The first time I met John Wayne was in 1965 in Old Tucson, Ariz., where he was shooting Howard Hawks’s “El Dorado.” They were doing a night scene so the lighting took a long time and, happily, gave me a solid two hours to sit on the set, not in his trailer, and to speak with the Duke about nothing except pictures. I hadn’t directed a movie yet, but I had been approved as a journalist by John Ford and endorsed by Hawks — the two most important directors in Wayne’s career — so he quickly became outgoing and pretty candid. When he was finally called away, he said to me, enthusiastically: “Geez, it was great talkin’ about . . . pictures! Nobody ever talks to me about anything but politics and cancer!”
Of course, he wasn’t kidding: By the mid-’60s, after 25 years of stardom and superstardom, most people would mainly talk about John Wayne’s conservative politics, either pro or con, or about his having survived lung cancer, with the loss of part of a lung. Hardly anyone spoke of his acting, except to take it for granted or to minimize it by saying he “always plays himself.” In his authoritative and enormously engaging new biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” Scott Eyman writes in great detail on all three subjects: the politics that led Wayne to be actively involved in the Hollywood Red Scare that blacklisted hundreds in the industry; the cancer that ultimately killed him in 1979 at age 72; and the surprising amount of care and work that went into creating the persona known to the world as John Wayne.
The portrait Eyman paints very much resembles the Wayne I knew for nearly 15 years: extremely likable, guileless, exuberant, even strangely innocent. Hawks, who cast him in “Red River” (1948), the major role for the second half of Duke’s career, once said to me that he felt everything that had happened to Wayne had gone a little “over his head.” Indeed, part of the charm of the man who was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907, was his lack of pretension or self-importance. Among the most interesting things I learned from this book are how well Wayne expressed himself in prose, how cogently he formulated his thoughts and what a good student he was. He had wanted, at one point, to be a lawyer, and the few writings Eyman quotes are quite impressive, especially because Ford liked to give the idea that his main star (whom he picked on mercilessly during shoots) was somewhat of an unlettered boob. One time, when I told Ford I was going to give Duke a book for a birthday present, Ford growled, “He’s got a book!”
Eyman begins his biography with an exciting prologue, describing the making of Wayne’s famous introductory shot in Ford’s first sound western, “Stagecoach” (1939), the picture that catapulted the actor overnight from grade-Z movies to the A-list of stars. It was a very unusual shot for Ford. It started with a full figure of Wayne, saddle over his shoulder, a rifle in his hand. The camera then rushes into a close-up, and Wayne twirls and cocks the rifle in one flamboyant gesture.
This is the movie in which John Ford — rejecting the producer’s choice, Gary Cooper, then a major box office attraction — decided to make Wayne a big star; when you see the picture, it seems quite a conscious decision, so much of it being shown from Wayne’s perspective. Although Duke had a minimal amount of dialogue, Ford made a point of always cutting to him for his reaction to whatever was being said or done. Silent reactions. A key foundation of the art of visual storytelling. Both Wayne and Ford grew up during the so-called silent era (so-called because it was never silent; there was always at least a piano or organ accompaniment, and often a full orchestra, with sound effects workers behind the screen). And in that period, silent close-ups were it. I’ve often heard it said that Ford made Wayne a star by giving him very few lines, but that isn’t the point: In pictures, a close-up reaction is worth a million words. Wayne used to sum it up: “They say I’m an action actor, but I’m really a reaction actor.”
The book that follows the arresting prologue takes you through Wayne’s life, his death and his legend in a detailed, remarkably knowledgeable yet extremely readable way. There’s an underlying tension in the writing that propels you forward. What’s more, having already published a fine biography of Ford, most aptly titled “Print the Legend,” Eyman had a head start on this book, a very important head start.
Eyman takes you on an insider’s journey — he says he knew Wayne “slightly” — that repeatedly rings true. (As part of his research, Eyman interviewed me, because I’ve written extensively on Ford, Hawks and Wayne.) First known as Duke Morrison (the nickname originated with a dog he loved named Duke), Wayne was very popular in school and college, a dedicated student, a football star, brought up under difficult and not wealthy conditions, who drifted into movies first as a goose-herder for Ford’s “Mother Machree” (1928), later as an all-around laborer, prop man, extra and bit player, mostly in Ford pictures. Ford obviously had his eye on Duke, but didn’t give him anything substantial.
Then in 1930, with the beginning of sound, the veteran director Raoul Walsh noticed Duke on the Fox lot, liked the way he moved and decided to cast him as the lead in an expensive, sweeping western epic, “The Big Trail,” one of the first films (and possibly the last for quite a while) photographed in wide screen. For his new job, Walsh decided the young man needed a better acting name than Marion Morrison, or even Duke Morrison; something more familiar, yet strong and decisive: And so John Wayne was born. The picture, which is actually quite likable (as is Duke in it), was a huge flop. And now Wayne, who had originally never thought of being an actor, was relegated to small parts in a few A-pictures, or leads in poverty-row westerns (very many of those).
Ford, who had been fatherly and very friendly — had indeed spoken well of Duke to Walsh — suddenly refused to speak to him or even acknowledge his existence; this went on for several years until finally, just as suddenly, he was back in the Ford family. This mysterious treatment, Wayne told me, was something he never understood. I venture to guess it was Ford’s way of punishing Duke for starring in a Walsh film, and letting Walsh be the one to change his name. James Cagney once said to me: “There’s one word that sums up Jack Ford — malice.”
As planned, “Stagecoach” — Ford’s thumbing of his nose at Walsh — was the beginning of Wayne’s amazing career, and of a series of lovely leading-man performances in Ford pictures like “The Long Voyage Home,” “They Were Expendable” and “Fort Apache,” along with numerous other films of the 1940s. And then there was Hawks’s “Red River,” the older-man role that sharply altered his image and career. Ford said in amazement, “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act!” Wayne played a character a good 15 or more years older than he actually was, a single-minded man obsessed with a never-before-attempted, dangerous and exhausting cattle drive. It became the foundation for a series of performances that were a considerable distance from the easygoing good guy he had been accustomed to playing up to then.
This led to Ford’s attempting to top the Hawks achievement by casting Duke in an even older role for “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), though it was devoid of the intense rough edges and warts of “Red River.” That would come later, when Ford cast him as the ultimate loner — and a racist — in perhaps his and Wayne’s greatest western, “The Searchers” (1956). Yet in the midst of all this, Ford also used Wayne’s innate likability to great advantage in the title role of his delightful and memorable Irish romantic comedy, “The Quiet Man” (1952). It is revealing of Duke’s lack of self-importance (or even self-awareness) that he would always complain that he had nothing to do in “The Quiet Man” until the big fight at the end; he was evidently not fully conscious of how much he brought to a role just by showing up.
Though in other ways he was very well aware of what he was doing. In 1957, at the peak of his career, he is reported to have said that the person on the screen wasn’t really him. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
John Wayne may have been a major star and audience favorite from 1939 till his death, but in fact his popularity continued long after: 20 to 30 years later he remained among the top five American film stars of all time. On one occasion, he said, “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been.” Which is very close to a remark made by another superstar from the Golden Age of Hollywood; Cary Grant said more than once: “Everybody wants to be Cary Grant. Even I’d like to be Cary Grant.”
Of course, those times are gone forever. Currently, there are many film stars but virtually none with the iconic status of Cary Grant or John Wayne. Or James Cagney, for that matter, or Jimmy Stewart, or Katharine Hepburn, or Bette Davis, or Humphrey Bogart. These were more than simply good or great actors playing roles, they were brand names you could happily invest in, and rarely be disappointed. John Wayne managed to avoid military service in World War II (for which Ford endlessly mocked him), but on the screen he won that war in a very big way. Numerous pictures had him leading the charge, as he did, for example, as the hard-ass Marine sergeant in Allan Dwan’s “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination (for the one other, “True Grit,” he won the Oscar). I remember seeing “Sands” when it opened; at 10, I was shocked by the ending, when Duke gets shot in the back by the enemy and killed! It was one of the few times Wayne died in a movie. He usually seemed altogether indestructible, like the legend he still is.
By Scott Eyman