There are plenty of actors and actresses I enjoy watching.
Among the stars from Hollywood’s modern era, I’m probably most partial to the likes of Denzel Washington, who is comfortable — and appealing — in so many roles.
The dark side of Christian Bale is also intriguing, and so is the moodiness of Daniel Craig, the timelessness of the late Sean Connery, the irreverence of Samuel L. Jackson, the sassiness of Helen Mirren, the versatility of Halle Berry and the overall excitement of Kate Beckinsale’s action roles have all earned them a high position on my must-watch list.
But if there is one actor/actress who has long remained atop my collection of silver-screen favorites it is The Duke — John Wayne, who died in 1979 at age 72. More than 40 years following his passing, Wayne remains at or near the top of many critics’ compilations for either the best or most influential actor in film history.
Wayne, who was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, starred in 142 motion pictures, and according to one biographer, “personified for millions the nation’s frontier heritage.” Wayne was, and will always be, the ultimate star of western-themed action movies.
Wayne arguably may not have been the most polished actor, but few — if any — others have ever commanded the screen like him. He may never have possessed the delivery of Connery or the grace of Laurence Olivier, but The Duke always had a special connection with his audience and we all knew that behind that sleepy-eyed stare was a brewing storm. At one time or another before the final credits rolled, we knew he would take out an entire group of bad guys with a single punch — or bullet.
Although he appeared in many movies that would not be categorized as action films, those were his true calling, whether he was going head-to-head with a band of outlaws or a battalion of Nazis.
Here’s my top 10 films starring The Duke:
10. “Trouble Along the Way” (1953): Wayne portrayed a football coach hired by a small Catholic university to train its football team in hopes of winning games (and making money) to save the school from bankruptcy.
9. “Rio Bravo” (1959): Co-stars Dean Martin and Rick Nelson were a perfect pairing with Wayne. A strong supporting cast that included Walter Brennan, Angie Dickinson, Claude Akins and Ward Bond also set this effort apart.
8. “Stagecoach” (1939): This was the award-winning film that moved Wayne to Hollywood’s “A” list. Despite being 32 at the time, he played the “Ringo Kid,” a late teen/early 20s bad boy turned good guy. I always felt Thomas Mitchell actually stole this movie in his role as an “alcoholic philosophizing doctor.” Mitchell won an Academy Ward for his performance.
7. “Hondo” (1953): Hondo Lane (The Duke) protects a woman and her son from warring Apaches. The movie was the second highest-grossing 3D movie of the 1950s, topped only by “House of Wax.”
6. “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949): Arguably The Duke’s finest World War film, “gritty realism and complex characterization” set it above many other similar movies of that era. Wayne was most famous for his roles in westerns, but also starred in quite a few war dramas like this one.
5. “Red River” (1948): This film always ranks high among Wayne fans because it “exposed a more subtle and complicated side to his cowboy persona,” according to one critic.
4. “The Alamo” (1960): This was Wayne’s directorial debut, retelling the historic 1836 battle where 156 Texan soldiers squared off against a Mexican army of 7,000. Wayne starred in the lead role as Davy Crockett.
3. “The Searchers” (1956): Wayne’s Ethan Edwards figure, a middle-aged Civil War veteran, spent years looking for his abducted niece (Natalie Wood). This film is considered an overall masterpiece by most film observers.
2. “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949): With a budget of $1.6 million, the movie was one of the most expensive Westerns made up to that time — and a huge success at the box office.
1. “Fort Apache” (1948): What elevated this to No. 1 for me was a combination of some of the magnificent battle scenes, plus the accompanying performance of Henry Fonda as Lt. Col. Owen Thursday.
Film historian Andrew Sarris may have chronicled Wayne the best:
“Wayne’s most enduring image is that of the displaced loner uncomfortable with the very civilization he is helping to establish and preserve. At his first appearance, we usually sense a very private person with some wound, loss or grievance from the past. At his very best he is much closer to a tragic vision of life ... projecting the kind of mystery associated with great acting.”