as the urban thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976). See the original.
5. The Alamo (1960)
Wayne didn’t want to play Davy Crockett in this his directing debut but it was the only way he could get the funding to make it. Wayne turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Crockett with some of his best scenes ever. His chat by the river with Linda Cristal is one of my all-time favorite movie moments. Wayne’s brilliant (underrated) direction shows he learned quite a bit watching John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Henry Hathaway ply their trade.
4. The Shootist (1976)
Wayne’s poignant final screen performance finds him playing a famous gunman dying of cancer and hoping to live out his final days in quiet. But fame is something he can’t escape even in death. With Ron Howard, James Stewart, and Lauren Bacall. A fitting close to a great movie career.
3. True Grit (1969)
Wayne’s comical turn as marshal Rooster Cogburn earned him his only Academy Award for Best Actor. Henry Hathaway’s film is more entertaining than great but lots of fun. Wayne’s showdown with villain Robert Duvall is one of the great movie moments.
2. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford’s last great western is a brilliant distillation of the settling of the west as it passed from frontier to civilization. Wayne’s performance is both heroic and tragic, capturing all the nuances and secret heartache of the western hero. Brilliantly supported by James Stewart, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Has one of the Top 5 best final lines in movie history.
1. The Searchers (1956)
My pick for Wayne’s best performance. He plays the heroic yet bitter Ethan Edwards who spends ten years tracking down his young niece kidnapped by Indians. The darkest role Wayne ever played is also his richest with shadings and depths he never showed before or since. The ending is one of the most famous in movie history. Another John Ford classic. Should have got the Oscar.
The Big Trail (1930) – Raoul Walsh’s early talkie western was meant to make Wayne a star. Unfortunately, its box office failure sentenced Wayne to nine years in B movies before stardom finally arrived. But it is neat to see the young, raw Wayne: still unseasoned and a bit wooden. The star quality is already there.
The Conqueror (1956) – an infamous and horrible film. Wayne plays a young Genghis Khan in what he joked was an “eastern”. Hilariously bad, worthy of the MST3K treatment. Tragically, the movie was shot near the U.S. atomic test sites in Utah and radioactive dust regularly blew through the location. Most of the major stars including Wayne later died of cancer.
John Wayne laying down the law in Big Jake (1971)