Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Book Review: JOHN WAYNE, THE LIFE AND LEGEND by Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Just when Scott Eyman though he was out, "they" pulled him back in!  "They," of course, being the Old Hollywood Right.  Eyman follows up his fine biographies of Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille with an equally enjoyable book-length treatment of "The Duke."  In truth, as Eyman himself admits in the afterword, this effort is actually more of a spin-off of his biography of John Ford (not to mention his encounter and interview with Wayne in the early 1970s) than a conscious decision to continue a "listening to starboard" trend.

You'll arguably find more detail about Wayne's life and movies in Randy Roberts' and James Olson's 1995 biography JOHN WAYNE: AMERICAN, but Eyman is a better writer than those gentlemen.  He also does a more thorough job of analyzing Wayne's later (i.e., post-True Grit) movies, which isn't an easy task, given that most of them, save for the mournfully summative The Shootist, essentially coasted on Wayne's already-set-in-concrete reputation.  I already knew that Wayne turned down the chance to play the title role in Dirty Harry, but I was shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that Mel Brooks considered him for the role of the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles.  It is positively frightening to consider how an appearance in that film might have affected Wayne's enduring reputation.  Among other things, it would have made it harder for his numerous artistic (by which I truly mean, political) critics to dismiss him as a relic of a bygone age.  I imagine, though, that Wayne, who learned early on the importance of maintaining a certain aura and being circumspect about the roles he took, was simply not temperamentally ready to feature in such a raunchy sendup of a genre that he always treated with utmost respect.

There are any number of movie fans who wistfully wish that "The Duke," or someone like him, were still with us.  A good deal of that nostalgia is certainly political in nature, but I think that the more pertinent point is that Wayne, who famously punched through a decade's worth of B movies before finally breaking through in the original Stagecoach, treated all those who worked with him with dignity and respect, a commendable personality trait that Eyman relates through numerous ancedotes.  To the very end of his career, Wayne's standard of professionalism remained high.  Studying Wayne's approach to his work wouldn't be the worst thing that a promising young thespian could do.

I was a little disappointed to see that Eyman cribbed a discussion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance directly from his Ford biography.  Apart from that gaucherie, Eyman maintains the high standards of his earlier biographies here.  Roberts and Olsen will certainly stay on my shelf, but Eyman's work will now repose right next to it (in theory -- I actually bought the Kindle version of the book).


Joe Torcivia said...


Actually, many of John Wayne’s “post True Grit” films are among my favorites, and I can’t imagine why more folks don’t share that opinion because Wayne admirably “kept the Western alive” during a period where it looked to be heading into irrelevance.

“The War Wagon” (which was actually before “True Grit” -- but endlessly repeated on New York’s Channel 9, almost FORCING me to succumb to its charms – and to its distinctive title theme song), “Chisum”, “The Train Robbers”, and especially “Big Jake” and my personal favorite (after “Stagecoach”) “The Cowboys”!

On the DVD commentary track to “The Cowboys”, director Mark Rydell (who self-admittedly “leaned to Port”, as Wayne “leaned to Starboard”) said (paraphrasing from my memory) he had initial reservations about working with Wayne – but ended with nothing but absolute praise for the man!

Chris Barat said...


I did see (and enjoy) CHISUM back in the mid-70s when I attended summer camp. So there's that!