Book Review: JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster)

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He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth, partly fiction” –

Kris Kristofferson, The Pilgrim

He was a football star at USC who also starred on the debate team. A primitive that could quote Shakespeare, Keats, and Churchill with ease. A two-fisted, hard drinker who was adept at chess and bridge. A man some called racist whose three wives were all Hispanic. To his friends, he was Duke Morrison, but to the world he was known as John Wayne. This definitive, well researched biography by Scott Eyman was released in hardcover in 2014, and is now available in trade paperback form. Eyman, who also wrote the definitive book on John Ford (1999’s PRINT THE LEGEND: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JOHN FORD), spent years to make this the last word on John Wayne, separating the man from the myth, in this in-depth study of how the boy from Winterset, Iowa became the enduring box-office superstar.

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The book covers young Duke from his beginnings with a job-hopping father and ice-cold mother, through his formative years growing up in Glendale, California. We learn that Wayne, despite his reports to the contrary, didn’t just “fall into” filmmaking. From his time as prop boy for John Ford, to his doomed blockbuster THE BIG TRAIL (1930), to his years toiling in low-budget oaters, Wayne absorbed everything about the making of movies. When Ford cast him as The Ringo Kid in 1939’s STAGECOACH, a star was born, and soon John Wayne became a well constructed screen persona. He developed this character piece by piece over the years, learning from Ford, Harry Carey Sr, Yakima Canutt, and Paul Fix to craft the image we’re all familiar with, an image Wayne carefully protected over the decades.

Wayne’s flaws as a human are all here: his affair with Marlene Dietrich, contributing to the failure of his first marriage; his association with the Communist-blacklisting Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; his hawkish stand on the Vietnam War (and the critical drubbing he took for making THE GREEN BERETS); his controversial 1971 Playboy Interview. But there’s a softer side to the man, as well: a devoted family man to his children; his fierce loyalty to those who were there when he was a struggling actor; his regret at not serving in World War II (mainly because Republic Studios honcho Herbert Yates kept getting deferments so as not to lose his only cash cow); and his final battle with the cancer that killed him.

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There are drinking stories with Ford, Howard Hawks, Ward Bond, and Robert Mitchum, a glimpse into his literary tastes (everything from Zane Grey to J.R.R. Tolkein), his Oscar-winning role for TRUE GRIT, and his decade-plus long, Ahab-like quest to film his vision of THE ALAMO, which almost bankrupted him. His collaborations with Ford are well covered here. Wayne looked up to Ford, the only man who could browbeat him in public and get away with it. With lesser directors, Wayne pretty much took over the reins, as he knew more about making movies than any dozen film school grads could possibly imagine.

Duke Morrison and John Wayne shared an important common trait; both are rugged individualists who did whatever it took to achieve their own manifest destiny. For the screen Wayne, it was the taming of the American West. For Duke Morrison, it was an escape from childhood poverty and B-movie obscurity to become an iconic hero to millions. He’s a fascinating, all-too-human man, and this book should be required reading for lovers of The Duke and classic film. Love him or hate him, agree or disagree with his politics, John Wayne was a true American cinema original, and JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND tells his story in full, vivid detail. There’s a passage on page 563 that, for a lifelong Wayne fan like myself, sent shivers up my spine:

“The tribute that might have meant most to Wayne happened in Durango, Mexico, where Burt Lancaster was on location. When word came that John Wayne had died, the cast and crew paused for a minute of silence. They were making CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES.

They were making a western.” -Scott Eyman, JOHN WAYNE: THE LIFE AND LEGEND (Simon & Schuster, copyright 2014)

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