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John Wayne’s 10 Best War Movies, Ranked

February 25, 2024
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John Wayne’s 10 Best War Movies, Ranked


Summary

  • John Wayne’s career extended beyond Western films, with a notable focus on war movies aligning with the wars of his time.
  • Some war films had political agendas, controversies, while others earned awards and acclaim, despite some box office flops.
  • Key war movies in Wayne’s repertoire include Operation Pacific, Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Longest Day, each with unique strengths and legacies.

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Actor John Wayne has gone down in history as an icon of the Western genre, however, The Duke was known for more than just his cowboy movies, and in fact, Wayne made a number of popular war movies. Though Wayne’s career started all the way back in the 1920s as a prop boy and extra, he had his breakthrough in the 1940s and 1950s. In that time, Wayne starred in many Western movies, but his war movie career began as well. Wayne’s war movies typically aligned with the wars of the time, including World War II.

Before his death in 1979, Wayne made a significant number of movies concerning World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. While some war movies were not based on true stories, others came from real life. Furthermore, some of Wayne’s war movies had an agenda attached to them which surrounded his own political ideals and made them controversial. Regardless, Wayne had both success and failure with his war movies. While some flopped at the box office, others earned awards and acclaim.

Related

10 Best John Wayne Movies That Aren’t Westerns Or War Films

John Wayne is widely known for his iconic roles in classic Westerns and war movies, but his acting talents actually extend to all genres in Hollywood.

10 Operation Pacific

1951

John Wayne in Operation Pacific

One of John Wayne’s best known war movies is Operation Pacific. The 1951 film is a black-and-white submarine movie that takes place during World War II. It follows John Wayne as Lieutenant Commander Duke E. Gifford, the Executive Officer of the submarine, USS Thunderfish, which can’t seem to win any of its battles. Of John Wayne’s movies, Operation Pacific was a very solid and respectable project. It earned back its 1.5 million dollar budget, making nearly $4 million at the box office, and still remains an enjoyable war film, even despite some of its more outdated aspects.

9 Reunion In France

1942

John Wayne and Joan Crawford in Reunion in France

A war movie that John Wayne starred in right in the midst of World War II was Reunion in France. Starring alongside Joan Crawford, Wayne played pilot Pat Talbot, a member of the Eagle Squadron in the Royal Air Force. Talbot falls in love with Crawford’s Michele, whose husband has begun fraternizing with Nazi officers in German-occupied France. Though the film was criticized for being melodramatic and having a weak script, the combination of John Wayne and Joan Crawford is very iconic. Additionally, the film’s focus on the French liberation is quite unique, making it a memorable film.

8 In Harm’s Way

1965

John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in In Harm's Way

One of John Wayne’s later war movies is 1965’s In Harm’s Way. Wayne is part of an ensemble cast of U.S. naval officers and their lovers, wherein he plays U.S. Navy Captain Rockwell “Rock” Torrey. Despite being a romance, the film had a fairly unromantic view of the United States Navy throughout World War II, and was not afraid to explore the moral wrongs committed by individuals. Though critics were hard on the film, it was ultimately nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography, and said cinematography has been a major part of the film’s lasting positive legacy.

7 Flying Leathernecks

1951

John Wayne in Flying Leathernecks

Another strong contender for best John Wayne war movie is Flying Leathernecks. The film follows the exploits and personal battles of the United States Marines during World War II, and in it, Wayne plays the no-nonsense Major Dan Kirby. This post-war film honored the work of the U.S. Marines, particularly in the Pacific Theater, and the difficult decisions they were forced to make during the Guadalcanal campaign. Aside from having a strong story, Flying Leathernnecks was praised for its impressive aerial footage, special effects, and edits. Therefore, it remains one of Wayne’s most notable war films.

Leathernecks is a nickname for the U.S. Marines.

6 Back To Bataan

1945

Back to Bataan John Wayne

Yet another war film centered on World War II’s Pacific Theater is Back to Bataan. The black-and-white film is a partly-fictionalized, partly-real story that occurs after the Battle of Bataan on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Wayne portrays Colonel Joseph Madden, an Army officer who attempts to rally Filipino citizens against the Japanese forces trying to take Bataan. The film has earned an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and has been praised for its unflinching look at a lesser-explored segment of World War II history, particularly the Bataan Death March. Wayne performance as the stern colonel was also appreciated.

5 Flying Tigers

1942

John Wayne in a war plane cockpit in Flying Tigers

A John Wayne war movie that goes beyond the typical U.S. Army branches is Flying Tigers. The film follows members of the American Volunteer Group who fought against the Japanese in China. Notably, this movie was made as a propaganda film for the Second World War. Because of this, it was incredibly popular among audiences in the 1940s, who were looking for a movie full of patriotism. Though the film had a weak script and average acting, its flight scenes were well-received, and a sequel was in the works after its release. For this reason, it has remained relevant.

4 They Were Expendable

1945

They Were Expendable was a 1945 film based on a 1942 book of the same name by William Lindsay White. It was based on real events that were thought to have occurred to Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron Three, a U.S. Navy boat defending the Philippines. Wayne played Lt. J.G. “Rusty” Ryan, an executive officer eager to enter combat. The movie was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Sound Recording and Best Effects. The New York Times added it to its list of “10 Best Movies from 1945.” In this way, the film is considered one of Wayne’s best.

3 The Fighting Seabees

1944

John Wayne in 1944's The Fighting Seabees.

The Fighting Seabees is a fictionalized portrait of the creation of the U.S. Navy’s Seabees, starring John Wayne. The actor played Lt. Cmdr. “Wedge” Donovan, a Naval officer who fights for he and his men to be able to defend themselves against the oncoming Japanese. Though The Fighting Seabees is heavy on propaganda, once again, the film was well-received by critics and audiences. Its patriotism and its action make it a very exciting watch. Furthermore, the film’s focus on the Seabees makes it stand out because this is yet another segment of the U.S. military that is underappreciated.

2 The Longest Day

1962

The Longest Day follows the events of the D-Day landing in Normandy in 1944. Unlike many other war films featuring John Wayne, this one had an abundance of research put into it and consultants on hand to maintain historical accuracy, including actual soldiers who had landed on D-Day. Additionally, The Longest Day was filmed in docudrama style, making it unique. Overall, the reactions to the film upon its release were very positive. It was considered a visual and storytelling masterpiece.

Therefore, The Longest Day is definitely one of the most notable and well-received of John Wayne’s war movies.

1 Sands of Iwo Jima

1949

Sands of Iwo Jima John Wayne Movie

John Wayne’s best known and most beloved war film is 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima. The film follows a group of Marines from their early days of training until their entrance into the Battle of Iwo Jima. Of Wayne’s war movies, this film was nominated for the most Academy Awards, including Best Writing, Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing, and Best Actor in a Leading Role for John Wayne. Based on this and the film’s 100% Rotten Tomatoes score, it is by far the most lauded war film that John Wayne appeared in.



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