Wayne's introduction in the 1939 John Ford western, Stagecoach was heavily thought out. Ford wanted Wayne to do something flashy with his gun, but the script specified a rifle and Ford didn't want to diverge from the script so spinning six guns were out. And besides, Ford reasoned, any western actor worth his salt could spin a pair of six guns and it wasn't something the audience had not seen a hundred times before.
'Do something flashy with the rifle,' Ford told Wayne.
Stuntman Yakima Canutt, a close friend of Wayne's, suggested spinning a Winchester and then cocking it with one hand which was something he'd seen as a kid when Buffalo Bill's West Circus came to his home town. Wayne liked the idea and a standard Winchester was used but the barrel had to lose an inch because it wouldn't clear Wayne's body cleanly. The scene, almost 18 minutes into the film, has become part of cinema legend - we don't see Wayne's character until then but we are told he is an outlaw and his presence is felt at the edge of each frame so when he finally appears on screen his entrance is breathtaking.
He has a youthful handsome face, not movie star handsome but compelling just the same. His deep blue eyes, which show up pale grey in black and white, command the viewer's attention. The camera lingers on Wayne's face for his introduction and although it is a face that has been seen many times before in one cheap movie or another, it has never been framed quite like this and for the first time we truly see John Wayne. By the time he made Stagecoach, Wayne had already appeared in more than eighty movies but it is with this movie that he assumes his position on screen as a true superstar - a position he would hold for the rest of his career. And indeed even now, many years after his death, he still ranks as one of America's favorite movie stars. Modern day movie stars don't even come close to Wayne.
Wayne became the personification of America and in many ways John Wayne was America. I am not an American, I am THE AMERICAN, Mark Twain wrote in his notebook in 1897. It's a famous quote and one which may suit Wayne even more than it's original author.
As an actor Wayne didn't really rate himself and believed that his stardom had been due to the support of others rather than his own hard work.
'The reason Pappy (John Ford) made a star of me was because I played cards with him.' John Wayne.
Though in this Wayne is wrong and whilst it may have taken him an age to become a true superstar, it was inevitable ever since he'd first appeared as an uncredited extra before the camera. Stagecoach wasn't Wayne's first big budget movie but it was his first real success - he should have become a big name almost ten years before in Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail but the movie, which is these days considered a classic, was an expensive flop - and following the movie things were never the same again. True Wayne made several other B-movies following Stagecoach, but with each subsequent picture he became a bigger and bigger star. It wasn't until 1948 that Wayne delivered his second truly classic western with Red River but between that and Stagecoach there had been a few sturdy if not quite classic westerns - Angel and the Badman and Tall in the Saddle to name but two. Wayne followed up Red River with Fort Apache and from there on he seemed to crank out classic movie after classic movie, a great many of them westerns.
Wayne made many classic pictures which were not westerns, but it is for the western that he is forever associated, and so just for fun here is my own personal list of Wayne's ten best westerns. Putting this list together was not as east as it seems, and I had to leave out several superb Wayne westerns in order to come up with a definitive top ten. Likely not everyone will agree with me, so let's see your own choices in the comments section of this post.
Counting down....10 - THE COWBOYS (1972) - This is a rather sentimental western but never has Wayne's fatherly qualities been so well presented on screen. Wayne plays a rancher who is forced into hiring on a bunch of schoolchildren as cowboys for a cattle drive. The movie was an huge success and inspired a short lived TV series.
9 - She Wore A Yellow Ribbon ( 1949 ) - In my opinion the best of the Calvary trilogy that Wayne made with John Ford., The other two were Fort Apache and Rio Grande and both would have been on my list but I decided to allow only one of the calvary movies on my top ten list and so Yellow Ribbon it is.
8 - THE THREE GODFATHERS (1948) - Incredibly Wayne made three westerns in 1948, the other two being Red River and Fort Apache.
7- TRUE GRIT (1969) - This was the western that gave Wayne an Oscar, and whilst it is a strong performance by Wayne it is far from his best. If not for Wayne's inclusion the movie would have been just another western but Wayne made the movie a classic, and his portrayal of the one eyed marshall created a true cinematic icon.
6 - THE SHOOTIST (1976) - Wayne's final movie is a bitter sweet movie about a gunslinger dying of cancer. Made when Wayne himself was battling the illness which makes the movie all the more compelling. Excellent
5 - THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962). Wayne here takes second fiddle to Jimmy Stewart but his considerable presence is felt throughout the movie, even when sharing the screen with the scene chewing antics of Lee Marvin.
4 - STAGECOACH (1939 - I had to include this in the top five as the character Wayne created here is part of the DNA of every western hero he played since. There are also some excellent stunt scenes in this rather brilliant movie.
3 - Rio Bravo (1959) - A western so good that it was virtually remade later as El Dorado. Wayne is brilliant alongside Dean Martin. This movie set the template for many of Wayne's later westerns.
2 -Red River (1948) - One of Wayne's best acting performances. When John Ford saw Wayne in this movie he remarked, 'I never realised that son of a bitch could act.'
1 - The Searchers (1956) - Not only Wayne's best ever movie but in my opinion the greatest western ever made, and certainly one of the most influential. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of cinema's most layered characters and Wayne brought him to life with a superb performance that ranks among the very best ever put on film.
If I redid this list tomorrow likely there would be some changes, and I am aware that I have left out several classic Wayne westerns, but I chose my top ten list in a way that I think reflects Wayne's versatility in the genre. For instance I have included True Grit when I think Wayne made several better westerns that didn't make my top ten, but True Grit better reflected the way Wayne's screen persona is remembered by movie fans.