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A Hollywood liberal who initially felt at odds with Wayne's right-wing politics, Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) originally sought George C. Scott for the lead, but studio executives urged him to convince Wayne to take the role. It was a happy outcome for both, as Rydell directs Wayne with an enjoyable mixture of Old West humor and grizzled trail-hardiness, and The Cowboys is a top-drawer production with gorgeous cinematography (on location in Mexico and Colorado) by veteran cameraman Robert Surtees. Colleen Dewhurst appears briefly but memorably as the madam of a traveling troupe of prostitutes (in a scene often cut from earlier TV broadcasts and some home-video releases), and the young A Martinez (who would later star in several TV soap operas and the indie-hit Powwow Highway) makes a strong impression in a prominent supporting role. But the real reason for the film's lasting popularity is the hiss-worthy villainy of Bruce Dern (as "Long Hair," leader of the rustlers), who earned a dubious place in movie history for his character's cheating approach to gunplay. No matter how you interpret its themes of fatherly influence and justified vengeance, The Cowboys (later the basis of a short-lived TV series) is undeniably entertaining, dominated by Wayne's reliable presence and bolstered by a rousing, Copland-esque score by John Williams. --Jeff Shannon
The soldiers at Fort Apache may disagree with the tactics of their glory-seeking new commander. But to a man, they're duty-bound to obey - even when it means almost certain disaster. John Wayne, Henry Fonda and many familiar supporting players from master director John Ford's "stock company" saddle up for the first film in the director's famed cavalry trilogy (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande are the others). Roughhouse camaraderie, sentimental vignettes of frontier life, massive action sequences staged in Monument Valley - all are part of Fort Apache. So is Ford's exploration of the West's darker side. Themes of justice, heroism and honor that Ford would revisit in later Westerns are given rein in this moving, thought-provoking film that, even as it salutes a legend, gives reasons to question it.
When it comes down to naming the best Western of all time, the list usually narrows to three completely different pictures: John Ford's The Searchers, Howard Hawks's Red River, and Hawks's Rio Bravo. About the only thing they all have in common is that they all star John Wayne. But while The Searchers is an epic quest for revenge and Red River is a sweeping cattle-drive drama ("Take 'em to Missouri! Yeeee-hah!"), Rio Bravo is on a much more modest scale. Basically, it comes down to Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne), his sobering-up alcoholic friend Dude (Dean Martin), the hotshot new kid Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and deputy-sidekick Stumpy (Walter Brennan), sittin' around in the town jail, drinkin' black cofee, shootin' the breeze, and occasionally, singin' a song. Hawks--who, like his pal Ernest Hemingway, lived by the code of "grace under pressure"--said he made Rio Bravo as a rebuke to High Noon, in which sheriff Gary Cooper begged for townspeople to help him. So, Hawks made Wayne's Sheriff Chance a consummate professional--he may be getting old and fat, but he knows how to do his job, and he doesn't want amateurs getting mixed up in his business; they could get hurt. This most entertaining of movies also achieved some notoriety in the '90s when Quentin Tarantino (director of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Jackie Brown) revealed that he uses it as a litmus test for prospective girlfriends. Oh, and if the configuration of characters sounds familiar, it should: Hawks remade Rio Bravo two more times--as El Dorado in 1967, with Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Caan; and as Rio Lobo in 1970, with Wayne, Jack Elam, and Christopher Mitchum. -- Jim Emerson
Working together for the 12th time, John Wayne and director John Ford forged The Searchers into a landmark Western offering an indelible image of the frontier and the men and women who challenged it. Wayne plays an ex-Confederate soldier seeking his niece, captured by Comanches who massacred his family. He won't surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements or loneliness. And in his five-year search, he encounters something unexpected: his own humanity. Beautifully shot by Winton C. Hoch, thrillingly scored by Max Steiner and memorably acted by a wonderful ensemble including Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood and Ward Bond, The Searchers endures as "a great film of enormous scope and breathtaking physical beauty" (Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic).