best film:   The Searchers is the best film of all-time. This cannot be definitively proven of course – there is a short list of films that have a strong case and warrant serious consideration. Some of these films on the list (2001: A Space Odyssey belongs on there, The Passion of Joan of Arc) may be more even – or more formally perfect – but the transcendent bookmark opening and closing shots make The Searchers tough to beat. So obviously, this is John Wayne’s best film. That said, it is worth at least acknowledging the greatness of six (6) other John Wayne films including Stagecoach, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, Rio Bravo, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.


best performance:   John Wayne gives one of the best performances in screen history as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. He is a man with a dark past, hidden passions – a history of a relationship with his brother’s wife.  Edwards is xenophobic, scarred by the war yet clearly shows moments of tenderness and redemption (including the moment of him above saddling his horse knowing his family’s fate – another would be the epic lifting of Natalie Wood and carrying her off upon their reunion). The physical acting in the final shot should not be overlooked either. Wayne’s Edwards is shut out of the domestic life of this family – after all that work – the whole search – he has no home and that is brilliantly conveyed by Wayne without speech. This is a masterful performance – and if that was not enough to fend off Wayne’s naysayers, he is nearly as good in Red River. Wayne battles with a Montgomery Clift at the top of his game (and Wayne wins). Clift is an undeniable talent and the champion of the new age of acting coming in the late 1940s to early 1950s (Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman) as the generations changed from the old guard (for sure – John Wayne belongs here) to the new. So for Wayne to tangle with Clift is quite an achievement.


John Ford’s The Searchers is many things – a meditation on wilderness and civilization is chief amongst them.  It is also an update of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is Ahab – monomaniacal.


stylistic innovations/traits:   The argument for John Wayne is based his filmography and his incontestable screen presence. Even after subtracting his uncredited roles early in his career and his cameos, he has over 100 credits – with thirty-three (33) landing in the archives. Wayne, like Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, often worked in genre films (mainly westerns of course) and has just three Oscar nominations (with a win for True Grit in 1969). Wayne made a dozen films with the great John Ford – and four (4) of his best five (5) performances are in Ford films. Wayne did not have great range of course. Nobody would want to see him try a tricky accent or try to disappear into character like Paul Muni, Dustin Hoffman or Philip Seymour Hoffman (but ask yourself if you would like to see any of these three actors play Ethan Edwards in The Searchers?) The same could be said for Bogart, Grant, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Cruise. There are actors that disappear, show their range, and can inhabit a character – and then there are actors who essentially play themselves or at least the on-screen version of themselves – but have an undisputable presence (Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford). Nobody wants to John Wayne doing Shakespeare with Laurence Olivier – but Olivier would look silly playing Thomas Dunston in Red River.


from 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the middle film of John Ford’s Calvary Trilogy (Fort Apache in 1948 and Rio Grande in 1950). This is also set in Monument Valley – and Wayne’s


directors worked with:  John Ford (12) including the Civil War segment of How the West Was Won, Howard Hawks (5), Henry Hathaway (3), William Wellman (2), Raoul Walsh (1), Cecil B. DeMille (1), Michael Curtiz (1), Otto Preminger (1), Don Siegel (1).


Wayne as “The Ringo Kid” in 1939’s Stagecoach. Wayne is thirty-two (32) here and had already appeared in dozens of films – but this is the true start of his career with Ford’s stylistic sonic boom flying tracking shot here in on Wayne – introducing him.


top five performances:

  1. The Searchers
  2. Red River
  3. The Quiet Man
  4. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  5. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance


The work with Ford is obviously the root of Wayne’s filmography – but there is a fair resume without his main collaborator (more than Mifune without Kurosawa or Ullmann without Bergman)  including Red River (here) and Rio Bravo with Hawks that help Wayne’s defense.


archiveable films

1933- Baby Face
1939- Stagecoach
1940- Dark Command
1940- The Long Voyage Home
1942- Reap the Wild Wind
1945- Back to Bataan
1945- They Were Expendable
1948- Fort Apache
1948- Red River
1948- 3 Godfathers
1949- Sands of Iwo Jima
1949- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
1950- Rio Grande
1952- The Quiet Man
1953- Hondo
1954- The High and the Mighty
1955- Blood Alley
1956- The Searchers
1959- Rio Bravo
1959- The Horse Soldiers
1960- North to Alaska
1960- The Alamo
1961- The Comancheros
1962- Hatari!
1962- How the West Was Won
1962- The Longest Day
1962- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
1965- In Harm’s Way
1965- The Sons of Katie Elders
1966- El Dorado
1969- True Grit
1970- Rio Lobo
1976- The Shootist