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Top 5 All-Time Best John Wayne Movies

Updated on April 2, 2017

John Wayne or The Duke was, and still is, a movie icon. Everyone has at least an idea of him but this list will show you how to enjoy the John Wayne legacy in one manageable movie fest with 5 movies that helped to define the man.

With in excess of 155 movies choosing just 5 was not an easy task! Wayne made his first credited role movie in 1926 as a Yale football player in a movie titled Brown of Harvard and his last was made 50 years later as a dying gunslinger in The Shootist.

A list of 5 movies seemed to be a manageable goal for someone new to the John Wayne legacy and a great walk down memory lane for those who grew up watching these films.

1. They Were Expendable (1945)

This movie from 1945 is a great example of John Wayne as a war time leader as well as a romantic lead character. It is interesting that while this is a classic John Wayne movie he was not the top billed star in 1945 he was second billed behind Robert Montgomery.

They Were Expendable was directed by the amazing John Ford, with whom Wayne would work often later in his career, and also starred Donna Reed. The title of this movie says it all about how the Navy viewed the PT boats and their crews in World War II and this movie is a great dramatic war movie that can not be missed.

2. Rio Bravo (1959)

This is the classic western and John Wayne led an amazing cast in this movie that was all western with a little humor thrown in as well. Directed by Howard Hawks, who was well known for screwball comedies such as Bring Up Baby, he partnered well with Wayne and this movie will make you smile and enjoy the Hollywood old west.

With co-stars such as Dean Martin, Angie Dickinson and Ricky Nelson you know this is a great way to spend part of a day! The basic plot is a small town sheriff trying to hold a prisoner in jail who is the brother of a local bad guy and he enlists the help of an unlikely crew, a cripple, a drunk and a young gunslinger, to help him in his task. This is a movie that shows more of the range that John Wayne had as an actor and has to be part of any definitive Wayne movie list.

3. The Searchers (1956)

The Searchers was directed by John Ford and also starred a young Natalie Wood as Wayne's characters niece Debbie. This is a classic and iconic western where Wayne portrays Ethan Edwards an embittered Civil War veteran who returns home to find that Comanche had killed his family and kidnapped his niece.

The movie is, as the title suggests, his desperate attempt to find and save his niece from her captors. Ford is again superb in setting the drama and creating a tense plot that Wayne portrays very well. The Searchers is a movie that can not be missed to appreciate the depth of Wayne's ability and is a great movie on its own merit as well.

The closing scene is considered by many the be the best example of a western movie end ever done!

4. The Quiet Man (1952)

This is one of the best examples of a John Wayne movie that doesn't fit into a traditional war or western mold that most people think of when talking about John Wayne movies. The Quiet Man is a beautiful, fun and entertaining movie that shows a wide variety of Wayne's talents and directed again by the great John Ford.

His co-star in this is the stunning Maureen O'Hara with whom he starred many times over their careers and he is again joined by other cast members you will recognize from other John Wayne movies such as Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen.

The Quiet Man tells the story of an American boxer with a tragic event that sends him to his mother's native Ireland where he meets and marries only to have the tragedy affect his new happiness along with his new brother-in-law. If you have not seen this movie you are in for a surprise and a well spent movie time. If you have seen this you know you will enjoy it again along with some of the best one-liners around.

5. The Shootist (1976)

No John Wayne movie list would be complete with his final film, The Shootist. The story of an aging gun fighter with terminal cancer and his desire to end life on his own terms. With James Stewart and Lauren Bacall as the co-stars, along with Ron Howard as Bacall's son, John Wayne portrays a role that is tough, sweet, vulnerable and forever memorable.

This movie is a tribute to everything that John Wayne portrayed as an actor and is an iconic last movie for his career as well as this list.


There you have my list and suggestion for a John Wayne movie fest. With over 155 movies to choose from there are many who will say but what about this movie or that movie and that is what makes choosing just 5 so difficult.

These movies, in my opinion, capture the heart and soul of John Wayne from intense western, to the slightly funny western, the war era leader, the non-traditional romantic lead to the man facing his own mortality. Of course, he made so many other great movies such as Red River, The Alamo, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, True Grit and The Flying Leathernecks and I encourage watching all of them.

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