A wonderful/rueful running gag in El Dorado involves the Edgar Allan Poe line "Ride, boldly ride" being mangled by toupee-wearer John Wayne into "Ride, baldy, ride." Two years later, in True Grit, Wayne put the joke in italics by donning an eyepatch and several inches of girth to play cantankerous territorial marshal Rooster Cogburn. Critics belatedly noticed that he could be a marvelously entertaining actor, and Hollywood finally gave him the Oscar they'd failed to nominate him for in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man, The Searchers, et al. But make no mistake: True Grit is a splendid movie, with lovingly textured storytelling and sturdy characters, Henry Hathaway's finest high-country action set-pieces, intoxicatingly ornate frontier language, and a couple of formidable bad guys (Jeff Corey's Tom Cheney and Robert Duvall's "Lucky" Ned Pepper). It's a compliment to say that, from a technical standpoint, the movie could have been made any time in Hathaway's 40-year career, yet its feeling for the reality of violence ceded no ground to The Wild Bunch, released around the same time. Still, the film's most sublime passage falls between bursts of gunplay: Rooster sitting on a hilltop at night recounting his life story, as John Wayne metamorphoses ineluctably into W.C. Fields. --Richard T. Jameson
The Sons of Katie Elder
John Wayne recovered from his first bout with cancer to appear in this 1965 film as the brother of Dean Martin, Earl Holliman, and Michael Anderson Jr. All four characters are wandering souls prone to trouble, but after the funeral of their frontier mother, they set out to avenge her death. Directed by Henry Hathaway (Wayne's director on True Grit), the film moves like a conventional, latter-day Western, with good performances from Wayne and Martin, who'd already costarred with the Duke in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo. Nice support from Dennis Hopper (who had a legendary conflict with Hathaway on this film), Strother Martin, and George Kennedy. --Tom Keogh
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That's more than the code of a newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; it's practically the operating credo of director John Ford, the most honoured of American filmmakers. In this late film from a long career, Ford looks at the civilising of an Old West town, Shinbone, through the sad memories of settlers looking back. In the town's wide-open youth, two-fisted Westerner John Wayne and tenderfoot newcomer James Stewart clash over a woman (Vera Miles) but ultimately unite against the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ford's nostalgia for the past is tempered by his stark approach, unusual for the visual poet of Stagecoach and The Searchers. The two heavyweights, Wayne and Stewart, are good together, with Wayne the embodiment of rugged individualism and Stewart the idealistic prophet of the civilisation that will eventually tame the Wild West. This may be the saddest Western ever made, closer to an elegy than an action movie, and as cleanly beautiful as its central symbol, the cactus rose. --Robert Horton
Three classic westerns starring John Wayne. In 'True Grit' (1969), after her father is murdered by outlaw Tom Chancey (Jeff Corey), 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) attempts to track down the killer. She goes to a paunchy, one-eyed marshall (Wayne), a man of 'true grit', and together they pursue Chancey into Native American territory. They are joined by La Boeuf (Glen Campbell), a ranger who is hoping to collect the reward on another of Chancey's murders. In 'The Sons of Katie Elder' (1965), four sons are re-united when they return home to Clearwater to bury their mother, Katie Elder. John Elder (Wayne) is the oldest brother, a gunslinger. Tom (Dean Martin) is next, a card sharp who shares his sibling's ability with a gun only when his back is to the wall. Matt (Earl Holliman) is the moody one, while the youngest is Bud (Michael Anderson Jr), upon whom the family's hopes of respectability rest. Finally, in 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance' (1962), big-city lawyer Ransom (James Stewart) heads into the Wild West outpost of Shinbone to bring local outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to justice. En route, he is met by a posse led by Valance, who beat him within an inch of his life. Passing cowboy Tom Doniphon (Wayne) rescues Ransom, gets him set up in Shinbone, and supports his efforts to be elected sheriff. Meanwhile, he also attempts to teach his clumsy protege the fundamentals of gunslinging, so that Valance may at last be brought to book.