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John Wayne: The Life and Legend

The hardest role for Duke Morrison to play was the character of John Wayne.  Even when the Duke was diagnosed with cancer, he had ask himself what John Wayne would do.  Wayne’s become as much a symbol of America and the West as Abraham Lincoln.  Scott Eyman’s breathtaking biography was an impulse read for me, a woman who knew little about the actor and even less about his work (Stagecoach being the only movie of Wayne’s I’ve watched in its entirety).  The sweeping emotion and exhaustive amount of research Eyman bathes his biography in turns John Wayne: The Life and Legend into one of the best biographies of the year!

My aversion to Wayne’s movies has a lot to do with my family.  My father adores Wayne’s films and I’ve avoid them as a form of rebellion.  (I was never a wild child if you couldn’t tell.)  When I was offered Eyman’s biography I didn’t intend to read it, certainly not all the way through.  After cracking it open I planned on giving it up after 20 pages….after 50 pages…after 100 pages, until finally I realized I’d read the entire 672-page tome!  Eyman’s writing style is exhilarating, moving at a gallop and tightly focused on Wayne and his people.  It’s as if you’re right in the middle of Monument Valley with Wayne himself.  Eyman’s style moves like fiction, but a complete piece of non-fiction.  Eyman discusses Wayne’s early life, but succinctly sets up the family and their dynamics before quickly moving on to Wayne’s foray into Hollywood B-pictures where several decades of his career were gobbled up.  If anything, I was shocked that Wayne had the ability to break out of B movies and become an A-list star.  You could say Eyman gives Wayne’s family short shrift, but I felt the history was established and progressed quickly enough that I never felt short-changed.

There are several distinct voices within the biography, several of whom talked to Eyman exclusively over the years.  The prevalent one is Wayne himself, who consented to several interviews with the author.  Wayne’s persona before, to me, was a distant, cold curmudgeon.  The Wayne presented here is warm, a loyal friend and strong director who secretly had a hand in every picture he starred in but never received his due.  The best moments are when his children and grandchildren are quoted.  Their recollections of their father/grandfather are compassionate, caring, and intimately personal.  The final chapters, detailing Wayne’s illness and hospital stay, are especially poignant if you’ve ever lost a loved one to a lengthy illness.  Wayne’s perseverance never wavered and even though you’ll give an “ugh” at hearing he smoked even after his cancer was detected, by this point in the biography you understand Wayne wouldn’t have it any other way.

Too often biographies are content to play up the myths or force the person into the persona, and this could easily be achieved with a book about Wayne.  Eyman refuses to put Wayne into a box nor does he place him on an untouchable pedestal.  The actor was difficult, and it didn’t help he worked with directors who were very particular (John Ford, for example).  Wayne was a man who held firm to his beliefs, which got him in trouble.  A staunch Conservative and incredibly fearful of Communism, there’s an intriguing side-story about Wayne and Ward Bond’s organization to stamp out Communists.  A lot of broken dreams and long-standing resentment bubbled up as a result, but Wayne felt contrite in his later years, acknowledging (in a way) he might have gone too far.  Eyman covers all facets of Wayne’s personality, so you truly feel as if you’re listening, and learning, about a real person.

My hyperbole about John Wayne: The Life and Legend surprises no one more than myself.  As I teared up during the biography’s final pages, happy to have learned so much but sad the journey ended, I’ve vowed to give Wayne’s work a proper go.  This is the real Wayne, as unvarnished as a saloon-house seat.  Yep, I’m actively going to watch John Wayne movies.  Any recommendations?  And if you can’t tell, I highly recommend you pick up Scott Eyman’s biography right away!

Interested in purchasing today’s book?  If you use the handy link below a small portion is donated to this site!  Thanks! 

John Wayne: The Life and Legend


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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

15 thoughts on “John Wayne: The Life and Legend Leave a comment

  1. I come from a long line of liberals, but we’ve always loved John Wayne movies. You can’t go wrong with any of his movies directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks. Watch all of them and try to do so chronologically. I also recommend Angel and the Badman, Tall in the Saddle, Shepherd of the Hills, Dark Command, Seven Sinners, Pittsburgh, The Spoilers, Operation Pacific, In Harm’s Way, Hondo, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty, The Alamo, McLintock!, The War Wagon, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, and The Shootist.

    • When I went to the TCM Film Fest they showed a clip from High and the Mighty. I really want to watch it, if only because it reminded me of Airplane! if the latter was a drama.

  2. Coming from the same perspective you had regarding John Wayne (my father and my grandfather regularly subjected me to western movies and tv shows – I watched reruns of The Rifleman and Bonanza throughout my childhood), I was hesitant to watch any movie with John Wayne. I didn’t flat out refuse, but my reluctancy held firm and it took me years to willingly watch anything featuring the Duke.

    That said, I have only watched a handful of his movies so far – I suppose having started so late – and I think he’s at his best when he’s on a rescue mission. Personally, I prefer the recent remake of True Grit over John Wayne’s legendary version, but I know that opinion is often met with derision.

    So, I recommend watching one of the first ones I saw from Wayne’s filmography: 3 Godfathers (1948). John Wayne is one of three outlaws on the run. Along the way they discover a dying woman and her baby and promise that they will transport the infant across the desert. It just happened to come on TCM one day, years ago, after another movie ended. I let it play because I was busy with something else. I was hooked. It’s little known to many of his fans – my husband’s stepfather refused to acknowledge its existence and that I had indeed seen a Wayne movie until I showed it to him on IMDb. He had never heard of it, so it couldn’t be real. I imagine it’s because it was such an early film of his better movies and because he’s not so gruff. It could also be because some consider it to be strictly a Christmas movie.

    Other recommendations of mine would be The Searchers (1956) and Rio Bravo (1959). The Searchers is another rescue movie – he’s working to rescue his niece from an American Indian tribe. It’s got some funny moments in there especially between Vera Miles and Jeffrey Hunter (who is adorable here). And Rio Bravo lives up to its hype. It really is good. Dean Martin always struck me as an odd choice until I watched it. Rounding out the cast is Ricky Nelson, who is wonderful in his role and easy on the eyes to boot.

    One more recommendation – watch the “I Love Lucy” episode where, while in Hollywood, they need John Wayne’s help with another of the redhead’s mishaps. I think one of the hardest things for many actors is to play the role of themselves, and John Wayne comes across as the warm and kind person you read about.

    • I, too, saw the remake of True Grit and I remember really enjoying it. I watched it with my mom, who adores the original, and declared the Coen Brothers created a monstrosity so first and foremost I want to see the original to compare. I’ve heard of 3 Godfathers, oddly enough, which sounds very cute. Haha, I’ve watched Lucy steal John Wayne’s footprints and if Lucy loves the Duke he’s doing something right!

  3. I, too, came from a long line of liberals, but my parents (especially my mother) was a huge John Wayne fan. Some movies I think you should look into are: “The Searchers”, “Red River”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Quiet Man”, “Stagecoach”, and my mom’s favorite, “The High and the Mighty” (which for years was not available to view). Wayne was often marginalized. These films show his acting skills.

    • I adored Stagecoach (I have to remember to thank my professor for showing it and letting me review it on my blog). I do have The Quiet Man and The High and the Mighty on the list, along with The Searchers. The other two I’m hoping to get to down the line. Thanks for the suggestions!

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