You probably know American actor John Wayne for his roles in Westerns. You might be surprised to discover the following diverse films from the Duke’s long career.
According to biographer Ronald Davis, “John Wayne personified for millions the nation’s frontier heritage. Eighty-three of his movies were Westerns, and in them he played cowboys, cavalrymen, and unconquerable loners extracted from the Republic’s central creation myth.”
In total, Wayne starred in 142 films; nearly half were not westerns. Not only do directors “typecast” – placing an actor in similar roles – but we as viewers, do, too.
So let’s take a look at some other less-cowboy John Wayne movies.
1 – North to Alaska (1960)
During the Alaskan Gold Rush, a prospector (Stewart Granger) sends his friend Sam (John Wayne) to pick up his would-be bride from far away. When it turns out she’s already married another man, Sam returns with a substitute.
From its opening theme song (which reached number four on the pop charts) to its playful lumberjack games, this film is lighthearted and joyful. Interestingly, Alaska had just achieved statehood in 1959 and was very much in the news.
While North to Alaska has been described as a “northern western,” the setting holds a flavor distinctly its own.
2 – The Green Berets (1968)
The Green Berets is set during the Vietnam War, a topic fresh on the minds of the viewers at the time of its release. It was one of only a few films about the war to be produced during the same war.
The plot revolves around Col. Mike Kirby (John Wayne) commanding a group of soldiers charged with the special mission of capturing a high ranking Viet Cong officer.
In the United States, history textbooks spend few pages describing the Vietnam War. In my experience as a student, classes seldom reached such near history regardless. The Vietnam War was also highly controversial; that fact often leaves former soldiers and opposers alike at a loss for words when asked about the event.
The Green Berets, while published as a fictional novel in 1965, does not overlook the unpleasant details of this period in history. The writer trained with U.S. special forces and accompanied them on a 1963 deployment.
This film, therefore, may be the closest thing to a “history lesson” many will experience concerning this rocky period.
3 – Donovan’s Reef (1963)
“Guns” Donovan (John Wayne), World War II veteran, lives on a peaceful South Pacific island with an amusing cast of characters. Tensions rise when Doc Dedham’s daughter arrives, looking for signs that he’s broken the conditions of a will that would be in her benefit.
Though a light-hearted comedy, this tropical adventure subtly touches on issues such as racial bigotry, social superiority, and corporate greed.
For example, the character Amelia, a wealthy Boston heiress, first refers to children that she believes belong to Donovan as “half-caste.” Later, she learns that they are her half-siblings and has a change of heart. She also changes her views as to the “backwardness” she had assumed to find there. Are those wedding bells she’s hearing?
4 – Hellfighters (1968)
Chance Buckman (John Wayne) fights oil fires for a living. It’s a dangerous job, and his wife couldn’t stand the strain of not knowing whether or not her husband would come home to her. When Chance’s daughter (Katharine Ross) falls for a fellow firefighter (Jim Hutton), can their budding relationship withstand the tension?
Based loosely on the life story of oil-well firefighter Red Adair – who served as technical advisor for the film – this adventure is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It combines exotic disasters, warfare, heroism, and conversant family drama to form a completely original plot.
Despite the draw of John Wayne’s stardom – this was the first film for which he was paid one million dollars – critics held overwhelmingly negative reviews. Yet, it still represents a varied facet of the Duke’s career.
5 – The Quiet Man (1952)
Retired American boxer Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to his hometown in Ireland. There, he is met with both friendship and outright hostility as he seeks to purchase his family’s estate and settle down with a local girl (Maureen O’Hara).
Comedic and sweetly romantic, this film represents a “quieter” side of John Wayne’s career. Wayne’s typical backdrop of dry and sandy western landscapes are absent. They give way to award-winning cinematography of the lush and verdant Irish countryside. Wayne’s character carries no gun and fights no fateful battles (save for a comedically choreographed barroom brawl). The Quiet Man is perhaps the most divergent of John Wayne’s films.
It has earned its place in popular culture as well. A scene from the film was featured in E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial. The alien is intrigued by a kissing scene, which his human counterpart simultaneously reenacts at school.