…and slightly beyond.
Like a lot of people who grew up in the 50s and 60s – mostly boys I have to admit – John Wayne was the ultimate hero. He kicked arse like no one else on screen. You could say he was an equal opportunities arse kicker – it didn’t matter if you were Mexican, Native American, German or any other son of a bitch – he killed them all. My dad was also a big Wayne fan so I got to see a lot of old Duke’s films as a kid from about 4 years old so this is a list in descending order of preference of my all-time favourite Wayne cowboy films from 1954 through to 1976 as these are the films I watched when they were actually released.
The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)
A great score by Elmer Bernstein of Magnificent Seven / Great Escape fame and featuring Wayne’s co-star from Rio Bravo, Dean Martin. Four brothers meet up at the funeral of their mother and swear revenge on the people who murdered their father and swindled the mother. There appears to be a hell of an age gap between the older brother Wayne – 57 at the time, and the youngest brother played by Michael Anderson, who looks about 4 but was actually 22 at the time. Seems those pioneers of old were able to breed for nearly forty years at a time. But I digress.
Wayne and the director Henry Hathaway had already worked together on four films prior to this one and would go on to film True Grit a few years afterwards – more on that one later. On the face of it the film is just an old-fashioned shoot-em-up with Duke and the brothers turning the tables on the villains by the end but like a lot of Wayne’s later films – and many 1960s Westerns in general – there’s an underlying sense of men getting older and out of time in the changing West. But then maybe that’s just me.
As with all of the films in this list a perennial Sunday afternoon post-roast dinner blowout movie. Trivia note – Wayne was recovering from surgery from cancer, or ‘the big C’ as he called it – during the making of the film, having had a lung removed prior to shooting.
The Comancheros (1961)
The opening credits for this film feature Wayne, as Texas Ranger Jake Cutter, riding high, wide and handsome across the western landscape accompanied by another magnificent Elmer Bernstein score. In fact it’s nearly the best scene in the film.
The plot is a little contrived – Cutter arrests a man by the name of Paul Regret, played by Stuart Whitman, for killing a man in a duel. Wayne is then directed to hunt down a group of Comancheros, a large group of whisky and gun smuggling desperadoes, and he and Regret end up on the same side of the law. Notable for the first time that Wayne gets to kill Lee Marvin. Rumour has it Wayne stood in for the director of the film, Michael Curtiz, when Curtiz fell ill during the production.
A very long trivia note and a true story for all you Wayne fans out there. Some years ago a director by the name of Kevin Connor worked with a crew member who happened to be Stuart Whitman’s son. He told Kevin the story of how he and a young friend, invited on to the set by Whitman, both got a bit bored and wandered off down to the nearest river to throw stones in the water – I guess kids were easily pleased in those days.
Somehow or other they managed to get themselves caught in the mud on the riverbank and started sinking deeper and deeper into the water. Screaming for help, their rescuer eventually turned up on horseback, threw them a rope and dragged the kids to safety. And the man on the horse was none other than John Wayne himself. It doesn’t get any better than that. In fact, I think I’m going to cry…
El Dorado (1966)
Virtually a remake of Rio Bravo – swap Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt for Walter Brennan and James Caan for Ricky Nelson, film it in Tucson, where Rio Bravo was filmed, then throw in the same director for good measure. Only, on a close viewing, it’s more of a companion piece, and of course a starring vehicle for Wayne, who this time around plays a gunfighter who comes to the aid of yet another drunk – Mitchum – but who is hamstrung by a bullet lodged against his spine.
The song over the opening credits is pretty cheesy even by Western song standards and the actress playing Wayne’s love interest – Charlene Holt – simply can’t act. I remember that when the film was released back in 1966 James Caan appeared as a guest on a talk show in the UK hosted by the late comedian Dave Allen.
Caan’s character in the film is supposed to be an expert knife thrower so Dave Allen volunteered to stand against a board while Caan threw knives at him. Before standing against the board Dave Allen asked James Caan to try a practice throw. Caan threw the knife which landed where Dave Allan’s head would have been. Oh, how we laughed in those days when there were only two channels to choose from.
Trivia note – the scriptwriter on the film, Leigh Brackett, went on to co-write The Empire Strikes Back with Lawrence Kasdan. She also co-wrote The Big Sleep for Hawks back in 1946.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The last Western film partnership between Wayne and John Ford. Considered to be one of their best, this is the one where in Duke calls James Stewart by the name ‘Pilgrim’ which in the context of the story is not necessarily a term of endearment.
Upstart lawyer Stewart comes between Wayne and his intended, Hallie Stoddart. In the midst of all this Stewart locks horns with local town bully Liberty Valance – played with vicious relish by Lee Marvin – and the two face each other off in a gunfight. As to what happens – watch the film and see for yourself. Definitely Ford’s last great film – he made one more Western after this, Cheyenne Autumn, which didn’t do too well at the box office.
Duke shows what a good actor he could be when he didn’t necessarily have to play John Wayne all the time. One to check out if you’re at a loose end on a Sunday afternoon. Trivia note – the Gene Pitney song of the same name doesn’t actually feature in the film. The song, written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was actually recorded for the movie but Ford didn’t like it so it didn’t make the cut.
True Grit (1969)
Duke finally got his Oscar playing the one-eyed drunk Rooster Cogburn, more of a pity award then recognition for a great performance I think (he’d only been nominated once before back in 1949 for Sands of Iwo Jima). He was much better in Red River or The Searchers or She Wore a Yellow Ribbon whereas in True Grit he really just played himself.
Still, I guess it was his turn and he deserved some kind of recognition, if only for longevity in Hollywood, having started as an extra in the late 1920s. The film tells the story of how Rooster is hired by a young girl out to avenge the death of her father. Also featuring Glen Campbell at the height of his singing fame singing another cheesy Wayne film song – although the score itself is another classic by Elmer Bernstein – and a cameo role by Dennis Hopper who looks like he’s in training for his next film, Easy Rider.
The movie was recently remade by the Coen brothers – why? – and garnered acclaim for, among other things, emphasizing the contemporary Western diction and verbal style as featured in the original source novel. For my money, apart from a couple of different story strands – Glen Campbell’s Texas Ranger dies but Matt Damon makes it through to the final reel – it didn’t really improve on the Wayne version all that much.
Jeff Bridges as Cogburn was good enough but I personally find the earlier film just as good as, if not better, than the later version. Someone should put out a t-shirt with Wayne’s declaration to killer Robert Duval to ‘Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch’ on the front. I’d buy it. Trivia note – the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, was loosely based on the Humphrey Bogart film The African Queen. Katherine Hepburn played in both The African Queen and Rooster Cogburn.
The Cowboys (1972)
Considering Wayne’s co-stars in this movie are a bunch of kids hired to help him drive his cattle to market – the other ranchers leave to take part in a gold rush – this is a very brutal and violent film, featuring one of Duke’s all-time best death scenes – with the exception of The Alamo of course.
Bruce Dern is superb as the deranged killer who has to shoot Wayne at least five times before Duke bites the dust, four of the shots fired as Wayne walks away from his killer. I note with some surprise that Bruce Dern reckoned killing John Wayne derailed his career. If true, that stands as testament to how much Wayne was revered by his audience, and how unfortunate it fell to Dern to take the role in the first place. This infamously bloody and brutal death scene is in effect the climax of the film, meaning that after Duke shuffles off his mortal coil the rest of the movie is just tying up loose ends.
In this particular case though that includes Dern’s comeuppance, wounded and tied to a horse which drags him to his much deserved death. A mention here for yet another great score, this time composed by a pre-Star Wars John Williams.
Trivia note – according to my own recollection John Wayne actually died onscreen 7 times in the following films: The Wake of the Red Witch, Reap the Wild Wind, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Fighting Seabees, The Alamo, The Cowboys and The Shootist. However, in 1928 he played an extra in an early John Ford silent film called Hangman’s House with Wayne featuring as a man who has just been executed by hanging.
The Shootist (1976)
In his last film John Wayne ironically plays an ageing gunfighter dying of cancer, the illness that killed him 3 years later in 1979. The film starts with a brief compilation of some of his earlier films – Red River, Hondo, Rio Bravo and El Dorado – to illustrate the past of the main character, J.B. Books.
Accompanied by other veteran Hollywood actors such as James Stewart, Lauren Bacall and Richard Boone, the film is another example of old men railing against progress and the dying light. A pre-directing (and pre-puberty) Ron Howard of Happy Days fame plays the innocent youth who wants Wayne to show him how to use a gun. Naturally the film ends as expected with a gunfight in which Wayne’s character in effect chooses the manner of his own death – shot in the back (again) – this time by a bartender.
Elmer Bernstein’s last score for Wayne – not his most memorable but I guess you can’t win all the time. The director Andrew V. MacLaglen, who worked on a number of Westerns with Wayne back in the 1960s told me – yes, that’s right, he actually told me, back in 1998, that he visited Duke on the set of the film and Wayne told him that he’d rather MacLaglen was directing it instead of Don Siegel – he had previously directed Dirty Harry – who Wayne had not worked with before.
Seeing as all of the parties have now passed away I can say that in my humble opinion Siegel was the better director. MacLaglen was more of a workmanlike studio director whereas Siegel had a style of his own. I think The Shootist is a better film because of that and a worthy swansong to probably the best-known cowboy star of all time. Trivia note – John Wayne is the only actor to appear every year in a poll run since 1994 asking the American public who their favourite actor is.
He may have been a pinko-baiting whisky swilling commie bashing cantankerous son-of-a-bitch off screen whose politics were further to the right than Genghis Khan, but somebody out there obviously likes him.
The Alamo (1960)
Spoiler alert first. They all die. Well, nearly all. Frankie Avalon makes it out by the skin of his teeth but no one cares about him anyway. My mum took me to see this when I was 8 and watching John Wayne getting bayoneted and stuck to a door is not something any boy of that age should ever have to watch. In fact nearly 60 years later I’m still trying to get over it.
Admittedly not exactly Wayne’s finest hour – or finest 3 hours and 10 minutes if you’re checking out the uncut version – mainly because the script is so risible. The speech in which Duke as Davy Crockett talks about how the word Republic makes him ‘tight in the throat’ has me cringing even now but the battle sequences and the soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin go a long way to redeeming the end product. It’s notable for actually being directed by Wayne, who also produced it as well.
The film bombed at the box office and Wayne lost his shirt, which is why he ended up having to churn out so many films in the 1960s in order that he could pay mooring fees on his battleship. I visited the location of the film in Bracketville, Texas a few years back and I purloined a chunk of the many pieces of white rubble that were scattered around the crumbling set.
Also, the first poster I ever bought was for this very film. Not that I’m obsessed or anything. Trivia note – John Ford dropped by the set and to get rid of him Wayne gave him a second unit camera crew to shoot pickup shots, some of which – Mexican soldiers crossing a river – actually made it into the film.
Rio Bravo (1959)
At times this film vies with The Searchers for the top spot depending what mood I’m in. Where The Searchers is at times downbeat and cynical Rio Bravo is uplifting and even very funny at times.
Both films get shown on tv on a fairly regular basis and dropping into Rio Bravo at any point feels like you’re visiting a group of old friends. Chance (Wayne) and his compatriots Dude (Dean Martin), Stumpy (Walter Brennan) and Colorado (Ricky Nelson) are besieged by a group of outlaws wanting to get their friend out of jail before the marshal arrives.
All the good guys are known only by their nicknames – even card-sharp Angie Dickinson ends up being called Feathers. Directed by Howard Hawks – a contemporary of Ford – this is another Western that has also influenced other film makers, the story serving as the basis for John Carpenter’s 1976 film Assault on Precinct 13. It also influenced Hawks himself – see El Dorado as featured earlier. The poster’s not too bad either.
Trivia note –Harry Carey Junior is listed in the opening credits but he doesn’t appear in the film. Apparently he’d had a bit too much to drink and called the director Howard instead of Mister Hawks. His lack of deference meant the scenes he’d already appeared in were cut from the final version of the film.
The Searchers (1956)
If someone were to put me on the spot right now I’d say this is probably my all-time favourite film – ever. I first saw it in a cinema in Malta where they rolled the roof back whenever it got hot inside. It’s definitely the best of the Westerns Wayne made with the director John Ford and over the years it’s grown in stature to the point where it now regularly makes it onto the top ten list of best films ever made.
Over the years the film has influenced numerous other directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schraeder and Steven Spielberg. George Lucas nicked part of the story for the first Star Wars film – John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards (Hans Solo) helps a young man, Marty, played by Jeffrey Hunter (Luke Skywalker) to go looking for Marty’s half-sister Debbie (Princess Leia) who has been kidnapped by the cruel Comanche warrior Scar (Darth Vader).
In Attack of the Clones Lucas even recreated a scene shot-for-shot from The Searchers in homage to John Ford. The poster was my holy grail when I started collecting over 20 years ago. After many years searching for an original copy and lying to my wife about how much I paid for it the poster has pride of place on the study wall. Apparently Buddy Holly saw the film in a picture house in Lubbock, Texas, took Wayne’s signature phrase from the film – ‘that’ll be the day’ – and turned it into a hit record.
Trivia note – In 2007 I met one of the actors who appears in the film, Harry Carey Junior. He played the ill-fated Brad who goes looking for his fiancé, Lucy, kidnapped along with her younger sister, Debbie. He told me the character he played in the film was supposed to be 19. Carey was 32 at the time.
One final note. I remember a joke doing the rounds back in 1979 that John Wayne was dead but no one had the guts to tell him. A fitting epitaph I think.