Western films will always be associated with John Wayne. Known as “The Duke,” he was one of the top box office draws for three decades during Hollywood’s Golden Age of cinema. He appeared in over 150 movies during his career. He was brilliant in every role, whether he was playing a cowboy, a colonel, or a marshal. “The Duke” was always the hero.
Wayne’s legacy continues today, even 40 years past his death in 1979. Fans still love his films and credit him as the best Western movie star of all time. Let’s take a look at some of his best movies, ranked according to IMDb.
Updated on January 27th, 2021 by Kristen Palamara: John Wayne was at the height of his fame in the 1950s and 1960s but appeared in movies in the 1930s and until his death in the 1970s. He’s well-known for his western movies and is an icon in the genre, but he also starred in several war movies about the American Civil War or World War II. Early on in his career, he had more supporting roles in movies that are still highly rated even if they weren’t westerns or starring him. John Wayne’s movies continue to be extremely popular classics especially the Westerns.
15. The Horse Soldiers (1959) – 7.2
John Wayne stars in this western war epic set during the American Civil War. Colonel John Marlowe (Wayne) is a Union soldier sent on a mission to attack behind Confederate lines.
Along with the various fights and skirmishes showed between the Union and Confederate soldiers, there is another storyline between Colonel Marlowe and Major Henry Kendall (William Holden) as the Major is on the medical staff and is struggling to reckon with the horrors of war.
14. She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) – 7.3
John Wayne stars in this western movie set in the late 1800s after the end of the American Civil War as a Calvary Captain who is tasked with safely escorting two women out of the enemy territory.
Captain Brittles (Wayne) is about to retire but he goes on this one last mission to help out the commanding officer of his unit. Various troops fall for Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) as Brittles tries to escort her safely and protect her as she wears a yellow ribbon signaling she’s already in a relationship.
13. In Harm’s Way (1965) – 7.3
In Harm’s Way is a realistic view of American Naval Officers during Pearl Harbor and in the years after America became fully involved in World War II after the event.
John Wayne stars as a disgraced Naval Captain who is removed from his command after he didn’t follow the rules of combat or orders when in pursuit of the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Captain Torrey (Wayne) is given a second chance to redeem himself in this war epic.
12. The Cowboys (1972) – 7.4
By the 1970s, Wayne’s career was slowly dwindling as movie viewers were growing less interested in western films. However, his 1972 film, The Cowboys, still remains one of his best performances. The film focuses on veteran cattle rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne). He is about to embark on a big cattle drive when his crew unexpectedly quits to join in on the historic California Gold Rush.
Needing workers, Wil enlists the help of local schoolboys. At first, Wil is grumpy and frustrated with the teen boys. However, a bond forms between Wil and the boys as they become their own family.
11. True Grit (1969) – 7.4
The 1969 film True Grit is undeniably Wayne’s most memorable film out of his entire career. After hired hand Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) murders the father of 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), she hires U.S. Marshal “Rooster” Cogburn (Wayne) to seek vengeance. He is a man of “true grit” and he teams up with Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) in his manhunt.
The film earned Wayne his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor. To this day, the film is regarded as a truly iconic film of the Western genre. When you think of Wayne’s career, you typically associate him with True Grit.
10. Fort Apache (1948) – 7.5
Captain Kirby York (Wayne) is an American Civil War veteran who was in line to take command at a Union cavalry post, Fort Apache, but the job is given to another veteran Lieutenant Colonel Thursday (Henry Fonda). Lt. Col. Thursday is qualified for the position, but he is arrogant and egotistical and most all of the soldiers at the post wanted Captain York in command.
There are subplots of the Apache Native American tribes becoming upset and the soldiers not working with them or respecting them and another romantic plot with Thursday’s daughter and a soldier.
9. Baby Face (1933) – 7.6
John Wayne only has a small supporting role in this movie especially compared to the rest of the movies on this list where he is in a leading role. Baby Face follows Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck), a young woman who has been sexually exploited by her father her entire life.
Powers decides to use this to her advantage and manipulate the men at a bank to gain power and status within the company. Jimmy McCoy Jr. (Wayne) is one of the men she has a relationship with to have him select her for a promotion.
8. El Dorado (1966) – 7.6
The 1966 film El Dorado is a collaboration between Wayne and another memorable Western movie star, Robert Mitchum. The film centers on gunslinger Cole Thorton (Wayne), who returns to the town of El Dorado to work for a heartless landowner, Bart Jason (Ed Asner). However, he realizes he will have to fight his old friend, J.P. Harrah (Mitchum). So, he turns down the offer.
Instead, he teams up with J.P. to protect the citizens of El Dorado from Bart. At the same time, he helps J.P. with his alcoholism. A story about friendship with plenty of gunfights, El Dorado is a western you don’t want to miss.
7. The Shootist (1976) – 7.6
1976’s The Shootist was Wayne’s final film role, and it was one of his most memorable performances. He plays J.B. Books, an aging gunfighter who was recently diagnosed with cancer. He travels to Nevada at the turn of the 20th century for one last gunfight. He rents a room from the widowed Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her son, Gillom (Ron Howard).
Books is puzzled by many citizens in the town like a man who wants to avenge his brother’s death. Others are looking to make a profit off of Books’ notoriety. Knowing his time is running up, Books devises one last gunfight to end his life with a, well, bang.
6. Red River (1948) – 7.8
John Wayne was always the hero, but that wasn’t the case in the 1948 film, Red River. He starred as Thomas Dunson, a tyrannical cattle rancher who works with a faithful trail hand, Groot (Walter Brennan), and his protégé and adopted son, Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). They lead a cattle drive to Missouri following the Civil War.
This journey isn’t easy, and Thomas becomes a dictator. This causes Matt to rebel against him, and they wonder if they’ll ever be a “family.” If you’re used to watching Wayne as a hero, it might be difficult to watch his behavior in this movie, but it’s a stand-out performance.
5. The Quiet Man (1952) – 7.8
The 1952 comedy-drama The Quiet Man is one of the rare times Wayne didn’t star in a western. Instead, he teamed up with Maureen O’Hara, his co-star in four other popular romantic films. The Quiet Man is the best movie they made together.
After accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne) flees to Ireland to buy his family’s homestead. While doing so, he meets and falls in love with Mary Kate Danaher (O’Hara). Their romance seems perfect until Mary Kate’s brother wants to buy Sean’s property out from under him. Uh-oh!
4. Stagecoach (1939) – 7.9
In the 1930s, Wayne mostly worked as an extra or had small roles in films. In 1939, he finally got his big break in showbusiness in Stagecoach, where he played Ringo Kid, a young outlaw who was seeking revenge for his father and brother’s deaths.
The film includes a diverse group of characters, including an alcoholic philosophizer (Thomas Mitchell), a woman with a poor reputation (Claire Trevor), a shy liquor salesman (Donald Meek), and many other travelers. They’re all aboard the same stagecoach and they must live with each other. The film set Wayne on a path to stardom.
3. The Searchers (1956) – 7.9
Wayne was best when he was starring in westerns. In the 1956 film The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas following the Civil War. Several members of his brother’s family are killed and abducted by Comanches, so Ethan is on a hunt to track them down and bring them home.
He eventually finds out that his niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), is alive and with her adopted brother, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). This sends Ethan on a dangerous mission to find them. If anyone can find them, it’s “The Duke.”
2. Rio Bravo (1959) – 8.0
In the 1959 film Rio Bravo, gunslinger Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) kills a man in a saloon. This causes Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) to arrest him, along with the help of the town drunk, Dude (Dean Martin).
However, John soon finds himself in trouble when Joe’s brother, Nathan (John Russell), comes to town to bust his brother out of jail. John must stand his ground, but he’s tested on numerous occasions.
1. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – 8.1
The 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has everything you want in a good western: gang members, violence, and John Wayne. The film begins with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving in town to attend the funeral of rancher Tom Doniphon (Wayne). When he’s asked why he’s attending the funeral, the movie flashes back to 25 years prior.
When Ransom was visiting the town, he ran into a cruel gang led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Tom Doniphon came to the rescue and saved Ransom’s life. Tom repeatedly helps Ransom and the two become a competitive force against Liberty Valance. They’re just too good to be stopped.