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Film & TV

The 10 Best John Wayne Westerns from My Childhood…

…and slightly beyond.
john-wayne-4Like 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…

eldoreado-2El 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.