Jan 142008

John Wayne’s popularity is reflected in his record of being among the top ten box office draws for twenty-five years in a row. His on-screen image was the ideal independent man and he symbolized America, especially since the majority of his films were Westerns or war movies. Famous for his conservative political beliefs and passionate anti-communism, he had failed to serve his country during WWII. Although he worked with several of Hollywood’s best directors, including Howard Hawks and Henry Hathaway, he is so associated with John Ford that he seems to have been Ford’s alter ego.

Early Life

Born Marion Morrison on May 26, 1907, Wayne understandably hated his name, and took his dog’s name, Duke, as his nickname. By all accounts his parents’ marriage was not a happy one, Clyde was a dreamy optimist and Molly was money-oriented. Unfortunately, Clyde never made a lot of money and was too generous to friends, so the family often had to move when they could not pay the rent. Wayne worked part-time and joined youth organizations to avoid trouble at home, so he received his all-American, anti-communist values through his membership in the Boy Scouts, the YMCA and the De Molay, the anti-communist youth wing of the Masons. Wayne grew up in Madison County, an extremely patriotic area, where Independence Day was a bigger event than Christmas. He proved to be good enough at football to earn a scholarship at the University of Southern California (USC), but the scholarship was not enough, so he waited tables and washed dishes at his fraternity, Sigma Chi.

During college, Wayne began dating Josephine Saenz, the daughter of a rich, socially prestigious, Roman Catholic, Hispanic family, who considered themselves Spanish-Americans, not Mexican-Americans. Since he was 19, she was 16, and he was a poor, Protestant, scholarship student, who washed dishes, her parents were far from overjoyed. They undoubtedly became even more concerned when Wayne’s parents divorced on February 13, 1929.


When Tom Mix arranged for some of USC’s football players to have summer jobs at Fox Studios in exchange for box seats at the games, Wayne was one of the lucky players. Unfortunately, a shoulder injury received a week before starting his sophomore year meant that he was dropped from the regular team and lost his scholarship. Despite taking on a second part-time job, he quickly went into debt at his fraternity. Believing that regardless of how hard he worked as a law student, his fraternity brothers would always be better connected since their fathers owned the law firms, he quit university and began working full-time at Fox. Viewing Hollywood as Babylon on earth, Josie’s parents forbade her to see Wayne.

However, director John Ford saw something of himself in Wayne, and got him a job as an assistant prop man, the same job Ford’s brother had gotten him thirteen years earlier. Wayne also worked as a stuntman and extra for other directors like Raoul Walsh and Frank Borzage. Wayne was becoming a successful prop man and bit player when Walsh arranged for him to star in the Big Trail (1930), a big budget extravaganza that was a heavy gamble for the troubled Fox studio. After the studio changed his name to John Wayne, he spent several months with stuntmen learning how to ride, handle a gun, rope and throw a knife. Despite his hard work, the film failed, partially because it was filmed in Fox’s Grandeur, even though only two theaters in the country had been converted to Grandeur by its release. He also lost Ford’s friendship, since he apparently resented that someone else had discovered Wayne. Both of the other two films specified by his contract were bad and did badly, so he was dropped. Fortunately, he was picked up by Columbia but when he earned studio head Harry Cohn’s wrath by having an affair with a starlet who had attracted Cohn’s eye, he was assigned to be a corpse in one movie, and then kicked down to the “B” division until his contract ran out. Wayne never forgot and he never worked for Cohn again.

B Movies

Wayne ended up at Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures on Poverty Row in 1932, where the movies were made so fast that two directors were assigned for each movie, one for the exterior scenes and one for the interior scenes. He slipped from the lead to third or fourth billing but he had a job, which was important since he married Josie in 1933 after dating her for seven years. A willingness to work for anybody ensured that Wayne was employed during the Depression, which enabled him to gradually become a better actor.

Double features had became standard by 1935, and since a studio received a percentage of the A movie revenues but a flat fee for B movies, all that mattered in B movies was keeping the costs down. Wayne joined Monogram Pictures, a successful B movie producer, shortly before his marriage, signing an eight-picture-deal at $2,500 a picture. Wayne did sixteen Lone Star westerns for Monogram between 1933 and 1935. They ran about fifty-five minutes, and despite a shooting schedule of ten to fifteen days they were high-quality B westerns, and Wayne learned a lot from them. He did almost a movie a month, and was a box office draw by his fifth movie, so his salary jumped to $1,000 a week when he signed for his second set of eight westerns. His popularity was partially due to his role as a symbol of Depression America: an honest man assaulted by monopolistic land agents and greedy bankers. In addition, each scene had only one take so when a stunt failed it was obvious that he did his own stunts. In fact, a large part of the movies’ appeal was the stunts, since his usual co-star, Yakima Canutt, was the best stunt coordinator in Hollywood and many of the techniques they invented became standard practice in westerns. Wayne’s acting improved slowly as he took what he liked from other actors and added it to his persona.

In May 1935, Herbert J. Yates’ Consolidated Film Laboratories merged with Monogram (run by Trem Carr and W. Ray Johnston) to form Republic Pictures, and Nat Levine of Mascot agreed to join the corporation in September. The studios cooperated smoothly until the company moved onto Levine’s lot in May 1936. With two independent-minded studio heads and an outside partner, conflict naturally developed. After selling his share to Yates and Levine, Carr became a producer at Universal Pictures. Wayne turned down another contract with Republic to do six films with Carr at Universal, basically because they would not be westerns. Unfortunately, the films were churned out assembly-style and made no impression on either critics or audiences. After another western for Paramount flopped, Wayne ended up not working for seven months until he swallowed his pride and went crawling back to Yates at Republic in 1938. Angry that he had left just when the new studio started, Yates would only give him the lead role in the 3 Mesquitteers, a series of B movies for kids. Despite Wayne’s fear that his career had stalled, he had made 65 films between 1930 and 1939, and was a familiar face to American audiences.


Although he had re-established their friendship in 1933, Ford never helped Wayne during his nine long years of struggle, and apparently wanted to ensure that he was clearly responsible for Wayne’s comeback. Stagecoach (1939) would be that comeback but for both of them. Westerns were not doing well at the time, none of the studios were interested in the project, and Ford only persuaded independent producer Walter Wanger to back it on the condition that it was an A movie western without an A movie budget. The solution was to put an inexpensive actor in the lead role and spend the saved money on an outstanding supporting cast. Wayne got his break and he earned it because Ford believed in tormenting actors into giving performances they did not know that they were capable of.

Stagecoach proved to be a success but Republic continued to assign Wayne to the Mesquiteers films, although he was now the lead. Unfortunately, his second A movie after Stagecoach was Alleghany Uprising (1939), which was not a great film. Unlike Drums Along the Mohawk, released the week before, it portrayed the English very unfavorably, which was not the best idea since Britain was popular due to its stand against Nazi Germany.


By the time of Pearl Harbor, Wayne’s popularity was rising but he was far from Gary Cooper or Clark Gable’s league, and his studio, Republic, was one of the worst in Hollywood. Wayne’s friend Henry Fonda was thirty-seven, three years older than him, and thus exempt from the draft, but he decided to enlist because he did not want the wives and mothers of military personnel to see him on screen instead of fighting for his country. Actually, almost every leading man and director joined up. It was America’s most democratic war and one sixth of American males served. Wayne never publicly discussed why he was not one of them, but he frequently toyed with the idea of enlisting, especially since he knew that Ford only had contempt for those who did not enlist. Admittedly, after Gene Autry enlisted, Yates was determined to keep Republic’s other top money earner bringing in the bacon and ensured that Wayne’s draft board gave him a deferment. Yates even threatened to sue Wayne if he broke his contract and enlisted, but Autry had somehow managed to ignore the same threat.

As one of the few stars left, every studio wanted him, so Wayne’s refusal to serve gave his career a big boost. Seeking escape from shortages caused by rationing and depressing news, Americans flocked to movie theaters, where the odds were that a John Wayne movie was playing. He started off the war as a rising leading man, and he ended it as a symbol of America. He was supposed to apply to join Ford’s Field Photographic Unit, but he postponed enlisting because he was in love with the script for The Fighting Seabees (1944), his next film. However, he did do a grueling three-month-long tour of the front-lines in the Pacific, where he was quite moved by the soldiers’ suffering but not apparently moved enough to join them.

Although Wayne was unable to find time to enlist, he did manage to divorce his wife and remarry. While traveling to Mexico in 1941 with his business manager, Bo Roos, and several of his clients including Ray Milland, Wayne stole Milland’s Mexican mistress, Esperanza Baur, who was nicknamed Chata, and was rumored to have been a call girl. Milland did not speak to him for twenty-five years. His wife seemed to care more about the Catholic Church than him and although the divorce in the summer of 1943 was not contested, his children never forgave him. Actually, Wayne’s marriage had quite likely ended a couple of years earlier but Josie was much too religious to give him a divorce, until he moved in with Chata, which made it clear that it was no mere affair like that with Marlene Dietrich.

The military’s manpower needs for summer offensives in Europe (D-Day) and the invasion of the Philippines meant that his old 3A deferment for family was not enough so Republic had to arrange for Wayne to receive a 2A deferment-“deferred in support of national health, safety, or interest” in April 1944. June 1944 saw his 2A deferment disappear, but Republic’s room full of lawyers managed to get it restored and Wayne safely made it through the war without having to put on his country’s uniform except when he was acting.

Post WWII Stardom

The five-year, non-exclusive contract that Wayne signed with Republic in January 1946 that guaranteed him $150,000 or 10% of the gross for each picture and allowed him to produce showed that he had become a power in Hollywood. He used this power to gather a stock company that included screenwriter James Edward Grant, stuntmen/2nd unit directors Chuck Robinson, Yakima Canutt, and Cliff Lyons, and actors Paul Fix, Bruce Cabot, George O’Brien, Ward Bond, Harry Carey Sr & Jr, Victor McLagen and James Arness.

By 1947, Wayne worried that he was getting too old to be a leading man, so he planned to move into directing but Ford forced him to do Fort Apache, which was a commercial success. However, his real career break came when Howard Hawks cast him in Red River because his favorite actors, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, were unavailable. It was the second biggest money-maker of 1948, and Wayne’s career was booming again.


Although Wayne’s powerful conservative beliefs led him to help found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944, which was intended to oppose Communist infiltration of Hollywood, he stayed on the sidelines during the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) Committee’s 1947 investigation. Many years after HUAC, Wayne admitted to having unknowingly attended a party that was secretly a Communist cell recruitment party, the same type of party that was used as evidence to force other people to name names or be labeled an unfriendly witness. Instead of speaking up, he watched as other people’s lives were destroyed, knowing that he had been guilty of the same mistake.

It is difficult to examine Wayne’s record during that time without coming to the belief that he was a hypocrite. Despite having repeatedly ranted about he had hated High Noon (1952), and boasting that he would never regret having helped run Carl Foreman, the film’s screenwriter, out of the country, when he presented the Best Actor Oscar to his friend Gary Cooper for High Noon, he said “why can’t I find me a scriptwriter to write me a part like the one that got you this?” It seems hard to believe that Wayne’s super-patriotism was not due to his failure to serve during WWII, and many of his friends later stated that they believed it was the case.

Wayne served four one-year terms as president of the Motion Picture Alliance from March 1949 to June 1953, which was when the fear of communism was at its height. His politics clearly influenced his choice of movies since Jet Pilot, Operation Pacific and Flying Leathernecks, all filmed in 1951, were uncompromising paeans to America. Worried about the spread of communism, Wayne made Big Jim McLain (1952), which strangely for an anti-communist film, shows that the greatest threat was not the communists, but the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution.


The relationship between Wayne and Yates had become increasingly difficult, so when it became clear that Yates had little interest in financing Wayne’s dream project, The Alamo, he severed all ties with Republic in 1952. This was easy since the Quiet Man (1952) was the last film on his contract with Republic. Like many other Hollywood stars, he and Robert Fellows formed their own production company in 1952. Wayne-Fellows signed a non-exclusive deal with Warners where Warners financed and distributed their films, paying Wayne $150,000 and 10% of the gross.

It had quickly become clear that Chata was an alcoholic and a mean drunk, but despite these problems, they genuinely loved each other. However, their fights grew more and more serious, and he believed that her alcoholism was largely due to her refusal to cut her emotional bond with her mother. He met Pilar Pallete in Peru while his marriage was deteriorating, he was forty-seven and she was twenty-three, and they fell in love. She followed him to Hollywood, but the divorce hearing was surprisingly bitter because Chata wanted a big alimony, so a lot of dirty laundry was aired. Pilar even had to have an abortion in order to avoid a scandal that would have destroyed Wayne’s career. Chata died thirteen months after their divorce in a small hotel room in Mexico littered with empty liquor bottles.

Wayne’s controversial personal life did not affect his film career, and by 1952 he was getting $250,000 a film, while many cities had several John Wayne movies playing at the same time. However, Wayne-Fellows ended when Fellows’ wife became aware of his affair with a secretary, so Fellows sold his share to Wayne in preparation for divorce hearings. In 1956, Twentieth-Century Fox agreed to pay Wayne $666,666.66 per film in a three-film-deal. When he went to Japan to make his first Fox film, The Barbarian and the Geisha, his last three films, Wings of Eagles, Legend of the Lost, and Jet Pilot, had barely made their money back. The resulting pressure to produce a box office smash increased his impatience with John Huston’s directing style, which was worsened by mutual loathing of each other’s politics.

Aware that he needed a hit, he was happy to work with Howard Hawks on Rio Bravo (1959), playing a character designed for Wayne. Rio Bravo was meant as a criticism of High Noon (1952) and 3:10 to Yuma (1957), which both Wayne and Hawks despised, and was a box office hit, although disliked by the critics.

While his career was back on track, Pilar was unhappy being married to a star, and became addicted to seconal to combat insomnia. Wayne became aware of his wife’s addiction, but instead of putting her in a clinic to dry out, he took her on location for the Horse Soldiers (1959), where he ignored her to focus on the film, so she slashed her wrists in an effort to get attention.

The Alamo

The Alamo (1960) was Wayne’s dream project but just before he was about to start production he learned that Bo Roos, his money manager, had managed to lose the millions that he had invested. Other Roos clients like Red Skelton had gotten screwed as well, but Wayne decided not to sue, realizing that he would look like a fool for allowing someone to lose millions in bad investments. Worse, the Horse Soldiers had not done well at the box office, so only one of his last six films had made money, which would not encourage studios to back the project.

Actually, several studios would have backed the film, but only if Wayne did not direct. He wanted to film The Alamo in Mexico because it was cheaper, but influential Texans, namely Bob O’Donnell, the general manager of a chain of hundreds of theaters in Texas and Jesse Jones, the publisher of the Houston Chronicle, swore that if he filmed in Mexico he would not get any financing in Texas. United Artists gave him $2.5 million in exchange for a three-picture-deal, and he raised $5.5 million from five wealthy Texas oil men. He started with $8 million, but costs passed $12 million, and although the Yale Foundation gave him $1.5 million, he had to mortgage everything that he owned to come up with the rest.

Wayne’s passion for The Alamo was partially motivated by what he saw as a disturbing drift to the left in Hollywood. He intended the movie to be part of the war against international communism by showing that Americans would fight to the death for freedom. Wayne also hoped that The Alamo would help Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy, so he scheduled the premiere for the end of October, just before the election. Wayne despised Kennedy as a sissy rich boy, who couldn’t keep it in his pants. This contempt seems more than a little hypocritical, since Kennedy had served his country and Wayne cheated on all of his wives.

The film was not a runaway hit and its huge budget meant that even though it was re-released several times, and Wayne was able to repay the investors, he himself never got his money back, which ended any hopes of a career as a director. Realizing that many of his peers were retiring, he used the Comancheros (1961) to establish himself as an older leading man. Actually, Wayne’s career as an actor was still booming, and he signed a ten-picture-deal with Paramount.

After beating lung cancer in 1964 he did The Sons of Katie Elder, where he performed most of his own stunts to show that he had beaten the Big C. He had most likely developed cancer while filming The Conqueror (1956) in Utah, near the testing grounds for the atomic bomb. It seems likely because 91 out of 220 members of the cast and crew developed cancer. He also broke a still-strong taboo by talking openly about cancer and telling people to get checked.

Later Career

Wayne’s best work was with directors like Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and Ford, especially Ford since they made thirteen films together. He did Red River and Rio Bravo with Hawks; The Searchers (1956), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Quiet Man with Ford; and he won his only Oscar for Hathaway’s True Grit (1969). However, as the directors aged and he became more powerful, Wayne started to work with weaker, more easily dominated directors like Andrew McLaglen. Like many powerful actors in their prime, he worried more about maintaining his rugged, he-man image than challenging himself, which is why many of his movies in the latter stage of his career are bland.

Wayne did El Dorado (1966) when everyone thought that he, Robert Mitchum and Hawks were all washed up. Realizing that it was do-or-die, Hawks kept re-editing it until he was satisfied. His hard work paid off, and it was a commercial success. War Wagon (1967) and El Dorado had paid Wayne $1 million each, so he was in better financial shape, but not that great since he was in a 70% tax bracket.

Although offered The Dirty Dozen, he turned it down to make The Green Berets (1968). Wayne believed in the international communist conspiracy, that Harry Truman had lost China, and that General Douglas MacArthur should have been let loose in Korea. He supported all-out war in Vietnam because he earnestly believed that if you send one man to fight, you have to support him with everything that you have. His reply to the suggestion that the Vietnam War was fueled by nationalism was “horseshit”. President Lyndon Johnson’s backing meant that he received red carpet treatment at Fort Bragg, where the Green Berets were trained. The film was one of the most extensive cooperative ventures between Hollywood and the military ever, but it was released after the October 1967 march, which brought 100,000 protestors to Washington. Worse, the film was released after the Tet Offensive, a huge tactical defeat for the Vietcong that still ended the American military’s claim that the war was almost over. The Green Berets opened in June, after Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been shot. The film was a deliberate attack on the liberal media, especially with the journalist saying at the end “If I say what I feel, I may be out of a job.”

While the movie was universally trashed by critics, it was still one of the top ten box office hits in 1968, largely because Wayne’s traditional audience was working class and rural, precisely the men fighting the war. Many of them actually hated the war, but they hated the upper and middle-class anti-war protestors who avoided the draft more. As a result, many participants in the 1970 “hard hat demonstrations” carried portraits of John Wayne. During a three-week-long tour of Vietnam hundreds of soldiers told Wayne that they had volunteered for Vietnam because of him.

Given his national popularity, Wayne was naturally an attractive choice for politics, but he turned down George Wallace’s offer to run as his vice president in the 1968 campaign. He agreed with Wallace that private businesses should be able to refuse service to blacks, but he felt that the civil-rights problem would disappear if blacks had the vote. Wayne had joined the John Birch Society in 1960, but left after the 1964 election because he felt that the society’s belief that communists had controlled every American election since 1920 was just silly.

Despite his reputation as a poster boy for the conservatives, Wayne was actually quite tolerant of individuals. Although Wayne was not pro-gay, he got along well with Lawrence Harvey during The Alamo (1960) and Rock Hudson during The Undefeated (1969) because he felt that their sexual preference was none of his business.

Final Years

Wayne regretted turning down Dirty Harry (1971) after he saw the movie, so he did McQ (1974) and Brannigan (1975), which were Dirty Harry-style movies, but they both failed because Wayne was too old. In fact, he looked quite old by the end of his career, and people wondered why he still made films, not knowing that he had little cash flow because of divorces, faulty investments, and the Bo Roos disaster. His estate was worth $30 million when he died, but most of that was his home, the Wild Goose (his boat), and two ranches. He had a large family, gave Josie $50,000 a year, paid 70% tax, agents took 10%, and he made the most idiotic investments possible. Most of his investments in Latin America were dependent on political connections, so his investments suffered when his connections fell from grace. Most important, Wayne needed to work, he did not know how to relax and he hated being alone.

As the children grew older, Pilar tried to build her own life, and the marriage came to an end because he could not accept that she wanted to do something other than take care of him. Wayne replaced Pilar with his personal secretary, Pat Stacey, largely because she was a thirty-year-old woman who worshiped him.

1975 was the first year where Wayne was not one of the top ten box office draws.

It somehow seems fitting that Wayne used his final film to express his battle with cancer. John Ford had died of cancer in 1973, both Wayne’s mother and brother died of cancer in 1970, and his friend Grant Withers died of lung cancer. Wayne himself had had cancer, and knew what cancer did to people, therefore he leapt at the chance to buy the rights to The Shootist (1976), thinking it would be a great vehicle to express his views on cancer and death. He persevered even though he was in such bad shape during filming that his oxygen tank has to be refilled several times during a six-week-long shoot.

When Wayne presented Best Picture at the 1978 Oscars, he had just recovered from an operation that had taken out his entire stomach and the cancer tumor inside. Unfortunately, the cancer continued to spread. Unlike Pedro Armendariz, he did not kill himself, and decided to die the miserable death. He passed away on June 11, 1978.

Responding to popular demand, the White House and Congress decided to strike a special gold medal in Wayne’s honor. Only eighty-three people had received this honor, including George Washington, Thomas Edison, Robert Frost, the Wright Brothers, and Robert Kennedy.

Historical Movies:

The Big Trail (1930)

Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring John Wayne and Marguerite Churchill
A scout leads a wagon train to Oregon, while battling storms, deserts raging rivers and Indian attacks.

Stagecoach (1939)

Directed by John Ford, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne
A group of passengers including a prostitute, gambler, outlaw, and alcoholic doctor on a stagecoach must overcome personal animosities to survive when they learn that Geronimo is on the warpath.

Allegheny Uprising (1939)

Directed by William A. Seiter, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne
When a British officer is unwilling to interfere with a trader who is abusing a government permit to sell liquor and weapons to Indians, a frontiersman leads a group of men to stop the shipments even though this leads to direct opposition to the British government a decade before the American Revolution.

Dark Command (1940)

Directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Claire Trevor and John Wayne
Bob Seton, a Texas cowboy, beats out local schoolteacher Will Cantrell (William Quantrill) for the job of marshal of Lawrence shortly before the Civil War starts. The bitter Cantrell forms a band of lawless guerrillas that rampage through Kansas until Seton learns that they plan to attack Lawrence. (full review)

Three Faces West (1940)

Directed by Bernard Vorhaus, starring John Wayne and Sigrud Gurie
A refugee from Hitler’s Germany arrives in a small Dakota town but when the Dust Bowl forces everyone in the town to emigrate to Oregon, she must choose between the man who helped her escape Germany and the man who is leading the emigration.

Flying Tigers (1942)

Directed by David Miller, starring John Wayne and John Carroll
A band of American pilots are hired by the Chinese government to fight the Japanese while America is still neutral in the early days of WWII.

Reunion in France (1942)

Directed by Jules Dassin, starring Joan Crawford and John Wayne
A member of the French resistance hides a downed American pilot and tries to smuggle him out of France.

The Fighting Seabees (1944)

Directed by Edward Ludwig, starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward
Construction workers are trained to defend themselves so that they can build whatever is needed in the Pacific without having to tie down badly needed soldiers to defend them.

Tall in the Saddle (1944)

Directed by Edwin L. Marin, starring John Wayne and Ella Raines
A man arrives in town to find the rancher who had hired him dead and tries to solve the mystery of his death.

Back to Bataan (1945)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk, starring John Wayne and Anthony Quinn
After the fall of the Philippines during WWII, an American colonel stays behind to lead Filipino guerrillas against the Japanese occupation force.

They Were Expendable (1945)

Directed by John Ford, starring Robert Montgomery and John Wayne
Although dismissed by the navy as too weak for combat, PT boats prove their worth in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor as America struggles to defend the Philippines during WWII. (full review)

Dakota (1945)

Directed by Joseph Kane, starring John Wayne and Vera Ralston
A professional gambler and his bride intend to become rich by buying land where the railroad will be built but when the local boss sends his thugs to steal their savings, they join the townspeople to resist the boss.

The Angel and the Badman (1947)

Directed by James Edward Grant, starring John Wayne and Gail Russell
An outlaw reconsiders his violent ways after being nursed back to health by a Quaker woman.

Fort Apache (1948)

Directed by John Ford, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne
A strict martinet is posted to a frontier outpost and tries to win glory by luring Apache chief Cochise into battle instead of negotiating a peaceful settlement as advised by his more experienced subordinates.

Red River (1948)

Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift
A Texan rancher leads a huge cattle drive to Missouri but his tyrannical ways cause his adopted son to take the herd away from him.

3 Godfathers (1948)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Pedro Armedariz
Three outlaws on the run in the desert encounter a woman who dies after giving birth, so the men risk their lives to bring the baby to safety.

The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)

Directed by George Waggner, starring John Wayne and Vera Ralston
In 1818 Alabama, a member of a Kentucky militia unit falls in love with a French woman and helps exiled French soldiers defend their land against an unscrupulous local politician.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru
A captain in the US cavalry, on the verge of retirement, struggles to prevent an uprising among a nearby Indian tribe.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)

Directed by Allan Dwan, starring John Wayne and John Agar
A tough Marine sergeant is hated by the members of his squad until his harsh training methods enable them to survive the landing at Tarawa and then the climatic battle at Iwo Jima.

Rio Grande (1950)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara
The commander of an outpost on the Rio Grande must battle elusive Apaches and his ex-wife who has appeared searching for their son, a recruit under his command.

Operation Pacific (1951)

Directed by George Waggner, starring John Wayne and Patricia Neal
The executive officer of a US submarine battles guilt over the death of his commanding officer and his failed marriage while fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII.

Flying Leathernecks (1951)

Directed by Nicholas Ray, starring John Wayne and Robert Ryan
A tough Marine major trains his pilots hard in preparation for the battle for Guadalcanal.

Big Jim McLain (1952)

Directed by Edward Ludwig, starring John Wayne and Nancy Olson
Two investigators for the House of Un-American Activities committee are sent to Hawaii to investigate a ring of Communist party agitators.

Hondo (1953)

Directed by John Farrow, starring John Wayne and Geraldine Page
An Army dispatch rider ends up involved with a widow and her son who live near Apaches.

The Sea Chase (1955)

Directed by John Farrow, starring John Wayne and Lana Turner
At the beginning of WWII, a German freighter captain struggles to evade Allied warships and return to Germany.

Blood Alley (1951)

Directed by William Wellman, starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall
A freighter captain is persuaded to smuggle a shipload of refugees fleeing the Chinese Communists to Hong Kong.

The Conqueror (1956)

Directed by Dick Powell, starring John Wayne and Susan Hayward
Mongolian warlord Temujin battles other tribes and eventually becomes Genghis Khan.

The Searchers (1956)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter
A bitter ex-Confederate spends years hunting the Comanche who killed his family and abducted his niece.

The Wings of Eagles (1957)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Dan Dailey
The biography of a navy pilot who struggled to create the air wing of the US navy and then became a Hollywood scriptwriter after becoming paralyzed in an accident.

Jet Pilot (1957)

Directed by Josef von Sternberg, starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh
An American Air Force officer is assigned to escort a defecting Russian pilot and becomes involved in a Soviet plot to steal American secrets.

The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)

Directed by John Huston, starring John Wayne and Eiko Ando
Townshend Harris is the first United States consul in Japan and must overcome powerful hostility towards Americans.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin
After a small town sheriff arrests the brother of a powerful rancher, he enlists the aid of an old man, a drunk and a young gunfighter to hold out against his hired guns until the marshal arrives.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and William Holden
A large unit of Union cavalry rides through Mississippi tearing up railroad tracks and disrupting supply lines while heading towards a vital railroad center. Unfortunately, a Southern belle learns of the destination and must be taken along to preserve secrecy.

The Alamo (1960)

Directed by John Wayne, starring John Wayne and Richard Widmark
As Santa Anna’s army advances deep into Texas to crush the young republic, General Sam Houston sends a small force under Colonel Travis to hold the Alamo long enough for him to organize a proper army. Joined by volunteers led by Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, the men face hopeless odds but refuse to surrender. (full review)

The Comancheros (1961)

Directed by Michael Curtiz, starring John Wayne and Stuart Whitman
When Texas was still an independent republic, a Texas Ranger is forced to work with his prisoner, a gambler wanted for killing a man in a duel, to infiltrate renegade white men known as Comancheros, who are selling guns to the Comanche.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Directed by John Ford, starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart
A senator who first became famous for killing a feared outlaw returns to town for the funeral of an old friend, and reveals the truth behind the killing.

The Longest Day (1962)

Directed by Ken Annakin, starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne
Tells the story of D-Day (June 6, 1944), from both the Allies’ and the Germans’ viewpoints.

McLintock (1963)

Directed by Andrew V. McLagen, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara
A powerful cattle baron battles his ex-wife and local politicians who are scheming to gain control of his land.

The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

Directed by George Stevens, starring Max von Sydow and Charlton Heston
The life of Jesus Christ.

In Harm’s Way (1965)

Directed by Otto Preminger, starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas
As the US Navy struggles to transform itself from a peacetime navy to a wartime navy during WWII, a captain who was reprimanded for showing too much initiative during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is given the opportunity to redeem himself by ejecting the Japanese from a key island.

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

Directed by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne and Dean Martin
Drawn back to town to attend their mother’s funeral, four brothers find themselves battling the town gunsmith to regain the ranch he cheated their father out of.

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966)

Directed by Melville Shavelson, starring Kirk Douglas and Senta Berger
A Jewish-American army officer is recruited to head Israel’s army as it prepares to declare independence in 1948.

El Dorado (1966)

Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum
Essentially a remake of Rio Bravo. A gunfighter refuses a contract because it would mean fighting an old friend, who is the local sheriff. When the sheriff becomes a useless drunk, he has to sober him up while facing down the powerful landowner who wants to take over the town.

The War Wagon (1967)

Directed by Burt Kennedy, starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas
A rancher is released from prison seeking revenge against the man who framed him to steal his ranch which has a valuable gold mine. Since the gold is transported in a heavily armored stagecoach guarded by fifty men, he teams up with the man who shot him five years ago.

The Green Berets (1968)

Directed by John Wayne, starring John Wayne and David Janssen
A colonel in the Green Berets oversees two missions: the defense of a fortified camp deep in Vietcong territory and the kidnapping of a North Vietnamese general.

True Grit (1969)

Directed by Henry Hathaway, starring John Wayne and Glen Campbell
A drunken US marshal and a Texas Ranger help a young girl chase her father’s murderer, who has joined a dangerous gang of outlaws.

The Undefeated (1969)

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring John Wayne and Rock Hudson
A group of ex-Confederate soldiers who lost their land to carpetbaggers are trying to start a new life serving Emperor Maximilian in Mexico. They run into a group of men led by a former Union colonel who are selling horses to the Mexican government and the two groups must work together to fight the Juarista rebels. (full review)

Chisum (1970)

Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, starring John Wayne and Geoffrey Deuel
Cattle baron John Chisum finds himself drawn into the Lincoln County War when he helps Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett try to stop Lawrence Murphy from taking over the county. (full review)

Rio Lobo (1970)

Directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Jorge Rivero
After the Civil War, a former Union colonel ends up working with former Confederate opponents to find the man who betrayed him at the end of the war.

Big Jake (1971)

Directed by George Sherman, starring John Wayne and Richard Boone
An elderly rancher hunts the outlaws who kidnapped his grandson.

The Cowboys (1972)

Directed by Mark Rydell, starring John Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne
When all of his regular cowboys head for the gold fields, a rancher is forced to hire a group of boys to get his herd to market but they are being hunted by rustlers.

The Train Robbers (1973)

Directed by Burt Kennedy, starring John Wayne and Ann-Margret
A widow hires a gunfighter to find gold stolen by her husband so that she can return it and move on with her life.

Cahill, US Marshal (1973)

Directed by Andrew McLagen, starring John Wayne and Neville Brand
US Marshal Cahill is legendary for his toughness, so his two sons rob a bank to gain his attention. When they are kidnapped, he hunts down the outlaws who took them.

Rooster Cogburn (1975)

Directed by Stuart Miller, starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn
A woman hires marshal Cogburn to hunt down the men who killed her preacher father and his entire congregation.

The Shootist (1976)

Directed by Don Siegel, starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall
A gunfighter who has terminal cancer and sees that the world of gunfighters is disappearing, tries to find an opponent for one last shootout, so he can die with a gun in his hand.

Further Reading:

John Wayne: American-Randy Roberts and James S. Olsen, New York, The Free Press, 1995.

Adopting an extremely pro-Wayne attitude, the authors state that his values were American bedrock. However, it is a very good biography that provides a perceptive analysis of Wayne’s films and his personal life. Despite their genuine respect for the man, the authors do not sidestep the less appealing aspects of Wayne’s character. It is a very in-depth look at his life, and has a very detailed description of his final and lengthy battle with stomach cancer. Basically, it is the best of the John Wayne biographies, the real standard.


Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne-Donald Shepherd and Robert Slatzer with Dave Grayson, Citadel Press Books, New York, 2002.

Much of the dialogue is taken from the extensive journals of Dave Grayson, John Wayne’s personal makeup artist. The authors are open about their friendship with Wayne, but they still verge on being apologists. Also, the book is not helped by being organized by themes, instead of chronologically, as is traditional and logical. As a John Ford fan, I find it odd that the authors focus more on his marriages than on his relationship with Ford, even though they did 13 films together.