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John Wayne Rides Again

He continues to wear a gold ribbon.

By 5.27.14

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John Wayne: The Life and Legend
By Scott Eyman 

(Simon & Schuster, 658 pages, $32.50)

Scott Eyman’s large treatment of John Wayne’s very large life is worth the considerable time it requires to get through. It’s not the best of the large biographies of the Duke. Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s John Wayne: American of 1995 remains the gold standard in this category. But it’s readable, it’s fair, it’s almost numbingly thorough, and it throws light on the man who was America when America was at its grandest. Eyman’s subject may have phrased it thus: “Don’t argue with me, Pilgrim. Just read the book.” 

Books on the Duke are a mini-industry. Even before Eyman, few facts of Wayne’s life had gone unrecorded, both those that do him proud as well as those the Duke may have preferred that both his fans and his detractors skip over. He’s been analyzed almost as much as Holy Scripture. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why we need another John Wayne book. Fortunately, this is also an easy question to answer.

As Lear (the foolish ex-king, not Norman) put it in another context, “Oh — reason not the need.” As long as there is a recognizable America, there will be interest in Marion Morrison of Winterset, Iowa, who came to Hollywood and became John Wayne. For so many who came along when America was shaking off the Great Depression, taking the major role in defeating fascism, becoming a super-power with a standard of living for the world to admire, and staring down Communism, John Wayne became the face of a country that he both reflected and defined.

Eyman’s treatment not only covers the ground of the Duke’s movies and the recorded events of his personal life, but he quotes almost everyone who ever knew or worked with the Duke, either from interviews or from published material. It would be hard to find a more complete picture of a public figure’s life and legend than Eyman gives us of the Duke.

Reading Roberts and Olson’s life of Duke, I detected no clues to the writers’ politics. But Eyman, an entertainment journalist who has written 11 books, including works on John Ford, Louie B. Mayer, and Cecil B. DeMille, clearly does not see the world the way the Duke did. In a chapter on 1939’s Stagecoach, a breakthrough movie for Duke and a triumph for Duke’s mentor, director John Ford, Eyman says of the least subtle of the movie’s ensemble, “Only the banker Gatewood is no more than the sum of his selfishness, with dialogue that could be transposed directly to Fox News: ‘Government must not interfere with business. Reduce taxes! The national debt is terrible!’”

Personal foul — tacky political intrusion — 15 yards — repeat first down.

Eyman later burnishes his liberal bona fides further by asserting, as is required by a Movie Critic’s Union work rule, that The Searchers is the best of the Duke’s movies and that Ethan Edwards, the Duke’s dark, tense, and unlikeable character in this one, is a racist.

“Yet the roots of Ethan’s racism are unexplained,” Eyman says in his analysis of Searchers, making me wonder if he has ever seen the movie. Those who have, know that Comanches have scalped the woman Ethan loves and have kidnapped two other family women who Ethan and another character spend five years searching for. One would think that even the least racist soul on the planet would have call to be a bit sore about this. But the rules of engagement are different in Liberal-land, and not always clear to non-members of this peculiar fraternity.

For all his being from another worldview, Eyman praises the Duke’s obvious acting ability. The Duke did not just go out there and be John Wayne in every movie he made. But he consciously created not a character, but a set of characteristics that John Wayne fans loved and expected. Whether the character is Captain Nathan Brittles (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), Sergeant John M. Stryker (The Sands of Iwo Jima), rancher Wil Andersen (The Cowboys), or any of a host of western lawmen and military officers the Duke portrayed, the character is always a strong man with strong beliefs — disciplined, competent, courageous, honest, and a man who lives by a code he will not betray, even under the most severe conditions. 

Once the Duke established what a John Wayne character was, he declined to step out of what his audience admired and looked forward to in movie after movie. It made him probably the most popular actor in the history of Hollywood, and the most enduring. He still shows up on lists of America’s favorite movie stars when pollsters inquire on this matter. And this 35 years after his death and almost 40 since his last movie — The Shootist in 1976. Forty years from now, will Brad Pitt or George Clooney be more than an answer to a Trivial Pursuit question? I have my doubts. But because his characters’ characters are similar, that doesn’t mean there is no room for subtle acting. Those who believe the Duke can’t act have obviously not attended to his Captain Brittles of Yellow Ribbon, when a 40 year-old Duke played a 60-year-old cavalry officer about to retire. (I refer you to the scene where his troop presents him with a silver watch as a memento — and the great face-to-face between two savvy old men, Captain Brittles and Cheyenne Chief Pony That Walks.) Or watch the Duke, an aging actor dying from cancer, subtly rendering aging gunman John Bernard Books, who is dying of cancer, in The Shootist.

Eyman quotes novelist James Baldwin, who one would not expect to be in the Duke’s corner, who said of our most popular movies stars, including the Duke: “One does not go to see them act; one goes to see them be.” Just so.

Eyman outlines the Duke’s early life, coming up poor with an unsuccessful father and a cold mother in Iowa and then California. He traces the career from Duke’s long apprenticeship in B westerns by the dozen, through his breakthrough in Stagecoach, his career breakout during the war, a war in which the Duke only wore a uniform on a movie set, never for real.

Duke’s middle-period after the war included some of his best work, including Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (my favorite), The Quiet Man, and Hondo. Later the Duke made the transition from leading man (the last time he gets the girl is 1959’s Rio Bravo — and the girl is a young Angie Dickenson — not bad) to the tough but principled old guy in satisfying westerns such as El Dorado, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, Chisum, The Cowboys, and Rooster Cogburn.

Of course, there were a few turkeys along the way. There was no way even the Duke could salvage such bad ideas as Jet Pilot, The Conqueror (The Duke playing Genghis Khan? — there must have been controlled substances in Hollywood even in the fifties), Wake of the Red Witch, Big Jim McLain, and a few other forgettable wastes of celluloid. There is also the sad story of The Alamo, in which Duke the producer and director indulged his politics in a movie that is too long, too overtly political, and way too talky. It was also way too expensive and nearly broke the Duke, who put most of his own money into it.

Those who stay with Eyman for the 574 pages of text will be treated to a great deal worth knowing about a fascinating industry, a great man, and a great country, before the doubts crept in, the anti-heroes took the stage, and honest, straight-from-the-shoulder, big-as-all-outdoors masculinity became suspect.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.