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How John Wayne Won the West: 10 of The Duke’s Most Popular Westerns

There are many popular film genres out there. From superheroes to Science Fiction, devoted fans look forward to the next big blockbuster and enjoy watching their old favorites. Movies have changed since the Golden Age of Hollywood, but the stories and actors have kept viewers entertained all along the way.


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The Western genre has captured the hearts of audiences for over a century. The Old West is the perfect backdrop for tales about love, loss and life. There is one man who seems to be synonymous with the Wild West. John Wayne, the Duke himself, spent decades inviting viewers to come along on his frontier journeys. Although difficult to highlight only ten, it’s time to take a look at some of John Wayne’s most popular Westerns.

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‘Fort Apache’ (1948)

John Wayne and Henry Fonda star together in Fort Apache. At a time when Westerns often portrayed American Indians in a stereotypical or negative light, this film is one of the first to show a more authentic and respectful depiction.

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Despite being overlooked for a well-deserved commander job, Captain Kirby York (Wayne) wants to help keep the peace with a local Apache tribe. The unbending and arrogant Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Fonda) has other ideas. The Apaches, in turn, rebel. After many soldiers are killed in Thursday’s failed battle, York takes over. The mutual respect shown by the regiment commander and the Apache leader allows the audience to feel the power of civility in post-Civil War times.

‘True Grit’ (1969)

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn

John Wayne plays the original Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Based on the 1968 novel, Cogburn and a young Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) help Mattie Ross, a heartbroken teenager played by Kim Darby, look for the man who killed her father.

It’s hard to tell who has more “grit” throughout the movie–the man known for collecting outlaws or the determined girl who doesn’t give up. Despite his gruff exterior, Cogburn’s loyalty and kind heart are ultimately revealed through Wayne’s performance. The legendary star won an Academy Award for Best Actor (his first and only) for the role.

‘The Cowboys’ (1972)

John Wayne as Wil Andersen

Not quite a youngin’ anymore, in The Cowboys John Wayne plays aging rancher, Wil Andersen. Troubled with the task of finding help when his ranch hands choose a gold rush over an upcoming cattle drive, he has no choice but to get help from a group of young schoolboys. Though inexperienced, the new cowboys are eager to learn the ropes.

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Andersen becomes a father figure to the lads during the cattle drive, teaching them valuable lessons about hard work and life along the way. The once immature schoolboys develop into responsible and loyal young men by the film’s end.

‘El Dorado’ (1966)

John Wayne as Cole Thornton

Stealin’ and drinkin’ are common in old Westerns. El Dorado features both as the dependable Cole Thornton (played by Wayne) comes to help his old pal. Thornton’s friend (the often drunk Sheriff Harrah played by Robert Mitchum) shares that the man who wants to hire the talented gunman is actually trying to steal water from an innocent family’s land nearby.

When Cole gets caught in the crossfire due to a miscommunication, he leaves town wounded. Before long, he’s heading back to stop the man from again trying to smuggle water. Thornton teams up with the recently sober sheriff and his new buddy played by the talented (and charming!) James Caan to put an end to the criminal’s plan. In the end, Wayne wins the fight and a lovely lady to settle down with.

‘The Shootist’ (1976)

john-wayne-j-b-books-the-shootist

Made three years before his death, it’s fitting that in The Shootist John Wayne plays an aging Old West gunman. For his film finale, the Duke has some recognizable co-stars including Ron Howard, Lauren Bacall and James Stewart.

The movie begins with flashbacks of a younger J.B. Books using his gun skills to kill. Shooting scenes from Wayne’s past movies are used–a clever way to make the flashback scenes authentic while also honoring the actor’s past projects. After Books discovers he has terminal cancer, he decides going out with a bang is better than suffering. As one gunman dies, another is born.

‘Stagecoach’ (1939)

ClaireTrevor as Dallas in Stagecoach

Claire Trevor and John Wayne star in Stagecoach, the tale of traveling passengers running into some bumpy situations on the way to their destination. In Wayne’s breakout role, he plays Ringo Kid. After escaping from prison to get revenge for the murders of his father and brother, he is picked up by the stagecoach crew along the way.

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Although he has bonded with his fellow travelers (including new love interest, Dallas) he is technically in custody on the stagecoach for his jailbreak. After leaving his friends to avoid being locked up again, he ends up returning to help save them. Eventually, Ringo Kid loses the handcuffs and rides off with his love.

‘Red River’ (1948)

John Wayne as Thomas Dunson
Image via United Artists

After fourteen years of running his ranch, Thomas Dunson (played by Wayne) plans a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri to sell his herd and make a profit. Dunson and the livestock head north with his crew including his adopted son, Matt. There are struggles throughout the journey including a stampede, the death of a drover and encounters with American Indians.

As Red River continues, tensions rise between Thomas Dunson and his guys. Things get especially heated between the father and son. When the boss crosses the line with his tyrannical leadership, Matt takes over, leaving Dunson in the dust. Thomas and his son come face-to-face once again, after both reaching their destination. The two resolve their issues…after a fistfight, of course.

‘The Searchers’ (1956)

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards

The Searchers tells the tale of Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran, arriving in Texas to see his brother for the first time in almost a decade. Shortly after the reunion, Edwards and a group of rangers leaves to investigate the theft of a neighbor’s cattle herd. While gone, Ethan’s brother and his family are killed in a fire. The only survivors are Edwards’ nieces who have been abducted by the Comanches.

Ethan heads out with the rangers and the girls’ adopted brother to look for the two missing family members. When one niece is discovered, murdered near the Comanche camp, they continue their search for Debbie. The guys spend their time figuring out how to get the younger niece back home while trying to stay alive themselves.

‘Rio Bravo’ (1959)

John Wayne and Dean Martin listening to Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo

Another Western, another list of fabulous names for the characters involved. In Rio Bravo, Wayne’s character, John T. Chance teams up with Dude (Dean Martin), Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson), Stumpy and Feathers. Together they stop a couple of bogus brothers and their boys from terrorizing the town.

After the younger brother, Joe gets sent to jail, his well-known older sibling intervenes. The wealthy and arrogant Nathan makes it clear that he will do what it takes to get Joe out. Nathan and his gang seem to believe they are invincible to the law (bullets and dynamite too!), but Chance and his underdog allies make sure the entitled little brother isn’t the only one sitting in a cell.

‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962)

John Wayne as Tom Doniphon
Image via Paramount Pictures

As the highest-rated John Wayne Western on IMDb, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance begins and ends with U.S. Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) attending Tom Doniphon’s funeral. The rest of the movie fills the audience in on why a respected politician is attending a poor rancher’s memorial.

At one point, twenty-five years earlier, Tom did what he could to make new-to-town Ranse pay for stealing the woman he loved. Surprisingly, Tom ended up being the reason the senator could spend the next few decades climbing the political ladder. It is revealed that the soon-to-be vice-presidential nominee is paying his respects to the man who helped him succeed.

NEXT: 10 Most Rewatchable John Wayne Movies, Ranked


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