John Wayne often saved the day in dozens of Westerns and war dramas, but there were plenty of great movies where The Duke wasn’t the hero. As far back as the late ’20s, John Wayne was getting into gunfights, but after he shot to stardom in the ’30s with Stagecoach, he became a superstar on the silver screen and a larger-than-life hero that upheld justice by deciding right from wrong with a pair of six-shooters. After his career stabilized, he was able to experiment a little with his on-screen persona and occasionally share top billing or even play a villain.
From the ’40s until the ’60s, it was rare for actors to branch out too much from the role they occupied with the big studios, who felt audiences were used to only seeing them one way. Some of the best performances of Wayne’s career came from being allowed to add nuance, complexity, and flaws to his performances rather than continue to occupy mythological status to his fans. As times change, these are the roles where The Duke’s talent shines, though there’s no doubt his career taken as a whole is what made his inedible mark on Hollywood.
10The Wake Of The Red Witch (1948)
A rare non-Western for Wayne, The Wake of the Red Witch finds him playing the corrupt and callous Captain Ralls, who scuttles the Red Witch after his employer, a Dutch shipping baron (Luther Adler) steals and marries the woman he loves (Gail Russell). While Wayne’s character is complex, Capt. Ralls is a cruel man with an almost diabolical obsession with Angelique, and is often driven to drunken rages in which he beats his crew. The entire movie is shown through the eyes of a member of Ralls’ crew (Gig Young), who has a birdseye view of his deplorable behavior in the name of love.
Stagecoach was Wayne’s breakout role, but he was one of several prominent actors of the time all appearing as passengers on a stagecoach through inhospitable Apache territory. It was the first of several collaborations with John Wayne and director John Ford wherein The Duke played an outlaw called the Ringo Kid opposite a saloon girl (Clair Trevor), a liquor salesman (Donald Meek), and other colorful characters. Through the ensuing adventure, the group learns to rely on one another and not judge each other based on appearances, particularly true for Wayne’s charming rogue.
8In Harm’s Way (1965)
In the Naval drama In Harm’s Way, Wayne shared billing with Kirk Douglas, and the pair played two Navy mavericks during Pearl Harbor without a lot of the bravado typical of The Duke’s wartime movies. Wayne’s Captain Torrey is undisciplined and often succeeds by luck rather than true skill, which not only causes him to be demoted but forces him to reconcile with his estranged son (Brandon de Wilde). Just as he strikes up a romance with a nurse (Patricia Neal), Cmdr. Eddington (Douglas) has a mission for him that will help salvage his reputation.
7The Sons Of Katie Elder (1965)
In The Sons of Katie Elder, John Wayne stars alongside singer Dean Martin, Earl Holliman, and Michael Anderson Jr. as four brothers determined to avenge their parent’s death. They come to find their family ranch has been swindled from their deceased parents over a card game, and trouble follows them all around Clearwater, Texas until the epic final showdown. Wayne, post surgery for lung cancer during filming, gives a layered performance as the eldest son and gunslinger, and offers a glimpse of the indefatigable character he would play in his next collaboration with director Henry Hathaway in True Grit.
6The Longest Day (1962)
The Longest Day is one of The Duke’s epic war movies from the early ’60s, focusing on the trials and tribulations of D-Day from the perspective of both the Allied armies and the German point of view. Wayne plays Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort and shares the screen with a sprawling cast of famous actors including Henry Fonda, Richard Burton, Robert Ryan, and Sean Connery. Vandervoort is a reflection of the film’s vibe overall; it is a stripped-down, no-nonsense war movie informed by individuals who had served in WWII, and as such was not pro or anti-conflict, simply concerned with getting every reality about war thoroughly presented.
5The Sea Chase (1955)
Despite the fact that Wayne often played heroes of WWII for the Allied Forces in his war movies, he played a German captain Karl Ehrlich in The Sea Chase. The Duke doesn’t use a German accent while he navigates a way home while being pursued by British ships, but does his best to present a German officer who doesn’t agree with Nazi politics but is still perceived as the enemy. It’s a nuanced performance even though it comes across as an odd choice for Wayne.
4Reap The Wild Wind (1942)
Cecil B. Demille’s epic Reap the Wild Wind found The Duke playing Captain Jack Stuart rivaling Ray Milland’s Stephen Tolliver for the affections of Paulette Goddard’s Loxi Claiborne. Claiborne is a ship salvager in Florida who falls for Wayne’s rakish captain after his vessel wrecks on the Key West shore. However, any romance they might pursue is truncated by the arrival of Tolliver, a lawyer who designs on Loxi himself. Wayne straddles the line between hero and antihero and comes across more as a rogue than anything else, complete with The Duke’s patented swagger.
3The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of Wayne’s best movies and a Western with all the intriguing layers of a film-noir, with Wayne playing gunslinger Tom Doniphon opposite Jimmy Stewart’s Senator Ransom Stoddard. The senator’s platform revolves around who really “shot” the outlaw Liberty Valance and the film changes shape as Stoddard tells onlookers at a funeral the tale of his political origins. Wayne’s character is depicted as possibly dubious for his profession of professional killing, but Stewart’s lovable reputation as an actor is used to belie the possibility that he’s used Doniphon’s reputation as the man who truly shot Liberty Valance to his advantage.
2How The West Was Won (1962)
How The West Was Won was a Western epic comprised of sections directed by frequent collaborators Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall. Several members of the huge cast of stars, which included James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, and countless others played real historical figures, including Wayne who portrayed Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. At an earlier time in any of their careers, there might not have been the budget to employ so many recognizable Western stars, but in the early ’60s, it was possible to assemble them all together.
1Red River (1948)
The Duke played Thomas Dunson in Howard Hawks’ Western masterpiece Red River, about a tyrannical cattle driver trying to get a herd to Missouri. The drive represents more than a decade of work building up a herd from two heads of cattle into 10,000, and will set Dunson up for life if he can get it to market. Eventually, his cruelty over the course of the journey inspires a mutiny among the cowboys, instigated by his adopted son. While The Duke often played sterling heroes who could be one-dimensional, Hawks got a powerfully sadistic performance out of John Wayne, making the feud with his son even more heartbreaking.