John Wayne

20 Best John Wayne Movies Ranked

Though he's synonymous with classic Western films, that wasn't all 'The Duke' did. Here are the best John Wayne movies ranked.

Given the legacy of the actor, the best John Wayne movies rank among some of the most influential movies of all time. 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 iconic in countless roles. Whether he was playing a cowboy, a colonel, or a marshal, “The Duke” was always the hero. Wayne’s legacy continues today, even several decades since his death in 1979. Fans still love his films, and the best John Wayne movies continue to be heavily revisited.

Few actors in the history of movies have reached the kind of iconic status as Wayne. He helped define a certain type of hero in movies in his era and there is still a certain influence from Wayne that can be found in modern movies. Though John Wayne western movies are a genre of their own, he showed versatility in some other projects. With a career spanning many decades, Wayne has starred in so many classics as well as some underrated projects. Even those who may not be a fan of the actor may be interested in how the best John Wayne movies have helped shape cinema in general.

20Hatari! (1962)

John Wayne driving a truck in Hatari
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Many fans would likely have a hard time picturing Wayne in a comedy, but the adventure movie Hatari! does have a more comedic edge than most of his more famous roles. The movie tells the story of a group of men who make a living trapping wild animals in Africa and selling them to zoos. Modern audiences might not be too keen to cheer for a protagonist like this even if Wayne brings his typical gruffness to the character. But the adventure aspects might offer enough fun to distract from the things that have aged poorly. It ranks among John Wayne’s favorites of his own movies.

19In Harm’s Way (1965)

John Wayne in InHarm's Way
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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. Though not regarded as one of Wayne’s better war movies, its stunning black-and-white look and seeing Wayne alongside Kirk Douglas is still effective.

18Big Jake (1971)

John Wayne looking intense in Big Jake
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Even as Wayne entered the final decade of his career before his death, he continued to shine in the kinds of roles fans had always enjoyed seeing him in. Big Jake was one of his final hit movies and played to those strengths. The movie follows the kidnapping of a young boy by a gang of outlaws who demand a ransom. Wayne plays the titular hero and the one man who stands a chance of rescuing the boy. The movie is held together by Wayne’s commanding performance up until the exciting climax which alone makes the movie worthwhile.

17McLintock! (1963)

John Wayne in a cowboy hat in McLintock
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McLintock is unique among Westerns, and stands out not only in terms of the best John Wayne movies but the actor’s career in general. Instead of being the usual action-oriented Western adventure, it is focused on a daily story with Wayne playing a hero who is attempting to reconcile with his wife and daughter. In the Western, Wayne plays the titular land baron who is a respected man in the lands. He uses the influence he has in an attempt to keep peace among the various rivals and enemies while also dealing with his own family issues. The box office success came at a time when Wayne was in need of a hit and migth have kept the icon’s career alive.

16The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965)

Four brothers looking in the distance in The Sons Of Katie Elder
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As big of a star as Wayne is, it is fun to see him sharing the screen with other notable actors of the time. In the Western revenge story The Sons of Katie Elder, Wayne and Dean Martin make for a fun team of brothers in the story. The movie follows four brothers who return to their family home for their father’s funeral only to find a conman is attempting to take the home from their mother. Wayne plays the eldest brother and a gunfighter. The movie holds up as a solid Western action movie with some unexpected roughness as aell as humor delivered by Wayne’s costars.

15The Horse Soldiers (1959)

John Wayne in The Horse Soldier
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John Wayne and John Ford collaborated a number of times in their illustrious careers including this Western war epic set during the American Civil War. In The Horse Soldier, Colonel John Marlowe (Wayne) is a Union soldier sent on a mission to attack behind Confederate lines. Along with the various skirmishes 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.

14She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949)

"She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" features Wayne as a Calvary officer.
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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. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has been praised for the smart and engrossing script that makes it more than just an average Western.

13The Cowboys (1972)

John Wayne in The Cowboys
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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. Veteran cattle rancher Wil Andersen (Wayne) embarks on a cattle drive when his crew unexpectedly quits. Needing workers, Wil enlists the help of local schoolboys and the grumpy old man grows to form a bond with them. Wayne is perfectly cast as the bitter and stony elder who grows a heart over the course of the story. It is one of the more charming entries from later in the actor’s career.

12El Dorado (1966)

JohnWayne in El Dorado
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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 fans don’t want to miss, especially to see Wayne and Mitchum sharing the screen.

11The Longest Day (1962)

Lt. Vandervoort and with a fellow soldier posing in The Longest Day
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As much as Wayne might be best remembered in the Western genre, he also appeared in a number of war movies. He was featured as one of the many cast members in the star-studded ensemble for The Longest Day. The movie explores the D-Day invasion from the Allied troops against the German military in World War II. The movie focuses on many different stories and characters taking back in the historic operation, with Wayne joined by the likes of Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and Sean Connery.

10Fort Apache (1948)

John Wayne in Fort Apache
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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 the soldiers at the post wanted Captain York in command. The first movie in John Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy (followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), Fort Apache is the best of the three. It is a standout Western of the 1940s and is notable as one of the first Hollywood movies to show an authentic and sympathetic version of Native Americans.

9The Alamo (1960)

John Wayne wearing a coonskin cap in The Alamo
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John Wayne seems like the obvious actor to star in a retelling of the famous heroic story of The Alamo. Set in 1836, the movie follows a group of brave and dedicated soldiers who decide to stay and defend their fortress against the larger Mexican army. Wayne takes the lead role in the ensemble as Day Crockett. While the movie might get a little lost in its patriotic sensibilities, it is still an exciting adventure movie that was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.

8Red River (1948)

John Wayne in Red River
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John Wayne was nearly 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.” Those who are used to watching Wayne as a hero might find it difficult to watch his behavior in this movie, but it’s a stand-out performance. The movie was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay and was named to the National Film Registry in 1990.

7The Quiet Man (1952)

Mary Kate clinging to Sean in The Quiet Man
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The 1952 comedy-drama The Quiet Man is one of the rare times John 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. Along with being nominated for Best Picture, the movie won John Ford his fourth Oscar for Best Director.

6The Shootist (1976)

John Wayne in the street in The Shootist
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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, such as 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 an appropriate bang. It is a fitting final Western for John Wayne as the genre began to evolve beyond his style.

5Rio Bravo (1959)

John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo
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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. It is a fun and thrilling Western that still entertains years later and inspired other generations of filmmakers. Quentin Tarantino calls the John Wayne western a big influence on his career.

4The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
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The 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has everything fans 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.

3Stagecoach (1939)

John Wayne in Stagecoach
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In the 1930s, Wayne mostly worked as an extra or had small roles in films. In 1939, he finally got his big break 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.

2True Grit (1969)

John Wayne and Kim Darby look for something in True Grit
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The 1969 film True Grit is undeniably one of the best John Wayne movies and one of the most memorable films to come 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. While the 21-century remake is excellent, True Grit stands as perhaps Wayne’s most iconic role.

1The Searchers (1956)

John Wayne The Searchers Cropped
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The fact that iconic director Steven Spielberg watches this John Wayne Western before making a movie speaks to its brilliance and influence. 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, and the result is easily the best John Wayne movie.

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