1. Based on the tragic story of Comanche-abductee Cynthia Ann Parker, The Searchers (1956) was director John Ford’s 115th film (he’d already earned Best Director Academy Awards for four), but it landed flat with audiences and did not receive a single Oscar nomination. Now recognized by the American Film Institute as the greatest Western ever made, The Searchers shows the Duke at his absolute best—conflicted, as a Civil War veteran, but loyal and full of heart. It took more than a decade for critics to come around, with Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Sergio Leone eventually referencing the movie in their own works.
2. The making of Red River (1948) required “a cast of thousands” (herds, cattle, and cowboys) to simulate the Chisholm Trail and cost more than $3 million to produce—an astronomical price at the time. The Duke’s fearless performance of the authoritarian Tom Dunson earned high praise, and the movie launched the career of handsome Montgomery Clift. After the wrap, Howard Hawks presented the cast with DD brand belt buckles, and the Duke wore his for the rest of his days.
3. The Duke’s Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939) was the breakthrough role that made him a star. Serious themes of alcoholism, childbirth, greed, shame, revenge, and redemption elevated this film and helped redefine what was possible in the Western genre. Stagecoach, directed by John Ford, received seven Oscar nominations and won two (for Best Supporting Actor, Thomas Michell, and Best Score).
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), also directed by John Ford, was a brave role for the Duke, whose character, Tom Doniphon, has what amounts to a nervous breakdown in the film. Pitted against a venomous bad guy, Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance, and the beguiling lawyer Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart), Doniphon’s dark and sacrificial heroism is chilling.
5. The first of John Ford’s so-called Cavalry Trilogy, Fort Apache (1948; She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande are the other two) stars Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and a 20-year-old Shirley Temple. Wayne’s Captain Kirby York opposes Henry Fonda’s vain and self-destructive Owen Thursday, endearing himself to audiences with his trademark simplicity, straightforwardness, and believability.