Over the course of 50 years, John Wayne devoted himself to building one of the greatest careers in Hollywood history. But behind the scenes, Duke was focused on building a legacy he felt even more strongly about: that of a loving family. As you no doubt expect, John Wayne managed to be just as inspiring in the roles of father and husband as any he played on the big screen. And though the hectic nature of his career often kept him away from those he held dear, Duke made the most of his circumstances. These family values that he embodied in his own life carried over to the films he created. Read below for our picks of John Wayne’s top three family films and get a better idea of his family values in the new Volume 35 of The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition.
#3 The Cowboys
The old idiom “you can’t choose your family” may be true on a literal, biological level, but there are exceptions to that rule. As John Wayne’s 1972 film The Cowboys proves, the concept of “family” can be subjective. And sometimes, it chooses us.
Directed by Mark Rydell, The Cowboys sees Duke as Wil Anderson, an aging rancher in dire need of help on his cattle drive after his ranch hands abandon him to go searching for gold. When a local man recommends Andersen train some schoolboys to work for him, the rancher goes to the school to scope out some of the prospects. Andersen remains wary of the idea of hiring inexperienced greenhorns who barely have hair on their chins, but when several of the boys eagerly show up for duty at his ranch the next day, he decides to make the most of the opportunity.
Not only does Andersen teach the boys how to do the grueling work required on his cattle drive, he also imparts the value of such work upon them. And fortunately for all involved, the boys prove to be fast learners who quickly go from tenderfoots to fine cowhands. Moreover, thanks to Andersen’s guidance, they learn how to be men. But just as the relationship between the weathered rancher and his hired hands is truly beginning to evolve, Andersen is shot by the outlaw Long Hair (Bruce Dern), who steals the herd. The boys return to find Andersen dying from his wounds the next morning, but the rancher-turned-father-figure makes sure to tell them what they mean to him before he goes: “I’m proud of ya...all of ya. Every man wants his children to be better than he was. You are.”
Likely imagined by the bonds he shared with his own children offscreen, Duke brought a tender touch to the character of Wil Andersen. In its review of the film, The New York Times commended the legend for tapping into his softer side, writing, “Wayne is, of course, marvelously indestructible and he has become an almost perfect father figure.” Through his moving portrayal, John Wayne illustrated that though they weren’t rooted to the same family tree, the connection shared by Andersen and his young cowboys made them as good as kin.
#2 The Sons of Katie Elder
Any number of circumstances can drive family members apart over time. But just as well, there are certain circumstances that are nearly guaranteed to restore unity to a detached brood. In his classic 1965 film The Sons of Katie Elder, John Wayne reminds audiences that when times are tough, it’s best to leave the past behind and fully lean into your familial bonds.
In Clearwater, Texas, the Elder brothers John (John Wayne), Tom (Dean Martin), Matt (Earl Holliman) and Bud (Michael Anderson Jr.) are reunited at the funeral for their revered mother. The stark personality clashes among the four siblings become evident early on, with John telling Bud, “All we want to do is make you end up rich and respectable—you fight us every step of the way,” to which the younger brother quips, “I don’t want to be rich and respectable. I want to be just like the rest of you.” Soon, however, the Elder men set their squabbles aside and turn their attention to seeking the truth about their father’s suspicious death. When entrepreneur Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) claims to have won the family ranch in a poker game just prior to the Elder patriarch being shot and killed, it becomes all but certain who the brothers must extract vengeance from.
Realizing the Elders are on to him, Morgan sends his cronies to ambush the brothers in a shootout that leaves Matt dead and Bud seriously wounded. Tom then captures Morgan’s son Dave (Dennis Hopper), who eventually confirms his father’s heinous deed during a confrontation with John. Armed with all of the information he needs, John finds the murderous entrepreneur and takes him down in a climactic gunfight.
Though tragic, the events surrounding the reunion of the Elder brothers undoubtedly strengthened their brotherly bonds. By working in tandem, they were able to extract justice on their father’s behalf and restore peace to the mourning of their mother. Beyond sharing a surname, the Elder brothers clearly share a strong belief in honor as well—and that’s something that would make any parent proud.
#1 Big Jake
As the years go on, familial relationships are bound to encounter sizable bumps in the road. Distance, disagreements, dissonant personalities and any other number of factors can cause rifts among loved ones, and sometimes it takes extreme circumstances to get everyone back on the same page. John Wayne explored this kind of family dynamic in 1971’s Big Jake, reminding audiences of the importance of having your family’s back in times of need—no matter what happened in the past.
Known for his tough talk and tougher actions, Duke’s Big Jake McCandles has been disconnected from his wife Martha (Maureen O’Hara) and sons James (Patrick Wayne), Jeff (Bobby Vinton) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum) since deserting the family ranch 10 years ago. But when the heinous John Fain (Richard Boon) and his group of murderous outlaws storm the family’s estate, murder the ranch hands and kidnap little Jake McCandles—played by John Wayne’s youngest son Ethan—Martha knows the boy’s estranged grandfather is the only man fit for the task of bringing him home safely. Despite offers from the Texas Rangers and the Army, she insists the mission will require an “extremely harsh and unpleasant kind of man to see to it,” and sends a letter to Big Jake asking for his help. Without a moment of hesitation, the aging gunslinger gets on the next available train and heads home.
Upon his return, Big Jake wastes no time tracking down his grandson. Even when outmatched and outnumbered, he throws fisticuffs with the vitality of a much younger man and often outsmarts his foes with cleverly-laid trips and quick wit. As the gunsmoke clears following the final battle that results in the rescue of little Jake, the dying Fain, upon realizing he’s been bested by none other than the legendary Big Jake, cries, “I thought you was dead!” to which the weathered gunman replies, “Not hardly.” And clearly, the once-distant patriarch’s devotion to his family is also alive and well.
While most people will never need to rescue a kidnapped family member from a gang of outlaws, the film’s heartfelt message stands strong: Family is forever. And so when someone you’re bonded to by blood needs a hand, lend it—you never know when you might end up in a situation needing that incomparable support system yourself.
Don't miss Volume 35 of The Official John Wayne Collector's Edition!