Me and The Duke

Quite obviously not "The Duke"! Quite obviously not "The Duke"!


My first memory of going to a theater to see a movie was when I was three or four years old. My parents loaded up my two older brothers and me in our station wagon and my Dad drove us from Mount Vernon to the Twixt Town Drive-In, located on the border of Cedar Rapids and Marion. Like almost all of the Iowa drive in theaters in existence at the time, the Twixt Town is long gone, in this case replaced by a shopping strip and apartment buildings. Strangely, although we periodically went to see movies as a family, this is the only time I remember my parents taking us to a drive in.

The film we saw was the Western blockbuster How the West Was Won. I’m not about to say that I have a lot of memory of the movie from that night – hey, I was just a little kid and the movie is 164 minutes long, but it still made quite an impression. The production was awesome and the cast was topnotch. In fact, one of the film’s taglines was “24 Great Stars In The Mightiest Adventure Ever Filmed!” I probably missed about half of those stars during my mid-movie nap, but a repeat viewing a couple decades later assured me that they were all there.  Among those stars were James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Richard Widmark and Iowa’s very own Marion Robert Morrison.

Marion Morrison, of course, was the name by which he was known as a child, when he lived in Winterset. The world would come to know him as John Wayne, or Duke, the biggest movie star in the history of American cinema. Wayne still holds the distinction of appearing in the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll (a poll taken of theater owners by Quigley Publishing Company every year since 1932) a record 25 times!  Any film starring The Duke was almost assured of making a profit, whether it was a Western, military or action flick. Over three decades after his death, Wayne remains one of the most iconic figures in film history.  His conservative politics didn’t endear him to everyone, but his take charge attitude certainly won him a legion of lifelong fans.

As for me, I grew up to be a full-fledged film fanatic. I’ve seen literally thousands of movies over the years, perhaps an embarrassing number, but the lure of unseen movies keeps me going back for more. In the early years, I watched just about anything I got a chance to see, with little regard for quality.  As time passed, I became more critical, and as a result, more selective. So it’s not surprising that I got it into my head that I should become a film critic, hoping to become the next Gene Siskel or Roger Ebert. I went so far as to earn a bachelor of arts in journalism and a master of arts in film studies. Eventually, I made my way to Chicago, where I became a low-level entertainment writer and film critic for a small news service. Ultimately, what I discovered in Chicago was that the streets were lined with would-be Siskel and Eberts, and neither one of them had any intention of giving up their seats.

A few years, and several moves, later, I abandoned that dream and pursued another one: librarian. I earned a masters of library and information science and have been a librarian ever since. Over a decade and a half later and I still love it! Now, this blog will allow me the opportunity to write about movies, TV and music and related fields as they pertain to the library. I’m really excited about this chance to share my enthusiasm for some of our media collections with you, our patrons.

Getting back to John Wayne, I’ve got to admit that I’ve seen a lot – and I mean, a lot – of his pictures, both good and bad.  He appeared in over 160 films during his 50-year career and I’ve seen at least half of them. Despite that, I’m not about to pretend that I’m a huge fan, but he was a big part of the American movie landscape for a lot of years and deserved more than a cursory understanding of what made him an icon – and then sometimes I just didn’t know when to turn off the TV. In any case, any title that could be suggested as being one of his best, I can safely say that I’ve seen it. Therefore, I considered putting together a list of the 10 films that I consider his best, but you can easily search for such personal (and, I suspect, highly subjective lists) on the Internet. So instead, the following list of 10 films are those rated as Wayne’s best on Internet Movie Database, which tends to be a very good barometer of a film’s standing among film fanatics. Yeah, I know, it’s still subjective, but in large enough numbers to grant a goodly amount of authority.

The list of films (along with the year of release and the IMDb rating) was current as of 9-20-12.

"The Duke" "The Duke"


1.  (tie) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962 8.1 Rio Bravo, 1959 8.1

3. The Searchers, 1956 8.0

4.  (tie) The Quiet Man, 1952 7.9 Stagecoach, 1939 7.9

6.  (tie) The Longest Day, 1962 7.8 Red River, 1948 7.8

8.  (tie) El Dorado, 1966 7.6

Fort Apache, 1948 7.6

The Shootist, 1976 7.6

That’s a very strong list, each title an American classic.  There are, however, some notable absences. Among Wayne’s most successful and/or critically acclaimed films not on that list are Sands of Iwo JimaShe Wore a Yellow RibbonThe Alamo (which Wayne also directed) and True Grit (for which he won an Oscar for Best Actor). In addition to those, there are still at least another dozen Wayne titles that even a selective movie buff should find worth seeking out.

So, where can you find all the aforementioned John Wayne titles and many more?  You can find them at the Des Moines Public Library, where just $1.00 gets you a week-long DVD rental.

PS. In the coming weeks, I’ll revisit Duke Wayne for an unusual list of films with a very specific theme – a theme that non-fans may enjoy even more than his admirers. Be warned, however, the entire list will be one big SPOILER!