John Wayne: The Life and Legend
by Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster – 2014
Why a new 574 page biography (this total does not include the notes and index) on a movie star who died in 1979 and who likely made more bad films than any other actor in the history of the business? Because he became an icon for an America, which if it ever existed, is long gone.The memory of this mythic America still exerts a powerful hold on the national psyche. Besides the scores of lousy pictures, Wayne made 15 really good ones – 11 Westerns, 8 directed by John Ford. They’re listed below. Thirty four years after his death Wayne was still one of America’s five favorite movie stars – the other four were still living.
Marion Robert Morrison was born May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. He picked up the nickname Duke, which stuck to him for the rest of his life, when he was nine. Big Duke was the family Airedale. Interesting that John Wayne was named after a dog. Wayne’s parents didn’t get along. They moved to California in 1914 and separated in 1921. He got along better with his father than his demanding mother.
A very good athlete Wayne entered the University of Southern California on a football scholarship in 1925. The following year he got a part time job at the Fox studio. Though it took him 13 years to make it in the movie business he was in it for the rest of his life. An injury in 1926 ended his football career. He lost his scholarship and thereafter made his living doing what ever odd job he could scrounge at Fox and then at other studios. He soon met John Ford who became his lifelong hero. Ford employed him in a variety of menial tasks including bit parts in his movies. Wayne had to wait more than a decade before Ford would give him a serious part.
Around this time he started to hang out with the real cowboys who were used in the Westerns of the time. He also met the great stuntman Yakima Canutt. It was the prolonged exposure to these real cowboys, especially Canutt, which Wayne used to create the persona that became the archetypal character he portrayed throughout his career. The walk, the speech patterns, the image of quiet strength, all were gradually accumulated over the 13 years he spent as a minor figure in the movies of the late 20s and almost all of the 30s.
In 1930 Wayne got a big break that almost ruined his career. He was chosen by director Raoul Walsh to play the lead in Fox’s The Big Trail. Not only did he get the part, but he got his new name. The Big Trail was a major production, it was shot on 70 mm film, was well publicized, and received good reviews. But it wasn’t a success. Most theaters could only show it in a 35 mm version which negated the large scale of the film and which was shorter than the wide screen version. Duke Morrison may have had a name change but the real John Wayne didn’t show up on screen for another nine years. Fox cancelled his upcoming starring roles and then dropped him. Duke eked out a living for the rest of the 30s in quickie movies and serials. It was during this difficult time that he gradually honed the film presence that became John Wayne.
It was of course John Ford’s Stagecoach that made him a star. There’s an important difference between a great movie star and a great film actor. John Wayne was the former, Lawrence Olivier the latter. Words can define what makes a great actor, but a star has to be seen and heard to be defined. Thus while Eyman’s biography is a fine telling of its protagonist’s life it can’t fully explain why Wayne was such a spellbinding presence on the screen throughout his career after Stagecoach. The clip below is Wayne’s first appearance in the movie. More than 18 minutes have gone by as Wayne twirl-cocks his rifle in a move that he learned from Canutt and which had never been seen on the screen before. He was a star. Stagecoach is a great movie with an equally great cast, but it’s impossible to imagine it without Wayne.
Though Ford and Wayne had been friends for more than a decade this was the first time the director had used him for anything important. He was waiting for Wayne to mature as a screen actor. When this point was reached Ford resisted all attempts to dissuade him from using a relatively unknown actor in a major role. This was also Ford’s first sound Western. The genre had fallen out of favor. Ford and Wayne revitalized it for more than a generation. The clip of the Ringo Kid’s first appearance shows the John Wayne character fully formed. Though it had several guises it never ventured very far from its original incarnation.
The Wayne character could be cruel and hard, but there was a code he followed and never violated. In his last movie, see below for more, he refused to have his character shoot a bad guy in the back. Wayne’s film image had boundaries he wouldn’t cross.
That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him. [Front page of Eyman’s bio]
People identify with me, but they dream of being John Wayne. [Jame Stewart p 221]
Wayne made mostly Westerns; perhaps the finest of these was again made with John Ford – The Searchers 1956. The American Film Institute ranked it the greatest Western ever made. It’s the hard tale of a middle aged Civil War veteran (Ethan Edwards) who searches for his niece Debbie. She was abducted by Comanches and became one of the wives of one of them – Scar – after reaching adolescence. Ethan is a racist with a disreputable past. He decides that is better to kill Debbie than have her live as an Indian. Wayne’s work in this film is brilliant. Here is Eyman’s description of it:
Besides his rage, Ethan has intelligence, faith, unexpected flashes of loyalty, purpose, audacity, skill. That’s the way he’s written , but Wayne brings a touch of something else: the hope of redemption. And Ford and Wayne brilliantly suggest the stifled sexual desire at the core of his racist obsession.
In the past Wayne had gotten close to the power he summons here, but either the script or the director had let him down. But in The Searchers his life as a man coalesces around his gifts as an actor; the residual bitterness he carried from growing up in brooding, recriminatory household; the years of working in films he felt were degrading, that led him to be ignored, scorned, or condescended to, of being sloughed off by the industry he respected. And perhaps, guilt over his own mistakes. Here he summons his rage and pours it into a vehicle that can contain it – barely.
Wayne never puts any comforting space between the character and the actor. He never asks for our sympathy. Wayne understands this distressed and distressing loner. Ethan has seen a lot of ugliness – in the breaking of the land, in the war, in the acts of the Indians, in himself. But he stops just short of the one unforgivable act, and in the final image, embodies resignation as well as plaintive loneliness – the same towering power that brings Debbie home also make a domestic connection impossible. [p 278-9]
Here is the final scene from the movie. Ethan bring Debbie home, watches his family enter the house. Makes the now epic gesture of clutching his right elbow with his left hand and then walks away. One of the greatest moments in film history.
These are the 15 movies Eyman considers Wayne’s best. They are given in the random order that Eyman lists them in. The asterisks indicates those directed by John Ford.
The Man Who Shot liberty Valance*
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon*
They Were Expendable*
Sands of Iwo Jima
The Quiet Man*
Island in the Sky
Eyman’s biography is written in strict chronological order depicting the events and the movies as they occur. He captures Wayne’s personality with facility though he appears a little uncomfortable with Wayne’s conservative political views. But he is nevertheless fair. Wayne’s role in the Hollywood blacklist is thoroughly presented. Many of those blacklisted as communists and Stalinists actually were. Many were also very talented. Wayne never apologized for his role in blacklisting actors and writers whose views he felt disloyal. The case of Larry Parks whose career was ruined is poignantly described. Eyman portray’s Wayne’s very good friend Ward Bond as the real villain of this episode. A paradox of Wayne’s life was that he was basically a decent and tolerant man who had a bunch of friends who were racist antisemitic bigots.
Wayne was ostentatious in his patriotism and played in a lot of military themed movies, yet he avoided service in Word War II. He got a lot of criticism about his lack of service, especially from Ford who kept asking him when he was going to enlist. He was embarrassed about it for the rest of his life. He was afraid his career would suffer if he stopped making movies for the duration – not a very good excuse considering the service of so many of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Eyman makes a big mistake when discussing this part of Wayne’s life. He quotes Syd Kronenthal a VA rehab specialist as saying that Joe DiMaggio like Wayne didn’t serve in the war. DiMaggio in fact was in the Army Air Force from 1943 to 1945. He reached the rank of sergeant and received a medical discharge because of ulcers. Eyman should not have perpetrated this error.
He was the devoted father to seven children – four by his first wife, three by the third. He was a lousy husband – a serial adulterer during his first marriage. His several year long affair with Marlene Dietrich seems like an odd match, but who could resist either one.
Wayne made as many movies as he did because he was bad with money. This lack of fiduciary facility plus the enormous personal expense of supporting three wives and seven children kept him going well into old age. He was also a sucker for a sob story and not a very good businessman.
His marital infidelity aside, his direct interactions with people were uniformly honorable and amiable. He liked the bonhomie of his drinking buddies, but was equally devoted to chess which he was very good at. Eyman captures his off screen persona with precision and accuracy.
His last movie, The Shootist, is about an aging gunfighter who is dying of cancer. He arranges a series gunfights at the film’s end hoping to get quick death from a gun rather than slow one from cancer. He gets his wish. He dispatches his three adversaries, but is shot in the back by a treacherous barkeeper. Though weighed down by age, disease, and hard living his character is the Ringo Kid grown old. A touching and powerful performance and a fitting way to end a unique film career.
Wayne died in 1979 from stomach cancer. He had been treated for lung cancer in 1964; he was both a heavy smoker and drinker. His treatment was apparently successful as there was no recurrence of the disease. He liked to boast that he had beaten cancer. Lung cancer is typically fatal. I don’t no any of the details of his diagnosis or treatment, but there was a lot of gossip among physicians in southern California that he had really had Valley Fever that had been misdiagnosed as lung cancer – just a rumor. One would have to look at his pathology slides to know for sure.
Eyman’s book is for anyone interested in the American movies of the middle third of the 20th century. It’s also for those who wish to understand why John Wayne came to personify, for many, the American ideal of strength, independence, and the path to virtue with all its attendant missteps. That the Duke continues to be presence in American culture three and a half decades after his death testifies to the impact of the image he created. John Wayne: The Life and Legend is almost as interesting as its subject.
I played the kind of man I’d like to have been.