John Wayne has been the subject of many books, from worshipful biographies to detail-oriented rundowns of his movies. Now, seasoned biographer Scott Eyman has given us a book worthy of its formidable subject: a thorough, fair-minded, admiring look at the star and his career. He doesn’t dodge the difficult issues regarding Wayne and his polarizing politics; instead, he takes a page from the actor’s own playbook, treating each incident on its own terms and trying to give him the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. No other biography examines his films so thoroughly or perceptively, and no filmography offers so many insights about the man behind the image.
Most of all, Eyman captures and illuminates Wayne’s many contradictions. Consider this summarizing paragraph: “He was a rich character hiding in plain sight—deeply flawed, deeply moving, earthy and warm, a Scots-Irish brawler by blood and by temperament, full of love and rage and forgiveness. He was a freedom fighter whose best friends included flagrant anti-Semites and racists, a deeply conservative man who believed passionately in the freedom of speech, an emotionally expansive man who was a little afraid of women, a man with a father he adored who spent years in search of a father substitute, a fierce patriot who never served, an insecure young man who grew to be a secure husband and father. And a fine actor who only grudgingly stepped outside his comfort zone.”
As for his public persona, Eyman observes, “Movie stars hide their true selves from their public, which can result in inadvertent and humiliating exposures. But Wayne never obscured his flaws, and often went out of his way to expose them, because pretending otherwise would have been a breach in the binding contract he had with his audience: to tell the truth as he saw it. Unfortunately, his unified field theory of American society caused many to ignore the questioning, complicated humanity of his best performances.
Making optimal use of his extensive research and interviews, the author gives us a clear-eyed look at Wayne’s youth and the poverty that helped shape his lifelong views of self-sufficiency. He details the young man’s almost accidental entry into the film business, his first meeting with John Ford, and the epic film called The Big Trail that should have launched him to stardom, but didn’t. Eyman spends more time than a lesser film buff would have on the decade of B movies that followed, and details the way Ford consciously introduced Wayne’s character, The Ringo Kid, to maximum effect in Stagecoach. He does his best to explain Wayne’s unsuccessful marriages and the affairs that resulted. Along the way, we learn more than a bit about the people in Wayne’s orbit, from Ward Bond and John Ford to the actor’s longtime agent, Charles Feldman. Some of these mini-portraits may seem tangential to the casual reader but they help us understand the world Wayne inhabited.
We are constantly reminded that the real-life Wayne bore only passing resemblance to his movie alter ego, which still looms large in the public consciousness. His younger costars were invariably surprised by the actor’s erudition and passion for chess. He loved the great outdoors but once told his son Michael that he only got on a horse when someone paid him to do so.
We even learn why this film icon made so many mediocre star vehicles in the last decade of his career, and how he never amassed the personal fortune that some colleagues enjoyed.
John Wayne: The Life and Legend is a thoughtful, well-written book. Even if you’re familiar with Wayne’s career, chances are you’ll learn things you didn’t know; I certainly did. Scott Eyman is a longtime friend, but I feel no need to apologize for this laudatory review. Scott’s biographies are uniformly excellent and this one is no exception.