There was never any real competition for the best western star of all time. There was John Wayne, and there was everybody else. He made a lot of potboilers early in his career, before he became a real star, but after that I can’t think of a really bad one. Many of the ones he made with John Ford are classics, some of the best movies ever made in any genre.
This was actually filmed in 1946 but due to a lawsuit by Howard Hughes it wasn’t released until two years later. The director this time was Howard Hawks. When John Ford saw it he said “I didn’t know the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” And the big SOB really did act, in a departure role for him. He’s usually the good guy, but here he starts out good but gradually becomes an implacable monomaniac. The movie has been described as Mutiny on the Bounty with 9,000 cows, and that’s fitting. Wayne is in charge of the first (fictional) cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail, before there was a Chisholm Trail. He becomes so obsessed with getting the herd to St. Louis that he loses his humanity. Finally his ward, Montgomery Clift, rebels against him and takes the herd to Abilene, which Wayne was vigorously opposed to, not believing that the railroad had gone that far yet. It had, and Clift sells the cattle for $50,000. That doesn’t matter to Wayne, who has sworn to kill him and, once he has made up his mind, never changes it.
As if all that weren’t great enough, there is the cattle drive itself. Something like forty real cowpunchers were employed for some of the scenes that involved many thousands of cows and steers. The actors learned to ride herd as well. It was filmed all over Arizona, standing in for Texas. Many of the great western supporting players are among the cast, including Walter Brennan, Harry Carey (his next-to-last film) and his son, Jr., John Ireland, Noah Beery, Jr. and Hank Worden. The scene where the cattle drive gets underway is a classic that gives me goose bumps every time I see it.