A New Biography Shows That ‘John Wayne’ Was His Own Best Creation
Scott Eyman’s new life of the actor John Wayne portrays an extremely complicated man who invented his own public persona and played it beautifully.
“Truly, this man was the son of God.” Thus speaks a Roman centurion at the end of George Stevens’s inaptly named The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It’s a line that always gets a big laugh, partly because the idea of anything so irreligious as Hollywood hokum commenting on the provenance of Jesus Christ is axiomatically funny, but mostly because the centurion is played by John Wayne, a movie star who might have known a son of a gun when he saw one, but who patently knew precious little else.
Except, one learns from Scott Eyman’s exhaustive new biography, John Wayne: the Life and Legend, Wayne was a rather more cultivated man than his movie persona allowed. He was a talented chess-player and no slouch at bridge, and he had a penchant for reciting Milton and Dickens and Shakespeare from memory. Among the titles on his bookshelves were first editions of Lolita and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as well as a complete set of Winston Churchill’s prose. True, he got into the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. But at high school, in Glendale, he had won the essay of the year award, had written for the student newspaper, was a lynchpin of the debating team and was both President of the Latin society and Chairman of the Senior Dance.
That chairmanship would come in handy. Dance was vital to Wayne’s onscreen presence. It was the way he moved that made him a star. A big, big man (arguments still rage among fans about his chest measurement and whether he was six two or six four), he carried himself like a ballerina, with a tensile elegance far more expressive than any of the dialogue the movies gave him to say. He was Hemingway’s idea of courage as grace under pressure come to life. “Looking up at him,” Louise Brooks said of her first meeting with Wayne, “I thought, this is no actor but the hero of all mythology miraculously brought to life … John was, in fact, that which Henry James defined as the greatest of all works of art—a purely beautiful being.”
That was in 1938, during the shoot of Overland Stage Raiders, one of the last movie-a-week oaters Wayne appeared in before John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) made him a star. He’d fetched up in Hollywood a decade or so earlier after crashing out of USC. Wayne (or Marion Morrison as everybody then knew him) had injured his shoulder while bodysurfing, and the college authorities soon made it known they wouldn’t be renewing his scholarship.
He got a job at Fox studios, working as a prop boy. Soon enough he was one of Ford’s drinking and gambling buddies. Yet while he used him for the odd uncredited walk-on, Ford never seems to have believed his young worshipper was cut out for stardom. But then, in 1930, when Marion was 23, he was spotted by one of Ford’s rivals. Raoul Walsh saw him effortlessly carrying an armchair above his head and was captivated. “He was … laughing and the expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength.” After a cursory read-through, Walsh offered him a part in The Big Trail. He’d get $75 a week ($40 more than he was making working props)—provided he was willing to drop the Marion. What did he think about John Wayne?
And what, meanwhile, did John Ford think about his protégé having gone off with a rival? Not much, says Eyman, who reports that “after The Big Trail Ford cut Wayne dead.” Eight years and more than 60 B-pictures in which Wayne played anonymous soldiers and pilots and ball players would go by before they worked together again. Not, argues Eyman, that those years were wasted. All through the ’30s, he says, this untrained chancer was “watching and learning.” As his experience grew, so did his talent. “Reactions that had once been far too large were increasingly unobtrusive. Wayne is listening, then reacting—he’s becoming a thinking actor.”
Even today, there are those who will snort at the suggestion of Wayne having been any kind of conscious artist. But as Eyman’s densely observant account makes clear, Wayne did indeed spend his long apprenticeship imagining and constructing the physical and moral exemplar he believed the movies—and increasingly, as the 20th century wore on, America itself—needed. Wayne always said that this exemplar, this pistol-packing paragon who both guaranteed civilization and remained in perpetual exile from it, was no more than “the kind of man I’d like to have been.” Maybe so, but there were millions of other guys who wanted in on the dream. As Eyman puts it, generations of Americans saw Wayne as the embodiment of “a sort of race memory of manifest destiny.”
Still, Wayne’s own destiny likely wouldn’t have been all that manifest without Ford to whip its wagons along. It is on the strength of a half dozen or so of the movies that he made under Ford’s direction that Wayne’s reputation largely rests. Without Stagecoach and The Searchers (1956), without Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950) and The Quiet Man (1952), Wayne’s CV would look a lot less burnished than it does. (To that list of meisterwerks should be added two of the five pictures Wayne made with Howard Hawks, Rio Bravo (1959) and Red River (1948). So good is the latter—and Wayne so good in it—that Ford is said to have been astounded. “I never knew,” he rasped, “the son of a bitch could act.”)
But Ford was always bad-mouthing Wayne. Eyman, who in 2001 published a biography of Ford, gives a lot of space over to analyzing the fond but fractious relations between director and star. Devoted to making Wayne look good on screen, Ford loved hectoring and humiliating him on set—especially over Wayne’s not having served during World War II. Ford, more than one previous biographer has argued, believed Wayne a coward, but Eyman has chapter and verse to prove that his man was no “war wimp.”
In August 1943, Wayne applied to join “Wild” Bill Donovan’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), but never got an answer. (Donovan’s secretary later said Wayne was turned down because his “outside interests” weren’t suitable for “undercover work.”) Nor was this Wayne’s only rejection. A year or so earlier, in May 1942, something similar had happened with Ford himself. Wayne, who “had an image of himself as an officer under Ford” (then a commander in the U.S. Navy), wrote the man he always addressed as “Dear Pappy,” seeking a post. “Can I get assigned to your outfit,” he asked, “and if I could would you want me? How about the Marines? … what would you suggest?” “There is,” says Eyman, “no response from Ford in either his or Wayne’s papers.”
Still, we are left with the mystery—a mystery not even the indefatigable Eyman resolves—as to why Wayne never once responded to Ford’s slights. Whatever abuse Ford threw at him, Wayne just stood there silent taking it. Huh? It’s not as if other people didn’t tell Ford where to get off. As Eyman reports, Wayne had seen his co-star in The Horse Soldiers (1959), the decidedly less macho William Holden, threaten to throw Ford in the river if he didn’t stop needling him. And when, during The Searchers shoot, Ford tore a strip off the 17-year-old Natalie Wood for sunbathing, she gave him a dressing down right back: “Go shit in your hat!”
Eyman is on surer ground with what he calls Wayne’s “dangerously extreme” politics. He does a nice job of teasing out the contradictions in Wayne’s faith in personal responsibility, his belief that “government is the enemy of the individual,” and his admission that he was just “a stagehand who got lucky.” And he points out that the most iconic performances of Wayne’s career—Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), even the outlaw the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach—came in movies that “focus on the need to subordinate individual needs to a collective good.” Shooting The Comancheros in 1961, Wayne spotted a JFK button on the lapel of the future screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. “We don’t advertise socialists on my set,” he joshingly barked. Fair enough, though despite The Green Berets (1968), a risible dud in which the by then 61-year-old Wayne’s Colonel Mike Kirby all but singlehandedly fought the Vietnam war, not all Wayne’s movies were advertisements for free-market libertarianism either.
But even today, 35 years after his death, Wayne the reactionary blowhard remains a familiar figure. The great virtue of Eyman’s biography is that it transforms that blowhard into an altogether recognizable human being. “When the legend becomes fact,” a journalist says of Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “we print the legend.” Eyman, who stole that last phrase for the title of his Ford biography, here succeeds in turning Wayne’s legend back into fact—all the while remaining alive to the potency of the fantasies his man licensed.
To be sure, Eyman can’t pretend to the historical range and cultural insight of Garry Wills, whose masterly John Wayne’s America remains the key text on Wayne the emblematic hero of a million daydreams. But even Wayne’s detractors—those unconvinced by his acting, those disgusted by his agitprop (the two often go hand in hand)—will surely warm to him as they read Eyman’s account of the abuse he suffered at the hand of his mother, the despair he felt as another marriage failed, the kind words and helping hands he offered to so many new actors on the block. Truly, Eyman makes you realize, this god among gun-slingers was a man.