John Wayne Once Asked a Producer What Makes a Great Western Title, Answer Surprised Him

The name John Wayne became synonymous with westerns. Wayne was a bit player in westerns of the ‘20s before he began headlining them himself. From 1939’s Stagecoach to his final film, The Shootist, many movies featured Wayne in a cowboy hat, on a horse or even wearing a sheriff’s star. Still, Wayne wondered what made a good western movie title. 

John Wayne sits at a western saloon with a bottle of whiskey
John Wayne | ABC via Getty Images

The answer was revealed in a way on the new 4K UHD release of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In a collection of bonus features from previous home video releases, the late producer A.C. Lyles speaks about Wayne. Here was his answer to Wayne’s question. 

Even in the ‘60s, John Wayne still wondered about westerns 

Lyles began his producing career in 1957 with the movie Short Cut to Hell and the western series Rawhide, which launched Clint Eastwood to his career. Lyles never produced a Wayne movie but they were often working at the same studio, including Paramount when they were filming The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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“When I was doing five or six features a year there, Duke was doing the big ones and we were often together,” Lyles said. “He came one time to my office. We were going to have lunch and I had some scripts in front of me, writing. He said, ‘What are you writing?’ I said titles, titles for my next westerns.”

A.C. Lyles saw added value to clever movie titles

By the ‘60s, Wayne had already made his mark in westerns, and in Hollywood. Still, Wayne always wondered about the factors in success. So he asked his friend, the big time movie producer.

“He says, ‘A.C., what makes the best western title?’” Lyles said. “I said, ‘Duke, any picture with your name above it.’”

John Wayne western movie titles 

Wayne’s movies ran the gamut of titles. Some were as simple as Stagecoach, The Cowboys, or The Alamo. You could pretty much guarantee those movies would be about a stagecoach, some cowboys and the Texas landmark respectively. 

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Others were named after the title character. Wayne played Hondo Lane in Hondo and John Chisum in Chisum. Some titles were more evocative. True Grit describes the qualities of Wayne’s character, Rooster Cogburn. The sequel was just named after him. The Quiet Man suggested a man trying to resist violence, but in the movie it came for him anyway. The Searchers is about a rescue party, so they are literally searching for someone, but the title also suggests they’re searching for something more philosophical.

A lot of Wayne’s movies were named after their setting. Rio Lobo takes place in the town Rio Lobo. Rio Grande is about a cavalry who ultimately crosses the Rio Grande River. Even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance isn’t quite literal. Somebody did shoot him, but the legend becomes more important than the facts. But if Lyles was right, all those titles had one thing in common: John Wayne’s name above the title.

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