Review of Scott Eyman’s "John Wayne: The Life and Legend"

tags: book review, John Wayne, Scott Eyman, The Life and Legend

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of "The Politics of Baseball: Essays on the Pastime and Power at Home and Abroad."

One of the best-selling entertainment biographies of 2014 was Scott Eyman’s interesting portrait of the legendary John Wayne. Nevertheless, Eyman’s book well exhibits the problem often inherent in the entertainer biography genre. Eyman, a veteran Hollywood writer, with biographical treatments of Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer, John Ford, and Mary Pickford to his credit, bases his account of Wayne on research into film archives and extensive oral histories, memoirs, and personal interviews with the actor, Wayne’s family members, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. The result is a lively anecdotal history which, in the final analysis, fails to provide any substantial insight into the life and work of a figure that, as Eyman suggests, embodies American exceptionalism for the nation and world. Readers seeking to place Wayne within a larger historical and cultural context would do better to consult the scholarship of historians such as Randy Roberts, James S. Olson, and Garry Wills.

While certainly an admirer of Wayne and his films, Eyman is not uncritical of the movie star. The biographer perceives his subject as an enigmatic figure who believed in America as a land of opportunity exemplified by the American West. He was a conservative who insisted that the greatest threat to the promise of American life was communism and liberal notions of big government. Although Wayne’s film roles included subjugation of Native Americans, Eyman asserts that Wayne had little tolerance for racial prejudice. He was especially comfortable spending time in Mexico and married three Latina women. Wayne’s domestic life was marred by sexual infidelities and excessive drinking which he later regretted. Born Marion Morrison in Iowa, Wayne’s family moved to southern California, where the young man eventually forged a film career after injuries stalled his progress as a football player at the University of Southern California. On the silver screen, Morrison would become John Wayne, and the actor embraced the heroic characteristics of his cinematic image. Eyman writes, “In the movies, he played searchers, warriors, men who settled the West or fought for democracy in the Pacific. He characters’ taste for the fulfillment of an American imperative was usually based on patriotic convention, rarely for economic opportunity. He came to embody a sort of race memory of Manifest Destiny, the nineteenth century as it should have been” (9).

Eyman traces the origins of Wayne’s conservatism to his family’s modest economic circumstances. He father suffered through several business failures, and Wayne’s parents eventually divorced. Wayne had to work his way through school and could not depend upon the largesse of his family or the welfare state. Eyman argues that Wayne’s politics were a product of this self-reliance which led him to find employment as a prop man before being discovered by director John Ford. In this analysis of Wayne as the self-made man, Eyman fails to consider that others born into poverty find refuge in more liberal politics or the union movement. The complexities of human motivation are often found wanting in this entertainment biography.

With Ford, Wayne discovered a father figure who would play an essential role in his life. Ford, however, felt betrayed by his young protégé when Wayne accepted a role in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930). The failure of this epic Western almost destroyed Wayne’s budding film career, and the actor was forced to spend the Depression decade working primarily in poverty row studio low-budget productions of Western serials such as the Three Mesquiteers. In 1939, Ford forgave Wayne and cast him in Stagecoach, resurrecting his career. Wayne would be eternally grateful to Ford and endured the film director’s often cruel insults and jokes during their long collaboration. Eyman maintains that Wayne’s labor in these low budget films fostered a disciplined work regime that would serve the actor well as he transitioned to more prestige pictures. In addition, Eyman concludes that Wayne’s Depression era experience reinforced his conservative principles.

These values, however, were questioned by Wayne’s critics during the Second World War. Although Wayne played numerous heroes during the war, he disappointed Ford and others by failing to enlist in the war effort; relying upon a family deferment to avoid service. Eyman concedes that a divorce meant that Wayne had to support two families, but he also concludes that Wayne was embarrassed about this failure to serve and recognized the gap between his World War II reality and cinematic image.

During the ensuing Cold War, Wayne was a dedicated anticommunist both on and off the screen. In Big Jim McClain (1952), Wayne played an investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), breaking up a communist conspiracy in Hawaii. Wayne was also concerned with communist activity in the film community, and he performed a leading role in the formation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; an organization which invited HUAC to Hollywood and endorsed the blacklisting of artists whose politics were suspect. Eyman avoids value judgments by asserting that Wayne was sincere in his political principles, writing, “Wayne would never apologize for the excesses of the period, for the hundreds of people who were blacklisted and exiled, many for unexceptional liberal sympathies. Nor did he think he had anything to apologize for” (169). Eyman cannot quite bring himself to condemn a practice which evidently led to the boorish Ward Bond, Wayne’s drinking buddy and part of the John Ford ensemble group, being in charge of rehabilitating the reputation of politically-tainted members of the film community.

Neither Wayne’s failure to serve in the military nor his political activism interfered with his box office appeal in the post-World War II period. While many critics insisted that Wayne’s performances were mere caricature, Eyman singles out the actor’s outstanding work in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)—for which he earned an Oscar nomination—and the Westerns, Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956). Ford’s The Searchers is perceived as one of classic Hollywood’s most outstanding films, and Wayne’s depiction of the complex Ethan Edwards is worthy of praise. Eyman devotes considerable attention to the production of The Searchers; however, he neglects to discuss the implications of Indian-hating and racial prejudice in a film made as America was beginning to embark on a struggle against segregation and for social justice. Eyman also fails to develop the political implications of Wayne’s directorial work with The Alamo (1960) and The Green Berets (1968).

The Alamo was a pet project for Wayne, and he went into considerable debt to finance the film in which he portrays the legendary Davy Crockett. Eyman concludes that Wayne did a good job with action sequences in the film; however, the background stories leading up to the siege made the film overly long and lost audiences. The film, nevertheless, remained an obsession with Wayne, who viewed the heroic defense at the Spanish mission as a symbol of American patriotism and resolve during the Cold War. Despite his best efforts, Wayne’s epic failed to connect with filmgoers. Though released following the Tet Offensive and featuring an aging Wayne as a military action hero, The Green Berets fared better at the box office than The Alamo. The film certainly depicts the divisions within American society exacerbated by the Vietnam War, but Eyman provides little critique of the rather simplistic justification provided by Wayne for the conflict in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Despite growing health concerns, Wayne continued working into the 1970s as the actor needed the money due to bad investments, child support and alimony payments, and the high tax bracket in which the actor found himself. With the tax issue, Eyman appears to have discovered an economic incentive for Wayne’s conservative politics. In his final films, Eyman argues that Wayne sought to only portray characters that reflected his personal and political values as he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the antiheroes gracing America’s movie screens during the 1960s and 1970s. In the final analysis, Eyman describes Wayne as “an innocent man in primary colors, the incarnation of our remembered—or imagined—spirit: bold, defiant, ambitious, heedless of consequences, occasionally mistaken, primarily alone, implicitly nostalgic” (574). Yet, the often engaging biography reflects the tendency of the entertainment biography to rely upon the anecdote and lacks the analysis that would better place the actor within the historical and cultural context to which Eyman often alludes.