In Love, Actually, actor Liam Neeson’s character tells his pre-teen stepson who has a crush on a classmate, “We need Kate. We need Leo. And we need them now!” – referring to the film Titanic.
While we contend with viruses, stimulus packages, and Democrat blackmail, we need inspiration. We need examples of courage, perseverance, and strength of character. We need John Wayne – and we need him now.
While we’re self-isolating and preparing for a year which will determine America’s future, let’s look to the Duke for lessons in guts and grit. Here are ten John Wayne films that do just that:
- They Were Expendable (1945) In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the Duke plays the captain of a PT boat helping to defend the Philippines. Two of the boats he’s commanding are sunk. He and Robert Montgomery evacuate Gen. MacArthur and his staff from Corregidor. Donna Reed is an Army nurse who falls for Wayne, naturally. At the end, Wayne is on a plane leaving for Australia after being ordered out. When he tries to give his place to another officer – so he can stay with his men and look for his girl — Montgomery asks him angrily, “Who do you work for – yourself?” An abashed John Wayne sits back down.
- Back to Bataan (1945) At the other end of World War II in the Philippines, after the Japanese occupation, Duke plays an Army colonel who leads a guerrilla force and later prepares for Gen. MacArthur’s return. It shows the courage of ordinary Filipinos, including a teacher who dies rather than lower the American flag.
- Angel and The Badman (1947) Wayne is Quirt Evans, the fastest gun in the territory, who’s really more wild than bad. Gail Russell is the Quaker girl who falls in love with him but doesn’t believe in guns – a bit of High Noon, a decade earlier. Nice resolution at the end, with Harry Carey Sr. as the marshal providing an unusual moral lesson for a John Wayne film: “Only a man that carries a gun ever needs one.”
- Red River (1948) This is the John Wayne you love to hate – mean and brutal. He’s leading a cattle drive from Texas to Missouri. The future of his ranch depends on getting his herd to a railhead. The boy he raised to manhood (Montgomery Clift) provides the friction. Definitely not the typical cattle drive movie, though it does end with a satisfying fistfight.
- Three Godfathers (1948) Wayne is one of three men who robbed a bank and are being hotly pursued by a very determined posse led by Ward Bond. The outlaws come across a dying woman who’s just given birth. They take the baby through the desert on foot, after losing their horses. If I told you more it would spoil the film.
- Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) John Wayne is a Marine sergeant – the kind who makes nails look soft – brutally whipping his squad into shape for the coming battles, from Tarawa to Iwo Jima. He’s haunted by a personal tragedy. His foil is John Agar, a recruit who rebels against Wayne’s harsh, at times almost sadistic, discipline. (Agar is haunted by the memory of his father – a general in the Marine Corps who considered him soft.) Don’t worry, a kinder (but by no means gentler) John Wayne comes out at the end. The film’s emotional high point is the raising of the flag over Mt. Suribachi.
- Blood Alley (1955) Wayne is a merchant captain who’s imprisoned by the Red Chinese. After he’s sprung, he guides a rickety craft taking a few hundred villagers from the mainland to safety in Hong Kong (a feat which he initially said was impossible), pursued by what seems to be the entire Chinese navy. Blood Alley co-stars Lauren Bacall as the daughter of a medical missionary equally determined to save the villagers. That’s all I’ll say now. “So long, Baby” – Baby is the Duke’s imaginary companion.
- The Alamo (1960) Wayne is Davy Crockett, who died defending the mission in San Antonio where 187 men withstood a 13-day siege by 6,000 Mexican troops. Interesting side note: the Duke’s first wife was Mexican. The story has been told so many times it’s almost cliched. But Wayne, who spent years trying to get the movie made, gives dignity to his character. Watch for his great monologue at the beginning of the film on what the word “republic” means to him: “Republic. I like the sound of the word. It means people can live free, talk free, go or come, buy or sell, be drunk or sober, however they choose.”
- The Green Berets (1968) I included this in part because it drives the Left bonkers. The Duke is a Green Beret colonel assigned to build a base camp and later capture a North Vietnamese general. It contains the usual John Wayne dialogue about the cost of freedom. David Jansen is Wayne’s foil – a cynical anti-war correspondent. It was panned by critics who thought Casualties of War and Platoon were realistic portrayals of the conflict. “Oh, how could he depict the Cong as sadistic brutes?” they wailed. I guess something happened to really aggravate their Cambodian counterparts that precipitated the Killing Fields.
- The Shootist (1976) In his last movie, Wayne portrays J.B. Books, a legendary gunfighter dying of cancer (as Wayne himself was at the time) and determined to go out in a blaze of glory – in keeping with his reputation and to avoid protracted suffering. This is a different John Wayne – a John Wayne who’s tired, who’s in pain, but who still upholds his code while sharing his wisdom. (“It isn’t always being fast or even accurate that counts. It’s being willing. I found out early that most men, regardless of cause or need, aren’t willing. They blink an eye or draw a breath before they pull the trigger. I won’t.”) It was a fitting way to end his career.
All of these movies are available through Netflix, Amazon or another streaming service.
Like his father, Harry Carey Jr. was in a number of the John Wayne films. In a TCM interview, Carey said that Wayne became the character he portrayed. In The Searchers, he was dark and brooding and unapproachable, on or off the set. But in all of his movies, he was still John Wayne.
His films and his spirit can inspire us in these crazy times.
Don Feder was a syndicated columnist for the Boston Herald for 19 years. In 2001, the paper published his 2,000th column. Since leaving the Herald he has worked as a communications consultant for various non-profit organizations.