Top Ten: John Wayne's War Movies


April 20, 2006: John Wayne is one of the most recognizable leading men in war movies. His movies continue to be popular (thanks to the introduction of DVDs and Bittorerent), and are seen by millions every year. The impression was not always positive. For over a generation, basic training instructors had to constantly admonish recruits to avoid "that John Wayne stuff" (reckless heroics). In the 1980s, the recruits were instead warned against "that Rambo crap," and Wayne became an icon of military virtue.

While " the Duke" is best identified with western movies like Rio Bravo and Hondo, his war movies are some of the better films he has done, even though John Wayne never served in the military (this was due to a series of World War II draft deferments). While Wayne was criticized for this, his lack of actual military service did not diminish the impact of his performances on soldiers and civilians alike.

Here are the top ten war movies that John Wayne starred in.

10. The Flying Leathernecks. This was a movie centered around the notion of Marine pilots providing close-air support to grunts on the ground. Not terribly realistic (in truth, much of this was already being done prior to World War II), but it is still an enjoyable movie for those who liked Wildcats and Corsairs.

9. The Flying Tigers. Again, this is a movie whose historical accuracy is grossly suspect (the biggie is the fact that the Flying Tigers were in combat before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor). The ending is very trite - involving a kind of mission never even flown by the American Volunteer Group. Still, it is one of the few films that actually tells this story.

8. The Longest Day. Here, Wayne has a relatively small part as the commander of one of the airborne battalions during Operation OVERLORD. It is a solid film, and Wayne's got some good moments (particularly his description of where he landed after a cross wind scattered his unit during a jump). This film is docked for the short amount of screen time Wayne has.

7. The Fighting Seabees. Again, Wayne relates a story not often told during World War II. This time, it is about the formation of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalions. This is a solid film, albeit the incidents are clearly more fictional than based on any real battles.

6. The Sands of Iwo Jima. For the 1950s, John Wayne was just the person to play a Marine NCO in a film about the invasion of Iwo Jima. Not much credit for the typecast role, but still one worth watching.

5. In Harm's Way. The classic World War II movie was an epic, and covered the whole war. Yet at the same time, it was a fictionalized account, and while very well-done, is not the best World War II film that Wayne has done.

4. They Were Expendable. John Wayne's part in this movie about the heroic struggle against overwhelming odds by the American naval personnel who operated PT boats in the Philippines in World War II is one of the finer World War II movies done. For the all-too-often ignored story, it gets a lot of extra credit.

3. Back to Bataan. John Wayne also did a movie about the Philippine resistance. It is a well-told movie about this heroic struggle by American guerillas that also reflected (albeit with punches pulled) the brutality of Japanese occupation at times.

2. The Green Berets. John Wayne's entry into Vietnam was a decent picture about the American Special Forces. It is a rare Vietnam movie picturing the Americans as the good guys (it was made in 1968). It also provides some idea of what was faced in the early portions of that war.

1. Operation Pacific. This is a well-told story of American submarine operations. Probably Wayne's best as it provides a number of experiences faced by real American submarines during World War II (including a fictionalized version of the incident that won Howard W. Gilmore the Medal of Honor in 1943). Probably Wayne's best war movie.

The saddest thing when one thinks about John Wayne's movies today is the fact that these days, Hollywood really doesn't make war movies like these any more. The closest Hollywood has come in recent years is 2002's "We Were Soldiers" and 2001's "Black Hawk Down". It is a long, long fall from what John Wayne did with much less in the way of special effects. - Harold C. Hutchison (


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