The 2 Western Movies John Wayne Thought Were Better Than His 67-Year-Old Masterpiece


The Searchers is universally regarded as John Wayne’s best movie, but the star himself considered two other Westerns to be superior. Wayne fronted 80 Westerns throughout his career, starting out in little-seen “Poverty Row” titles like Haunted Gold before fronting classics like Rio Bravo. The star played many other kinds of characters, but his legacy will always be that of a Western star. As with most movie stars, audiences gravitated towards Wayne in a certain type of role, which was typically the macho, upstanding cowboy who always did the right thing.

Wayne himself didn’t mind his typecasting in the genre and had a vocal distaste for the more amoral heroes played by Clint Eastwood that emerged during the 1960s. Wayne even rejected working with Eastwood in a Western, having detested the depiction of the West seen in Clint’s High Plains Drifter. While he often played a “John Wayne” type – he was the best at it, after all – one of his biggest departures came with 1956’s The Searchers. This dark adventure cast him as a violent, racist Civil War veteran setting out to rescue his kidnapped niece from the Comanche.

John Wayne Felt Red River & Stagecoach Were Better Than The Searchers

Wayne rated two other John Ford Westerns above his 1956 classic

The Searchers should have won Wayne a Best Actor Oscar, with his work as Ethan Edwards being his most intense and unsettling. The character might be trying to save a loved one, but his brutality and seething hatred for Native Americans mark him firmly as an anti-hero. In The Searchers’ famous ending, Edwards realizes he has become so consumed by hatred he can no longer live among civilized people, and decides to wander back into the desert instead of being with his remaining family.

Filmmakers such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have sung The Searchers’ praises and cited it as a major influence on their work. Spielberg rewatches The Searchers each time he starts a new project, while Lucas used the Western’s narrative framework for Star Wars. However, speaking in an interview (via author Marc Eliot’s American Titan: Searching for John Wayne), the actor stated he didn’t believe The Searchers was his best Western.

All three movies mentioned above are John Ford/John Wayne Westerns, and it’s tellingly the latter felt he did his best work with Ford. It’s also not a surprise to hear Wayne had contrary opinions on what his best work was. The star felt he had delivered better performances prior to his Best Actor win for True Grit in 1970, and wasn’t shy about slamming films he felt didn’t work. Stagecoach and Red River also let Wayne exercise his acting muscles in a way other projects hadn’t at the time.

Wayne Always Credited Stagecoach With Launching His Career

Stagecoach rescued Wayne’s career after The Big Trail flopped

Just like The Searchers, Stagecoach is considered a landmark title in the genre, and if it hadn’t succeeded, Wayne may have spent his career as a B-list Western star.

Wayne’s first lead role was in 1930’s The Big Trail, an epic adventure set along the Oregon Trail. This Western was designed to be a major hit, but its box-office failure would set Wayne’s career back about a decade. It wasn’t until his breakout role in 1939’s Stagecoach that his career truly took off. The movie features an ensemble cast who all do great work, but Wayne is so charismatic as the Ringo Kid he steals Stagecoach.

Speaking about this John Ford Western on The Phil Donahue Show in 1976, Wayne said “I love Stagecoach naturally because I stepped on that stagecoach and it carried me a long ways.” Just like The Searchers, Stagecoach is considered a landmark title in the genre, and if it hadn’t succeeded, Wayne may have spent his career as a B-list Western star.
Not that Wayne’s time in those no-budget Westerns was a total waste, since they gave him a chance to experiment and work on his screen persona. Stagecoach is the film where all the hard work paid off, and he would spend the next 37 years as one of the biggest stars in the business.

John Wayne Did His Best Work With Director John Ford

There is no John Wayne without John Ford’s guidance

Like Wayne himself, John Ford is a complicated figure. He appeared outwardly gruff and has been labeled a notorious bully for how he ran his sets, often humiliating his actors, Wayne included. Yet, he is also said to have been a secret softie, who cultivated an outward image of toughness to survive the movie business. Whatever the truth, Ford helped Wayne turn into the movie star he became, with the latter seeing Ford as his mentor.

In total, Ford and Wayne made 14 movies together, most of which contain the actor’s best work. In addition to the Westerns mentioned above, they made romantic drama The Quiet Man, war movies like They Were Expendable, with their final collaboration being 1963’s Donovan’s Reef. There might be certain movies where Wayne didn’t push himself too hard as a performer, but when working with Ford, he never even came close to phoning it in.

In many ways, Wayne’s Red River performance prefigured his turn in The Searchers. In Red River he played a much older character than he was during filming, with Wayne’s Dunson being both the protagonist and antagonist of the story. He’s a complex figure who despite being hard to like, still makes for a compelling lead. Ford and Wayne’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is among the star’s finest work, too.

Why The Searchers Is Still Considered John Wayne’s Best Movie

The Searchers is a must see for Western fans

Being that it was produced in 1956, there are things about The Searchers that don’t play well in modern-day. This includes some misfiring comic relief and white actors playing Native American roles. There is much to admire about the film too, including the performances, the subtext-rich story and the gorgeous visuals. It rewards multiple viewings also, with a credible Searchers fan theory stating Ethan is secretly Debbie’s father and that’s why he’s so determined to find her. The movie has been ripped off and homaged too.

Outside of Star Wars, the Western also inspired Taxi Driver – another tale of a racist war vet rescuing a young girl – Ron Howard’s The Missing and even Paul Bettany vampire horror Priest. When Wayne broke away from his standard Western hero, he also showed he could put in amazing work. The Searchers is his crowning achievement in that regard, and even if he felt some of his other work with Ford beat it out, there is a reason the film is considered his masterwork.