- John Wayne’s legacy in American cinema is primarily attributed to his roles in revolutionary Western films, which helped solidify many core themes and tropes of the genre.
- Despite personal controversies and questionable character, Wayne’s onscreen performances in films of all genres left a lasting impact on 20th-century American cinema.
- Wayne showcased his versatility as an actor in films like The Quiet Man, Reap the Wild Wind, and The Shepherd of the Hills, proving that he could excel beyond his iconic Western and War movie roles.
John Wayne is primarily known for his famous roles in Westerns and war movies but has also starred in several other classic genres during his illustrious career. Wayne’s legacy can be attributed to his roles in revolutionary Western films such as 1939’s Stagecoach which certified him as a major Hollywood star who embodied sentiments of the rugged and masculine wandering traveler. His performances helped solidify many core themes and tropes of classic Western movies and represented popular 20th-century American ideals of exploration and manifest destiny.
Wayne avoided the World War II draft by claiming a family dependency, allowing him to represent soldiers in movies by acting safely in the United States rather than fighting in the war. Wayne was a controversial figure in his personal life, especially in his later years. His racist statements in 1971 resulted in the removal of his honorary statue for the campus of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Although the actor’s personal character is somewhat questionable, his onscreen performances in films of all genres left behind an impactful legacy on 20th-century American cinema.
10 The Quiet Man (1952)
Widely considered one of the best John Wayne movies ever made, The Quiet Man is a romantic comedy directed by John Ford, one of the most influential American filmmakers of all time. Wayne gives an outstanding performance as retired boxer Sean Thorton alongside Maureen O’Hara who plays his love interest. The film is celebrated for its endearing depiction of its Ireland countryside setting and earned Ford an Academy Award for Best Director.
9 Reap The Wild Wind (1942)
Reap the Wild Wind stars Wayne as Captain Jack Stewart in this romantic action drama directed by the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Wayne’s character finds himself in a battle for a woman’s love with a lawyer (Ray Milland) on a shipwrecked vessel stuck on the Key West coast. The film represents a glamorous golden age of Hollywood in the early 1940s which Wayne seamlessly fits into with his charming looks and suave demeanor typically seen under a cowboy hat.
8 The Shepherd Of The Hills (1941)
The Shepherd of the Hills stars Wayne as Young Matt Matthews in his first-ever movie shot in technicolor. The film is set in the Missouri Ozarks and features Wayne as a disgruntled young man who is bitter with hatred for his father who essentially left him and his mother for dead. Although Wayne is not the central character in The Shepherd of the Hills, he delivers a passionate performance that reveals a greater depth of his emotional range as an actor alongside Betty Field, Harry Carey, and Beulah Bondi.
7 Wake Of The Red Witch (1948)
Wake of the Red Witch may sound like a John Wayne horror film, but it is actually another action-adventure drama with romantic elements. Wayne stars as a corrupt sea captain of the ‘Red Witch’ ship set in the 1860s. The actor surprisingly diverts into darker and more villainous characteristics in the film, allowing him to exercise previously untapped areas of his acting abilities. Some of Wayne’s fans refer to Wake of the Red Witch as one of the actor’s stranger roles of his career, but it is a rare and enjoyable glance at Wayne through a ‘bad guy’ lens.
6 Trouble Along The Way (1953)
Trouble Along the Way stars Wayne as football coach Steve Williams in a less common sports movie role. Wayne actually played football at USC during his college years which allowed the actor to use his real-life experience as an athlete in his onscreen performance. Wayne’s character in the movie is a formerly disgraced coach that is hired by a small Catholic school with the hope that he can lead them to victory in order to save the school from bankruptcy in this redemptive and uplifting story.
5 The High and the Mighty (1954)
Even though John Wayne’s attempt to leave Westerns almost ruined his career, he was able to find success with 1954’s thrilling disaster movie The High and the Mighty. Wayne plays commercial airline co-pilot Dan Roman who is tasked with landing a plane safely once its engine faces failure issues on a flight from Hawaii to California. Wayne’s character is forced to land the plane safely by himself without the help of the pilot who loses his nerve after the engine dies. Wayne gives a commanding performance in a film full of endless peril and suspense.
4 Idol Of The Crowds (1937)
Idol of the Crowds is another rare sports film Wayne stars in, this time with a focus on hockey instead of football. This glance at a younger Wayne puts him on the ice as a part of a series of non-Western films he did with Universal. Wayne’s character Johnny Hanson is a retired hockey player who now owns a chicken farm and claims to have no interest in playing again. He is convinced to come out of retirement to play for the New York Panthers in order to make enough money to renovate his chicken farm.
3 Seven Sinners (1940)
Seven Sinners stars Wayne alongside Marlene Dietrich in this 1940 romantic drama. The film highlights the talents of Dietrich and a young Wayne who play love interests with a natural onscreen chemistry. Seven Sinners is one of the first romance dramas that Wayne was a lead actor in. Despite the film not being a war movie, Wayne’s character Dan is a member of the United States Navy who meets Dietrich’s Bijou from her intriguing singing performances which gain the attention of many other soldiers.
2 Pittsburgh (1942)
Pittsburgh sees the return of Dietrich and Wayne’s onscreen love interest after the popularity of Seven Sinners. Wayne plays Charles ‘Pittsburgh’ Markham, a successful businessman in the steel industry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wayne’s character finds himself isolated at the top of his field through his ruthless business tactics and gets involved in another love triangle involving Dietrich and Randolph Scott, who plays Cash Evans. The presence of World War II is felt heavily in this film before ultimately resorting to common tropes of melodrama that Wayne shines in.
1 Without Reservations (1946)
Without Reservations is a romantic comedy film starring Wayne as a marine who becomes fascinated with a best-selling author Kit Madden (Claudette Colbert) as she travels to Hollywood where her book will be made into a film. Without Reservations is one of Wayne’s best performances in a purely comedic role. It is essentially a light and entertaining film that banks on the great pairing of Wayne and Colbert. Without Reservations is only one example of John Wayne’s best films that aren’t war movies or Westerns.