Westerns of John Ford & John Wayne

It is not uncommon for a director to completely gel with a lead actor who they frequently turn to for their projects. Martin Scorsese has Robert DeNiro, John Huston had Humphrey Bogart, Billy Wilder had Jack Lemmon and so on. But arguably the most iconic pairing of filmmaker and film star was that of John Ford and John Wayne. When these two collaborated many times the end result was a landmark piece of American cinema. While the Pappy and the Duke made war films and romantic films together, they are most remembered for their contributions to the Western. The two frequently teamed up for numerous classics, usually filmed in Monument Valley alongside fan-favorite supporting players like: Maureen O’Hara, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Harry Carey Jr., and John Agar. Between Ford’s vision for the sepia-soaked desert vistas and Wayne’s gift for playing surly tough-guys the duo seemed perfect to define the genre for an entire generation of moviegoers.

Stagecoach: This is where it all started for the duo in a film where Ford directed Wayne in a show stealing performance. A stagecoach with passengers including; an exiled prostitute named Dallas, an alcoholic, a whiskey salesman, a cavalry officer and his wife, must travel from Arizona to New Mexico. The only route open leads them right through the warpath of a group of Apaches so the motley group is on edge from the start. John Wayne pops-up in one of the great cinematic introductions as the outlaw Ringo Kid, who is arrested along the way and he too is forced into the coach for the journey. As the dangers they face press in, these passengers have to put aside their differences and band together if they want to survive. John Ford singlehandedly revitalized the Western genre, but despite this Stagecoach almost became a lost film. Luckily John Wayne had held onto a personal copy which has allowed future generations to see the film.


Fort Apache: The first film in what Ford considered his cavalry trilogy pits John Wayne as the experienced Captain York against a new ego-driven commanding officer in Lt. Colonel Thursday played by Henry Fonda. An elitist from the east, Thursday is ignorant to how things operate in the American West. When trouble begins to brew at the nearby Apache reservation due to a corrupt government agent, York cautions his new commander to deal with their chief Cochise with the respect he deserves. But, the officer’s racial prejudice gets in the way, and Thursday gives protection to the agent. This leads to an Apache attack on their outpost, while initially Thursday believes this will afford him glory it quickly descends into a bloodbath. In the Cochise spares his friend York and those loyal to him, but the rest of the officers are slaughtered. Fort Apache was different from almost any other western of it’s era, in that the Indians were portrayed as sympathetic heroes rather than a faceless hoard of killers.


3 Godfathers: A remake of a film John Ford had made during the Silent Era, 3 Godfathers proved to be a rather interesting take on the Christmas tale of the Three Wisemen. A trio of acclaimed actors; Wayne, Pedro Amendariz and Harry Carey Jr. (son of the original film’s star) play outlaws hounded by a sheriff played by frequent Ford/Wayne collaborator Ward Bond. As chance would have it they cross paths with the sheriff’s niece-in-law who is dying during childbirth. She swears the three men to an oath to protect her child and get him to the town of New Jerusalem. Given they are stranded in the middle of the desert with nothing but infant supplies and a Bible, this task will no doubt prove dangerous. Sure enough John Wayne’s character emerges as the sole survivor, and with the child’s only family hunting him down, he wonders how their inevitable confrontation will go down. 3 Godfathers is far from the only adaptation of the novel Marked Men (my personal favorite being William Wyler’s gritty Pre-Code Hell’s Heroes), this film is still one of the best Ford and Wayne made together.


She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: For the second film of their cavalry trilogy, Ford and Wayne had the clout to get the biggest budget ever afforded a Western up until that point. With retirement approaching, the aging Captain Nathan Brittles and his men at Fort Starke are tasked with keeping the nearby Cheyenne and Arapaho reservations at peace as the Indian Wars are hitting their peak. In this tense climate, he is ordered to escort the wife and niece of his commanding officer to safety before the inevitable violence erupts. Even as the time comes for him to leave the army, Brittles finds himself to leave his work undone. While on the set of this film, John Ford and cinematographer Winton Hoch famously did not get along with each other, but the end result was some of the best visual work of their careers as well as an Oscar win for Hoch.

Rio Grande: John Wayne reprises his role Kirby Yorke, now a Lieutenant Colonel, for the final installment of the cavalry trilogy. With his past success in dealing with the Apache, Yorke is sent to a settlement in South Texas which is frequently attacked before the tribe. After each attack, the Apache quickly head across the border to Mexico and been successful so far in avoiding reprisals. Any plans he has are complicated by discovering his estranged son is under his command. With few options left, he is covertly ordered to cross the international boundary of the Rio Grande in pursuit of his enemies. Needless to say there would be grave ramifications should he fail. With this saga coming to an end, and John Ford believing this could be his final Western, the stakes are raised to their highest levels.


The Searchers: The film viewed by most as the greatest Western ever made. Wayne plays the world-weary antihero, Ethan Edwards, who after years of fighting in wars hopes to start a new life at his brother’s ranch. Any chance of a peaceful new life come to an abrupt end when the Comanche launch a surprise attack, kidnapping Edwards’ two young nieces and leaving the rest of the family for dead. Once more called in to be a man of action, Edwards leads a posse through the American West to find the only family he has left. As time passes and many give up on the search, but Ethan persists and while he finds one of them alive it proves bittersweet. John Wayne gave what is perhaps his greatest performance, while behind the camera John Ford took his directing to an entirely new level. The Searchers has become one of those rare film likes Casablanca or the Shining where it only seems to get better and better through the passage of time.


The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Another film which ranks comfortably among the greatest Westerns ever made. John Wayne leads a stellar cast which also includes: Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien, Lee van Cleef and more. This examination of the roles myths and legends played in shaping the west, featured Stewart as educated lawyer, Rance Stoddard, who is beaten and robbed by the outlaw Liberty Valance. He is saved by and befriends local rancher Tom Doniphon. As Stoddard tries to bring civility and order to his new community, Vance is a constant and violent obstacle to progress. Also complicating matters is the love triangle forming between Stoddard, Doniphon and local restaurant owner Hallie. As tensions rise it becomes only a matter of time before Stoddard has to confront Liberty Valance, and when that happens what will Doniphon do? When the option to shoot Liberty Valance in color was presented, John Ford turned it down knowing that given the dark subject matter of this production black & white was the way to go.


How the West Was Won: Fittingly the final Western John Ford made with John Wayne was a chapter in a true cinematic epic concerning the American West. Filmed for the IMAX precursor Cinerama format, How the West Was Won shows how four generations of a family survive; disease, violence, famine, and other hardships along the way to the way to achieving their dream in the untamed West.  Ford joined with fellow veteran directors Henry Hathaway and George Marshall to chronicle the fifty-year history of the Prescott family. Just as Ford was part of an all-star team of directors, Wayne got to share the screen with the likes of: Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Karl Malden, Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter, Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and more. For their part, John Ford directed the segment featuring Linus and Zeb as they enlist to fight in the Civil War. Once on the battlefield, their illusions of glory are shattered as they are confronted by the harsh realities of warfare. John Wayne portrays the infamous General William Sherman alongside MASH star Harry Morgan as General Ulysses Grant.