Calling Henry Fonda one of the most gifted actors of his generation somehow feels like an understatement. Entering the film industry in the mid-1930s, Fonda became a breakout sensation by the end of the decade, making a name for himself as the bright-eyed star of tomorrow. With each new decade, Fonda only continued to win renown for his variety of rich roles, earning the actor an Honorary Academy Award in 1980 for his contributions to the film medium. Today, Henry Fonda movies remain an international treasure.
Whereas most of Fonda’s contemporaries relished typecasting (whether as a Western hero like John Wayne or a sulky noir detective like Humphrey Bogart), Fonda made a habit of breaking any preconceived assumptions around him. Rather than playing one set stock character, Fonda bounced between numerous roles with ease, portraying such contrasting characters as a lovesick millionaire to a sociopathic gunslinger.
From his earliest career-making performances to his final cinematic roles, find here some of the best Henry Fond movies, ranked from best to worst.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The third collaboration between Fonda and his recurring director John Ford, The Grapes of Wrath remains one of the finest films in either man’s careers. From a director’s standpoint, Ford offers a faithful adaptation of John Steinbeck’s seminal novel of the same name, focusing on the natural beauty of the ‘30s landscape and the overarching tenacity of the nomadic Joad family.
From an acting standpoint, the youthful Fonda carries The Grapes of Wrath forward with his hard-working, idealistic portrayal of Tom Joad. Dedicated to his family and looking to put his troubled past behind him, Tom heads his clan amid the Joads’ most disastrous predicaments, navigating the family from poverty and despair to a new beginning in California. For his impressive acting, The Grapes of Wrath made Fonda a household name in Hollywood, netting him his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
12 Angry Men (1957)
Between his performance as Tom Joad and his later role as Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men, Fonda cultivated an on-screen reputation as the voice of reason and advocate for peace. The single holdout vote in a 12-man jury, Fonda’s juror speaks out against the short-sighted views of his fellow jury members, psychoanalyzing each of them to unravel their assumptions about the case. Going hand in hand with his performance in The Ox-Bow Incident, Fonda excels at playing the cool, confident, rational mind in a room filled with irrational men, turning the court case around through his persistent determination and unwavering stance on justice.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
In 1968, Fonda starred against type as the glassy-eyed gunslinger Frank in Sergio Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western, Once Upon a Time in the West. A complete reversal of the kind-natured protagonists Fonda had specialized in playing in the decades prior, Fonda’s Frank is a vicious, murdering sociopath whose motivation is power, prestige, and the possibility of sparking a lucrative career as a businessman. In his first scene alone, Fonda establishes him as a cold-blooded killer, murdering an entire family (including a young boy) alongside his cutthroat gang of mercenaries. It’s Fonda’s most unique performance, and without a doubt one of the best in his career, making Once Upon a Time in the West one of the best Henry Fonda movies.
The Lady Eve (1941)
After establishing himself as a capable leading man in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fonda next appeared in the classic screwball comedy, The Lady Eve. Staying true to the main characteristics of the genre, Fonda plays a befuddled millionaire with an avid interest in snakes and a crippling inability to communicate with others around him. Preferring to spend his time with his loyal reptiles than in the company of women, Fonda’s Hopsie nevertheless falls victim to the spell of Barbara Stanwyck’s dexterous con artist, maintaining some inspired comedic and romantic chemistry with Stanwyck throughout.
My Darling Clementine (1946)
Wrapping up his service in WW2, Fonda returned to Hollywood in time to appear in three fantastic Westerns, two of which (My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache) were directed by John Ford. In the case of My Darling Clementine, Fonda appears as the mustachioed Wyatt Earp, the legendary Tombstone lawman who participated in the fabled gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Juxtaposed against his initial rival-turned-consequential partner Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), Fonda creates a more tender portrait of Earp, a man torn between his love for his family and his persistent belief in enforcing law and order.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Alongside other ‘30s films like Jezebel and Jesse James, Young Mr. Lincoln helped propel Fonda to stardom. Filmed back-to-back with 1939’s Drums Along the Mohawk, the Henry Fonda movie also spelled out the first collaboration between Fonda and John Ford. Portraying the 16th President of the United States amidst his days as a struggling Illinois lawyer, Fonda captures the melancholic optimism of his historical counterpart with complete accuracy.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
Just before his enlistment in the U.S. military amidst World War II, Fonda starred in the 1943 Western, The Ox-Bow Incident. In some crucial respects, one might describe The Ox-Bow Incident as a stylistic precursor to 12 Angry Men. Like his later 1957 film, Fonda appears as the compassionate voice of reason in a hot-headed posse. A sharp condemnation against mob mentality, The Ox-Bow Incident encourages individuals to think for themselves when drawing conclusions, posing plenty of thoughtful questions at the heart of its story.
Fort Apache (1948)
The first installment in John Ford’s thematically-linked “Cavalry Trilogy,” Fort Apache teams Fonda with Ford’s most famous collaborator, John Wayne. Playing polar opposites in terms of their temperaments and personalities, Wayne and Fonda’s characters clash throughout Fort Apache, with each man trying to enforce their own brand of authority on an isolated Western outpost. Thin-skinned, reckless, and self-aggrandizing, Fonda’s Lieutenant Colonel Thursday makes for the perfect rival to Wayne’s kindly, even-tempered, and honorable Captain York.
On Golden Pond (1981)
Fonda’s final cinematic role (and thus, the last of Henry Fonda Movies), On Golden Pond also earned Fonda his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor (not counting his Honorary Oscar the year prior). As the cantankerous retiree Norman Thayer, Fonda embeds his character with the same embittered attitude as Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino or Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men. Wishing to spend his last days fishing and enjoying the tranquil beauty of New England, Norman nevertheless manages to overcome his past mistakes in life, reconnecting with his estranged daughter (Jane Fonda).
Mister Roberts (1955)
Fonda’s final film with John Ford came with 1955’s Mister Roberts. (While on the set of the film, an intense altercation between Ford and Fonda led to the two coming to physical blows, ending their creative partnership after almost two decades together). Despite their dramatic falling out, Fonda gave it his all in this ensemble comedy-drama. Starring alongside other Hollywood notables like James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, and William Powell, Fonda manages to hold his own against his larger-than-life co-stars, appearing as a mild-mannered executive officer striving to boost the morale of his men.
Fail Safe (1964)
With its high-stakes plotline and underlying exploration of Cold War politics, viewers might describe Fail Safe as a less humorous version of Dr. Strangelove. Evoking a colder, more sobering depiction of U.S.-Soviet relations, Fail Safe follows Fonda’s U.S. President as he tries to deescalate a potential nuclear showdown between America and the U.S.S.R. Chock full of suspense, Fail Safe’s haunting narrative leaves a lasting impression on audience members to this day, achieving the same somber tone as Stanley Kubrick’s satirical dark comedy (released the same year as Fail Safe).
The Wrong Man (1956)
In 1956, Fonda appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s docudrama thriller, The Wrong Man. The only film Hitchcock ever made that had a basis in real life, The Wrong Man adapts the true-life story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero with judicious precision. As the luckless musician Balestrero, Fonda relies on the same everyman characteristic established with his performances in The Ox-Bow Incident and 12 Angry Men. Wrongfully accused of a crime he never committed, Fonda’s Balestrero struggles to find enough evidence to prove his innocence, only to meet new obstacles around every corner.
Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)
Starring in two back-to-back films with director John Ford in 1939, Fonda appeared in the historical drama Drums Along the Mohawk alongside the iconic Claudette Colbert. Braving the wilderness of central New York and navigating the tumultuous landscape of the American Revolution, Fonda and Colbert’s pioneer couple do their best to build a new life for themselves in the uncharted forests. Displaying persistent determination and cunning resilience, Fonda dominates the screen as the humble farmer Gil Martin.
The Fugitive (1947)
Yet another John Ford film to feature Henry Fonda in a starring role, The Fugitive acts as a stylish adaptation of Graham Greene’s best-selling novel, The Power and the Glory. A despondent Catholic priest in a South American nation where religion is barred, Fonda’s nameless priest serves as a powerful advocate for religious prosperity. Trying and failing to escape the nation’s authorities, his adherence to religious principles and ardent spirituality embed Fonda with an almost mystical presence in the film.
Battle of the Bulge (1965)
Fonda has appeared in a number of ensemble films over the years, whether in the form of 1955’s Mister Roberts or 1976’s Midway. As admirable as those two films are, the patriarch of the Fonda family deserves special praise for his appearance in 1965’s World War II-centric film, Battle of the Bulge. The leading man in a cast that includes Robert Shaw, Robert Shaw, and Charles Bronson, Fonda’s Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Kiley serves as the tactical and charismatic lynchpin that binds Battle of the Bulge together.