Ten Recommendations for the Duke's Birthday
Today I'm gonna do something I hope to do every once in a while, that is, talk about great films, and give some space to a hero of the silver screen, one of my favorites, the Duke, the Cowboy, Mr. True Grit, John Wayne.
John Wayne and I share two things in common: (1) a birthday, May 26th; and (2) a love for his movies. You don't know who John Wayne is? And you call yourself an American? Educate yourself now.
Way back in the mid 1980s, yes, the previous century, my grandparents bought a VCR player and stacks of movies that their generation loved: the Three Stooges, Shirley Temple, and John Wayne. And the countless times I saw Disorder in the Court or The Little Princess or Fort Apache gave me a love for Golden Age Hollywood, and most of all, the films of John Wayne. Perhaps in some other post I can ramble about why, but mostly it's an accident of history, a love of time and circumstances where and when I grew up. And the fact that my tall, smiling blacksmith grandfather with his combination of friendly charm and true grit reminded one of the Duke.
He starred in over 142 films, including some 80+ Westerns. It may be a bit tough to whittle that down to just 10 recommendations, but I'm going to offer the following as the best films to begin watching John Wayne.
The Critic's Top Five
In this first five, I'll give you the list of films that tend to be most recognized by top movie lists and critics. I can't speak for the critics, but these have shown most often on those types of lists, from what I've seen through the years.
This 1939 blockbuster rehabilitated the Western genre, and after a decade of making B-movies, launched John Wayne into top billing for nearly three decades following.
It is directed by the legendary John Ford, who would go on to make several dozen films with John Wayne. And it is filmed, the first of many for Ford and Wayne, in the gorgeous Monument Valley, creating an unforgettable style of Western cinematography that Steven Spielberg gave tribute to in the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Rare for him, Wayne plays the outlaw Ringo Kid in this one. It's full of the best stunts one could find in 1939 and everything you expect in a Western: cowboys, Indians, forts, the US Cavalry, outlaws, gunfights, and, of course, a stagecoach.
#4 Rio Bravo
The opening scenes of Rio Bravo are nothing short of brilliant: a carefully orchestrated sequence of beautiful Technicolor shots by the great Howard Hawks. Angles, shadows, and colors integrate to form a work of art framing the great acting of Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson.
Wayne plays the sheriff of Rio Bravo, Texas, who, with his band of deputies and friends, squares off against a powerful local rancher and his gang.
Of note, Claude Akins, one of the nasty baddies in this one, grew up not far from here in the little limestone town of Bedford, Indiana.
Two men love the same woman. One of them will win her heart, one of them will defeat the terror of the town. An epic showdown. And a myth will be born.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also directed by John Ford, is stacked with great actors. Jimmie Stewart the gentleman. John Wayne the tough man's man. Lee Marvin the rascally, brutish outlaw.
Also, this is the first movie in which John Wayne called someone a "pilgrim". A word forever associated with his short, quippy sentences.
#2 True Grit
For his legendary tough guy performance as US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor in this 1969 film.
Marshall Cogburn is hired by a tough young lady to hunt down the man who killed her father but who is now running with the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper, played by a young Robert Duvall. A young Glen Campbell appears playing a Texas Ranger also out to get his man.
This one entertains all the way to the one-against-three epic showdown.
# 1 The Searchers
This one is most often hailed as the greatest John Wayne film. The critic's choice. Books have been written about it. A truly great American film.
Wayne plays the hardened and cynical Ethan Edwards, who with his nephew, spends years searching for his niece, abducted by Apaches during the Texas-Indian Wars.
This is a darker, rawer film than most of Wayne's movies. And it gave birth to an iconic phrase: "that'll be the day."
My Favorite Five
I enjoy the five films listed above and a list of five just couldn't include more, but at times you might find a few other films, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Shootist on those lists. Of course, one should mention The Sands of Iwo Jima, one of the great war movies of all time and nearly earned Wayne the Best Actor award. But then there are the films that I just love, the ones that influenced me the most.
I rolled my eyes in boredom on this one when I was a kid, but later come to love this film. Here we find the same implacable, unconquerable Wayne not in the American West but rather the Emerald Isle of Ireland.
Wayne is paired up with Maureen O'Hara, one of the few women that could nearly overpower his force of personality. Also, appearing are a number of regular supporting actors in Wayne films amongst them, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.
Wayne plays ex-boxer Sean Thornton returning to his ancestral home in Innisfree, Ireland. He wins the heart of the spitfire Mary Kate Danaher, but without some pyrotechnics between Sean, Mary, and her brother. It climaxes with one of the greatest on screen fist fights of all time.
The Quiet Man won John Ford the Acadamy Awards for Best Director (his fourth) and for Best Cinematography.
#4 The Cowboys
A classic coming of age story.
Wayne can't find enough cowboys to lead his herd of cattle to market, so he turns to a group of school age young boys. He becomes father figure to these young 'uns with Greatest Generation "get up and dust yer'self off" parenting.
This Wayne film features one of the greasiest rascals to ever square off against him, the scene-stealing Bruce Dern.
Also, John Williams provides one of the great Western film scores of all time. Yes, that John Williams.
This movie, another under Howard Hawks's direction, is just a great deal of fun. A good example of full color, jazzy, exotic films of the 1960's, it is shot in brilliant Technicolor, and features the music of the inimitable Henry Mancini, including the well known, Elephant Walk.
Wayne and company, again a number of buddies in supporting roles, are in Africa catching wild animals for zoos and circuses (you couldn't make this movie today without making Wayne and company the most evil baddies, but I digress). The movie opens with a fierce-some duel with a rhino and climaxes with a long, hilarious chase of a young elephant through town.
#2 Big Jake
I always loved the way this movie opens, as a narrator describes the way the world, and the nation, were changing in the early 1900's, contrasted with the still wild West.
After a terrible raid on his Texas ranch, Jacob "Big Jake" McCandles is the only man tough enough to chase down his kidnapped grandson and the outlaws who did it into ole Mexico and bring him home alive.
Again he is paired up with the indomitable Maureen O'Hara whose eyes and words spit fire.
Accompanied by his sons, and a friend, Wayne will eventually (of course) complete the mission. Richard Boone plays one of the best bad guys opposite Wayne. Also, this one is a Wayne family bonanza: Michael Wayne, John Wayne's son, did the production, Patrick Wayne, another son, stars as one of Wayne's on screen sons, and Ethan Wayne, actually the youngest of Wayne's sons, plays the grandson.
#1 Fort Apache
Fort Apache was always my favorite. When I was a kid, I thought this was just a cowboys and Indians war movie. As an adult, I realized it was way more than that. It's an action comedy that also doubles as a parable of pride, failed leadership, and greed. This is a good example of a film that appears to just be a Western, but is actually a sideways critique of the American oppression of Native Americans.
Fort Apache is the first of director John Ford's great Cavalry trilogy. In this one, Wayne plays a US Cavalry officer under the brooding and glory seeking Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday, played by another John Ford favorite, Henry Fonda. It climaxes with events rather transparently inspired by the battle of the Little Big Horn.
Great performances abound: Victor McLaglen as a punchy, hard drinking Irish sergeant, Ward Bond as a fatherly sergeant major, a young John Agar, and the lovely Shirley Temple.