Chances are, John Wayne and I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about politics. This is true for most of my relationships with most of my conservative friends. No one is really interested in learning anything. We just want to enforce our viewpoints by pretending to listen to the narrow-minded ravings of someone we perceive to be a complete idiot, lunatic, or both. We also love to argue. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a constructive conversation that features conflicting viewpoints. I just find that to be the exception to the rule.
Throughout Scott Eyman’s exhaustively researched biography of Wayne, which comes in at approximately 658 pages, I wondered vaguely what would have come out of a discussion of political ideals with Wayne. In all likelihood, nothing good, although Wayne probably would have tried to goad me into such conversations. It was apparently one of his past-times. It doesn’t seem like Wayne’s political opinions changed a whole lot through the course of his life, but Eyman suggests repeatedly that Wayne was actually much more open-minded than his current reputation might indicate. I don’t know about that. However, if there is anything significant to be taken from John Wayne: The Life and Legend, it’s the fact that Wayne had greater depths of intelligence and complexity than some might believe. One thing that makes Eyman’s heavy tome so readable is the fact that the book is only sporadically apologetic for Wayne’s life, career, and opinions. For the most part, it paints the actor and producer in a fairly honest light. It also strives to demystify the man, which is an ambitious project in of itself. John Wayne succeeds at this task, more often than not.
Strictly in terms of a career biography, as well as a timeline of Hollywood in its infancy, all the way up to mid-1970s, the book is fascinating, even riveting in places. Regardless of how you feel about Wayne as an actor, you can’t argue that he didn’t earn his success. It wasn’t until after he had spent over a decade working in serials and B-pictures that Wayne finally found his success. Stagecoach remains an absolutely phenomenal piece of filmmaking after several decades. It was also that movie that began his long personal and professional association with director John Ford. Eyman writes with a laidback scholar tone, when discussing the brilliance of Ford as a director, or when he wants to showcase the fact that Wayne generally called the shots on his own productions. He writes about Wayne’s major and minor film roles with such verve, you may want to watch something like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (my personal favorite), True Grit, or The Searchers (another film that is quite frankly essential viewing). Eyman believes Wayne was a much better actor than he usually gets credit for. It’s hard to argue with his enthusiasm, but movies such as the ones mentioned above do imply that Wayne took his craft seriously, and strove to add nuances to his natural charm and energy. Wayne’s filmography taken as a whole also portrays a man who quite simply never stopped working. Although working as an actor was not quite in line with the hyper-macho character Wayne played to self-parodying heights in his day-to-day life, Eyman implores us to believe that Wayne himself believed in the validity of what he did for a living.
Even people who have zero interest in Wayne as an actor, and deplore what they know of his political leanings, may want to try this book out. Wayne’s iconic status as an actor is perhaps second only to his iconic status with the Republican Party. Eyman has room enough in this book to separate the two, even though it is quite difficult to do so. Over time, Wayne has become a symbol for a variety of opinions and even ideologies. John Wayne the symbol is extremely difficult to separate from John Wayne the actor. Separating both of those things from John Wayne the human being (born Marion Morrison) is almost impossible, but Eyman’s obvious, mostly-grounded love for the subject matter gets him closer to creating all of these distinctions than any writer has in the past.
Wayne was indeed the man who said profoundly racist, homophobic things in a notorious Playboy interview. He was also a man whose acts of generosity with friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers suggest an individual of stark contrasts to the (sometimes unfair) stereotypes that have always been associated with conservatives. The book also provides ample evidence that Wayne was much, much smarter than his larger-than-life persona, which he went to great lengths to emphasize in public, would have ever indicated. Eyman wants to leave readers with a clearer image of Wayne as a private and public figure, as much as he wants to leave readers with an extremely in-depth rundown of his shockingly long-lived career. If nothing else, you will have a better-defined idea of what Wayne was like than you did before. Whether or not that influences your opinion of him is an entirely different matter, but at least you’ll have the facts in front of you. John Wayne: The Life and Legend gives you facts and then some. It remains engaging throughout. There are dozens of Wayne biographies out there. I don’t need to read the others to know that this is going to be the best one for a long time.