If there was ever a director-actor tandem that defined the Western genre, it was John Ford and John Wayne. Over the course of five decades, Ford and Wayne made over 20 pictures, most of them Westerns and some that stood the test of time as the model for all others to follow.
They made other pictures, too, including war movies and even a romantic comedy. But it was Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers for which they were best known and made them one of the most successful director-actor tandems in Hollywood history.
Ford’s groundbreaking Western that set the precedent for all others to follow was also Wayne’s breakthrough film after scores of B-films in the 1930s. Wayne played the key role of The Ringo Kid, an outlaw and prison escapee who gets picked up by a stagecoach driven by Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) through dangerous Apache territory. Ringo seeks revenge on Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), who killed his family and sent him to jail on false testimony, but finds himself under arrest by Curley while the motley crew of passengers find themselves without troop protection the closer they get to the Apaches. Not only one of the greatest movies ever made, but also one of the most influential which helped inspire countless other directors.
A stirringly patriotic tale inspired by Ford’s love of the U.S. Navy and born from America’s involvement in World War II, They Were Expendable cast Wayne as a gruff lieutenant to Robert Montgomery’s determined PT boat captain, as they island hop in the Pacific fighting an ever-increasingly dangerous Japanese fleet. Though an obvious attempt by Ford to promote the Navy, his film was actually a far more subdued effort that attempted to layer psychological complexity to his characters while refusing to sugarcoat the romance between Wayne and Donna Reed. An exemplary film, They Were Expendable was one of the more underappreciated efforts between Wayne and Ford.
3. ‘3 Godfathers’ – 1948
Though on the surface another Western, 3 Godfathers drew quite heavily from the Bible in its allegorical tale of the Three Wise Men. Wayne played the leader of a bank heist crew that goes on the run with a sheriff’s posse in dogged pursuit. After avoiding ambush, the three outlaws are trapped in a sandstorm that scatters their horses and forces them to flee on foot, where they come across a covered wagon sheltering a pregnant women about to give birth. Following her death delivering the child, the bandits shepherd her newborn to the safety of New Jerusalem, where they hope to find their ultimate redemption. Ford had previously made the film in 1919 as Marked Men, itself a remake of a 1916 silent feature and now considered a lost picture.
Wayne offered one of his best performances in this second installment of Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, in which he played Captain Nathan Brittles, an aging cavalry captain on the verge of mandatory retirement who faces an all-out Indian attack following the defeat of Custer. After a series of attacks and reprisals, he manages to secure the peace with the rival chief before his retirement. Filmed in brilliant Technicolor, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon featured breathtaking images of Monument Valley – Ford’s favorite location – while Wayne gave a rather moving performance that was highlighted by an emotionally vulnerable scene where Brittles receives a pocket watch as a retirement gift, one of the actor’s most poignant moments on screen.
This romantic comedy was the last film which earned Ford an Oscar for Best Director, and contained one of Wayne’s most diverse and understated performances. Wayne was Sean Thornton, an American boxer who travels to his Irish homeland to escape the trauma of having accidentally killed a man in the ring. There he meets and falls in love with the high-spirited Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara), sister of a bullying landowner named Red (Victor McLaglen). Red refuses to consent to their marriage. They eventually do, only Red won’t give them a dowry, which forces Sean to confront his demons in the face of Irish tradition. The film earned further nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and became one of the top box office hits of that year.
The Searchers was the pinnacle of the Wayne-Ford collaboration and one of the greatest Westerns ever made. Wayne delivered his most complex role as Ethan Edwards, a hateful Civil War veteran whose family is brutally murdered by a gang of Comanches and goes in search of his lone surviving niece (Natalie Wood) after she’s taken hostage. The search in question is the five year quest Ethan and his brother’s adopted son (Jeffrey Hunter) undertake to find her, only to discover she has married into the tribe. Ethan suffers a moral quandary that turns to bloody-minded madness, with Wayne unflinchingly delving into the character’s dark side. His Oscar-worthy performance received nary a nomination, but remained his most indelible.
Following The Searchers, Wayne made five more films with the aging Ford, whose health began deteriorating in the 1960s. They had another success with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which told in flashback the tale of a young lawyer (James Stewart) trying to take down a gang of outlaws (led by Lee Marvin) who terrorized and robbed him. With the help of a tough local cowboy (Wayne), he learns how to fight back in the ways of the Old West, only to become a champion of a new civilized way as a U.S. Senator. Dismissed as a throwback to Westerns past, thanks in part to the black-and-white photography, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ranked as one of the great efforts between Ford and Wayne, and also one of the last. The pair made one more film, Donovan’s Reef, before Ford’s career gave way to ill health.