John Wayne’s Top 10 Western Films of All-Time

by Matthew Wilson

John Wayne was the cowboy. For much of his career, the actor lived and breathed the Wild West. His first big break was actually a western. Wayne starred in 169 films during his life. So picking the best of the best is a tall task. But if you’re in the mood for a Wayne movie binge, you can’t go wrong with these classics.

Here are Wayne’s Top 10 Western Films of All-Time.

10. John Wayne Plays Davey Crockett in ‘The Alamo’

There have been many on-screen depictions of 1836’s the Battle of the Alamo. But John Wayne’s 1960 adaptation stands a cut above the rest. Not only did Wayne starred in the film as pioneer legend Davy Crockett, but he also lent his talents behind the camera as a director.

Today, Crockett is memorialized as someone who was larger than life. So, it feels appropriate that Wayne steps into his famed coon-skinned hat. The film will have you cheering and rooting for Wayne and the others, even as the real-life history casts a tragic flair to the film.

9. Wayne Is a Wild West Sheriff in ‘Rio Bravo’

“Rio Bravo” is a classic tale as long as the West is old. Wayne plays what else but a small-town sheriff defending against a band of outlaws. But the outlaws picked the wrong town and the wrong sheriff. They should have known better than to mess with the Duke. Wayne gathers a gang of his own consisting of a drunk, a deputy, a gambling addict, and others to defend the town against the coming threat.

The film has everything you want in a western classic. So it’s a bit of a shock that the movie wasn’t well-received upon release. But in recent years, the film has had a reappraisal with many celebrating its contributions to the genre.

8. Wayne Comes to a Mother’s Rescue in ‘Hondo’

As you will notice by this list, John Wayne was always at his best when he had something to fight for. The 1953 film “Hondo” casts Wayne as an Army scout, who helps a woman and her son. Wayne’s character Hondo Lane must choose between his duties and what he believes is right.

The woman and her son get caught up in a war between the Apache tribes and the U.S. Army. Wayne, himself, is conflicted because he is married to a native woman and has lived among her tribe. Unlike many westerns, especially of its time, the film casts Native Americans and indigenous people in a sympathetic light.

7. The Actor Starred in ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance’

In Wayne’s long and storied career, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance” is an odd one. The film plays with time and narrative structure unlike many of the cowboy’s films. Wayne isn’t even the main star. That honor belongs to James Stewart, who plays a U.S. Senator famous for killing an outlaw. But Wayne casts a large shadow over the film and becomes a crucial figure in its tale.

When the film opens, Wayne’s character is dead. That’s not a spoiler as much as the opening act. Through flashbacks, the story of Stewart’s and Wayne’s characters began to unfold.

6. John Wayne is the Antagonist in ‘Red River’

When many people think of John Wayne, they think of a good honest cowboy, standing up for the little guy. That’s what makes the 1948 “Red River” such an oddity and fresh of breath air in the actor’s catalog. Wayne plays the antagonist and villain in the film.

Wayne is a tyrannical and stubborn rancher, who refuses to see reason. Over the course of the film, Wayne’s character degrades until he becomes at odds with his own adoptive son on a cattle drive. The film is more complex than the average western, with Wayne giving some of his best acting. Audiences can understand Wayne’s character while still disagreeing with his actions.

5. Wayne Gets His Start in ‘Stagecoach’

This was the film that started it all. John Wayne shot to stardom in this seminal western classic. Who can forget Wayne’s iconic gun twirl as many audience members are introduced to the Duke for the first time? The film cast a young Wayne as an outlaw and murderer, the Ringo Kid.

The Ringo Kid joins a stagecoach passing between Arizona and New Mexico. Tensions soon rise among the various traveling members as they cross the rocky terrain.

4. ‘The Shootist’ is John Wayne’s Last

Perhaps, it’s because it is Wayne’s last movie. But it’s hard not to feel a bit weepy when watching “The Shootist.” The actor died only three years later. Wayne may not have known he had cancer at the time. But he went out with dignity and poise as only a cowboy could.

In the film, Wayne plays a gunslinger dying of cancer. Rather than a slow death, the cowboy wants to die in one last hail of bullets. The narrative follows Wayne as he seeks one last duel out on the frontier.

3. ‘The Searchers’ Is One of the Actor’s Best

Many would herald “The Searchers” as one of Wayne’s crowning achievements. Unlike in “Hodo,” Wayne’s character has no qualms about killing Native Americans. Wayne plays a Civil War veteran, who has an intense hatred for indigenous tribes in the West. When Comanches kidnap his niece, Wayne goes to rescue her, right?

Wrong. Wayne’s character is on a mission to kill her because she lived among the native tribes. That tension forms the heart of the movie leaving audiences unsure of whether they should root for Wayne or not, up until the end.

2. ‘True Grit’ Gives the Actor an Oscar

Sorry, Jeff Bridges. But many people view John Wayne as the definite Rooster Cogburn. The character is Wayne’s most iconic creation among his over a hundred film roles. For “True Grit,” Wayne finally took home the Academy Award for Best actor. It was also one of the few roles, Wayne reprised for a second time.

“True Grit” casts Wayne on a revenge mission, assisting a 14-year-old girl in tracking down an outlaw who killed her father. Their relationship forms the heart of the film as Wayne, in his tough but tender way, teaches her about life out on the frontier.

1. Wayne Is at His Best in ‘The Cowboys’

No one else could ever replace John Wayne. The 1972 film confronts Wayne’s legacy as everyone’s favorite cowboy in this brutal coming of age tale in the West. Wayne plays a rancher, who takes a group of young cowboys on their first drive across the West. Along the way, they encounter various problems and a group of bandits as well.

More than any other, this film proves that Wayne never needed a gun to be tough. He struck both respect, fear, and admiration with his words alone. Like the cowboys in the film, audiences continue to learn through Wayne’s films and wisdom.