Wayne is the most memorable and enduring western star that the movies have seen, appearing over a long career that began in silent movies and lasted until the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976. Unlike some other great western stars, he was always the protagonist, although a couple of his characters (Tom Dunson, Ethan Edwards) had some near-psychotic edges to them. He seemed larger-than-life in the Wayne persona that was always part of his character in a film. These listed here are his greatest performances, but there are others that could make the list, such as Wil Andersen in The Cowboys and J.B. Books in The Shootist.
- In the role that made him a star, Wayne captures the screen instantly in the shot in which he flags down the coach in 1939’s Stagecoach. As the Ringo Kid, his mission for revenge and his relationship with bad girl Dallas (Claire Trevor) dominate the movie when the titular coach isn’t being chased by Indians. The camera loves him, and director John Ford knew how to use him well, even here in their first work together.
- It wasn’t just Ford; Wayne’s work with other directors could be excellent as well. For example, as the obsessive Tom Dunson, his relationship with foster son Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift, in his first and one of his best roles) is the backbone of Red River, directed by Howard Hawks. He’s John Wayne clear through, but his behavior is edgy and uncertain enough that we’re not quite sure how the conflict will end. That’s good writing and directing, too. All of this worked together to make the first great cattle drive western, with John Wayne at the heart of it.
- Hondo Lane is an ill-tempered Arizona scout who puts up with no nonsense and is all business, even in his relationship with Geraldine Page and her son. Although he had used a longarm to good effect in Stagecoach, his seeming familiarity with a rifle in this role was even more natural. (It became an integral part of Wayne’s performance as John T. Chance in Rio Bravo, as well.) He carries the movie, as he usually did, and this excellent performance tends to be underrated in part because this 3D movie wasn’t readily available for viewing for several decades after its release, when the short-lived 3D fashion of the early 1950s had faded.
- The occasionally irrational and always obsessive Ethan Edwards in The Searchers is nevertheless the character who captures us and carries us through his odyssey in pursuit of a niece taken by Comanches. His towering obsession is rivaled by the magnificent landscape of Monument Valley, but he stands up to it with a compelling performance for a great director (John Ford again). One of the iconic shots at the end of the movie shows Ethan Edwards silhouetted in a cabin doorway, holding his left elbow with his right hand before he turns and walks back out into the sunlight. And we’re not sure to what future. (Wayne said the pose was an homage to his mentor Harry Carey, whose widow Olive and son Harry Jr. were part of the cast here.)
- In his second western with director Howard Hawks, Wayne carries the story in Rio Bravo as Sheriff John T. Chance, under siege much of the movie. He faces bad guys who have much greater numbers and resources, while he has only a drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a gimpy jailor (cackling Walter Brennan) and a very young gunman (Ricky Nelson) to stand with him. He even makes the May-December romance with a much younger Angie Dickinson seem reasonable. Here, as in some other films, Wayne was more convincing with a rifle than with a pistol, especially as he got older. And he was beginning to age when he made this movie. Wayne played the same character in two more Hawks remakes, with progressively worse results each time.
- His best acting was arguably in Red River and The Searchers, but he won his Best Actor Academy Award for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. As an aging, one-eyed, drunken U.S. marshal for Judge Isaac Parker, he leads a small party into the Indian Territory in search of a murderer and other miscreants. One of the defining moments of his career in film takes place in a mountain meadow, where the indomitable Rooster Cogburn, facing off alone against four outlaws on horseback, shouts his challenge “Fill your hand, you son-of-a-bitch!”, takes his horse’s reins in his teeth and charges, firing a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other. Thrilling stuff. Good writing and direction, too. It’s interesting to compare Wayne’s version of the character with the Cogburn played 40 years later by another excellent actor, Jeff Bridges.
Newman as Butch, and the real Butch Cassidy.
Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Always a superb actor, Newman brought an elusive quality to most of his performances and played all over the map as the roles required. He didn’t make many westerns, but in one of the greatest he restored the almost-forgotten outlaw Butch Cassidy’s mythology as a likeable western Robin Hood. Especially effective because of good directing, a legendarily great screenplay by William Goldman, excellent cinematography, a notable score and a balancing performance by Robert Redford, Newman’s Cassidy is nevertheless what moves the film, especially in the first half. The chemistry between Newman and Redford is probably the most significant element in making the movie compelling. For another really good performance in a western, see Newman in Hombre.
Redford as Sundance, and the real Harry Longabaugh
Redford was one of the greatest movie stars of his generation, and his natural reticence plays well in westerns that are written with due regard for the taciturn nature of many real westerners. A native westerner himself, Redford could play them well. It would have been good to see him in more westerns, but after the early part of his career, such films were no longer in cinematic fashion. He can be seen in westerns with a modern setting and a concern for social attitudes: The Electric Horseman (1979) and The Horse Whisperer (1998). And he directed and narrated a beautiful film about the 1920s modern west in A River Runs Through It (1992).
- As the less talkative, better-shooting half of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Redford’s Sundance is engraved on the memories of those who love westerns. Two of the best Sundance moments of the movie: The initial scene, shot in sepia tones, where Sundance is at a card table, accused of cheating. The setup is brilliant at revealing elements of both Butch and Sundance’s characters and establishing Sundance’s reputation. And in Bolivia as the pair is trying out for jobs as payroll guards, when Strother Martin as the “colorful” mine manager asks for a demonstration of shooting ability. Inexplicably, Sundance misses badly. He asks, “Can I move?” “What do you mean, move?” “I’m better when I move.” And with that he draws, shoots and hits the target multiple times within what seems like a heartbeat. He was born for the role.
Redford as Jeremiah Johnson, and the real Liver-Eating Johnston.
- Not as heralded these days but even more difficult was Redford’s performance as Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man extraordinaire. There’s not a lot of dialogue, Redford is alone on the screen much of the time, and he has to carry the movie himself. He does. The silences seem part of the story, and he’s very effective in the action sequences, although he doesn’t have the imposing physical size of the historical Johnson. He makes relationships seem convincing with few words, on those few occasions when he forms them. There’s good directing at work here, but the film depends on Redford’s performance.
Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae in Lonesome Dove and Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies
Both of these roles now seem unimaginable in other hands. Duvall is one of the pre-eminent actors of his time, and not as a conventional leading man. He could be on this list for his performances as Boss Spearman in Open Range and Print Ritter in Broken Trail as well.
- Gus McCrae is the more loquacious of the two ex-Texas rangers around whom the epic Lonesome Dove revolves, and he carries more than his share of the action. He’s garrulous and compelling, and it’s especially his relationships (with Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston) that interest us. He’s more engaged than Call with the black-hearted Indian outlaw Blue Duck, and he and Tommy Lee Jones (as Woodrow Call) balance each other nicely. Lonesome Dove might have been made for television, but Duvall himself sees this as his defining performance. For Duvall as similar characters leading trail drives, see the other two in what Duvall refers to as his western trail-boss trilogy, Open Range and Broken Trail.
- As alcoholic country singer Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies, Duvall won an Academy Award as Best Actor. He’s convincing in a May-December relationship with Tess Harper, and he’s great at bringing us along as he sobers up and establishes a new family in which he’s only one of the wounded spirits. It’s a terrific performance in a very good movie, not seen often enough. For a comparable performance by another actor in a similar role, see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. For another similarly great performance by Duvall, albeit in a non-western, see The Apostle.
Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove
Younger than Duvall, Jones nevertheless was persuasive as Woodrow Call, Gus McCrae’s long-time friend, co-Texas ranger and ranching partner. A native Texan, Jones as Call embodied the taciturn, emotionally-repressed man of action. It’s one of the high points in his career. One stand-out moment: As a mounted cavalryman in a Nebraska cow town starts to beat young cowhand Newt with a whip, Call spies the action from down the street. Without a wasted motion, he bounds onto his horse (the Hell-Bitch), rides her full-tilt into the cavalryman and his mount and starts beating him bloody with a branding iron. His explanation when finally pulled off by McCrae? “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man.” Grizzled and unhesitating, he’s a fit companion and complement to McCrae. James Garner takes the role of an older Call in Streets of Laredo, and, although the material isn’t as strong as Lonesome Dove, he’s surprisingly good, too. For other good Jones performances, see him as the long-lost half-Indian father in The Missing, as Hewey Calloway in The Good Old Boys (MfTV, 1995), and as the world-weary modern Texas sheriff in No Country for Old Men.