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From his apprenticeship in B-movies to his transformation into an American icon, John Wayne's success at the movies seems pinned to the genre he helped create -- the Western. And while it's easy to think of Wayne as playing the same sauntering cowboy in every movie, there's actually an enormous amount of diversity in his
work. "I don't act, I react," was a standard Duke quip. But there's more there than meets the eye. Look closely at Wayne's best movies and you'll see layers as deep as the canyons of Monument Valley.
10. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Ten minutes in, there's all the familiar signposts of a John Ford flick: a romantic subplot, a foreshadowed battle, and some ethnic comic relief. (For an Irish-American, he sure made them the butt of a lot of jokes.) But what makes this movie truly special is Wayne's elegiac performance as a retiring cavalry officer, closing the book on his days on the lonesome frontier. Striking a bittersweet note, Wayne comes off as more authentic than the self-assured cowpokes he usually plays.
9. True Grit
The Duke's in an eye patch, calling everyone "pilgrim." For this, True Grit is much beloved among Wayne fans. And there's a lot to like in the actor's broad, Oscar-snatching performance as Rooster Cogburn, an archetype of irascibility -- a very good thing, since Kim Darby's nails-on-chalkboards performance as the precocious Mattie Ross is less appealing. Here's hoping Mattie's done more justice in the Coen brothers' upcoming adaptation. (That's right!)
In the emphatic tradition of Objective, Burma!, I Want to Live!, and Oliver! comes this delightful Western comedy. The battle-of-the-sexes chemistry between Maureen O'Hara and the Duke is so much fun to watch that it's no wonder these close friends were frequent screen partners. Sure, the whole enterprise is a bit hokey and overstuffed with plotlines, but that's all part of the fun.
7. Fort Apache
Henry Fonda may steal the show as East Coast-bred nincompoop Owen Thursday, but Wayne serves faithfully as Colonel Kirby York, Fonda's wiser second in command. Filmed in strikingly beautiful black and white, Fort Apache is a suspenseful yet gently paced film whose clash of opposites forms the centerpiece of a story that examines the intersection of history and myth.
6. The Shootist
Movies often parallel an actor's biography, and this movie is one of the most poignant examples. At the time of its making, Wayne was in poor health, recovering from his first bout with cancer, the disease that would kill him just three years later. So The Shootist's portrait of a dying gunfighter has particular resonance -- and an appearance by old compadre James Stewart rounds out the movie's funereal feel. Nonetheless, it's a fitting and eloquent end to Wayne's long life in movies.
5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Though the Duke plays second banana to Jimmy Stewart, in some ways his role is more memorable. This flick also contains some of Wayne's greatest scenes: his perspective on the infamous titular shooting is an economical one-shot that's quintessential Ford. And the actor's confrontation with Lee Marvin's Liberty Valance over a plate of spilled food is one of the memorable showdowns of his career.
4. Red River
This noirish Western surveys some dark psychological terrain in its story of the conflict between a steely cattle-driver (Wayne) and his adoptive son (Montgomery Clift). It's also an interesting clash of acting styles, with Clift representing the new wave of Method acting and Wayne standing firm with the more expressive style of the old guard. His dark portrayal of a controlling man also allowed the Duke the chance to flex the acting muscles that often went unused in his pictures with John Ford (quite a control freak himself).
This is the movie that cemented the official Wayne-as-noble-outlaw persona as he played straight-talking, straight-shooting Ringo. Its sweeping story of a stagecoach passing through dangerous frontier put the Western back on the map in A-picture territory, with John Ford as the genre's benevolent dictator. It's also a fast-paced, thoroughly rousing cowboy opera that shows you why people liked Westerns so much in the first place.
2. Rio Bravo
Wayne often fares better in the movies of Howard Hawks than those of John Ford. Ford was a taskmaster, and in Hawks's pictures with Wayne you can feel the actor breathe a bit more. With a great story that plays like a retort to High Noon, Wayne entrusts justice to a motley crew of helpers -- a green gunfighter, a drunk deputy, and a crotchety old-timer -- to clear the town of bandits. Of course, there are exceptions to the Howard Hawks rule, such as...
1. The Searchers
Wayne exercises his dark side in John Ford's masterpiece. As was the case with Jimmy Stewart, beneath Wayne's veneer of American idealism was a dark undercurrent that sometimes rose to the surface and exposed a very different take on the Western Everyman. Playing Ethan Edwards, on a quest to rescue his niece from Indians, Wayne offers his most complicated portrayal of the central subject of so many Westerns: decent men torn apart by violence.