Bob Dylan wanted to ask John Wayne ‘why some of his cowboy films were better than others

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Lest you are one of those pinkos who reach for a gun at the mention of John Wayne, let me remind you of the awe Bob Dylan experienced in the great man’s presence. (You’ll find the details in the first volume of Mr. Dylan’s memoirs.) Invited in 1964 to meet Wayne on the set of “In Harm’s Way” in Hawaii, Mr. Dylan considered what to sing. He toyed with the theme tune to “High Noon” but wisely thought better of it. Finally he sang “Buffalo Skinners,” a folk song from the 1870s, which went down very well, and afterward he thought what a thing it was to be “standing there on a battleship, somewhere in the Pacific singing for the great cowboy John Wayne.”

Mr. Dylan also thought to ask Wayne, but didn’t dare, “why some of his cowboy films were better than others.” Well, I can answer that: The best ones were directed by John Ford. It started with “Stagecoach” (1939)—which made Wayne a star—and the Cavalry Trilogy (“Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande”). Following them, Wayne produced his greatest performance in “The Searchers” (1956), while his role in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) made him an enduring symbol of America’s triumphs but also (and crucially) of the costs that those triumphs extracted. The making of these movies is the crucial element of Scott Eyman’s book, the climax of Wayne’s most important relationship. In the celebrated final shot of “The Searchers,” Wayne stands alone, beyond civilization, having effected a reconciliation between all parties. He is the Master of Ceremonies bowing out, a metaphor for the director of the film. John Ford and John Wayne have become one.

Appropriately, Mr. Eyman has now produced a biography of each. The volumes wear matching jackets and are of similar stature, both weighing in at around 650 pages. “Print the Legend” (1999), the life of Ford, came first. But as Mr. Eyman noted at the time, that book “began on a hot summer day in 1972, as I spent an afternoon talking to John Wayne in a dressing room at CBS.” Now “John Wayne: The Life and Legend” arrives, both deeply researched and totally absorbing, a biography with a love story at its heart—not between Wayne and any of his three wives, who barely register as individuals, or even between Wayne and the Abishag of his last days (Pat Stacy), but between the two Johns.

Like their biographies, both men were big; one was smart, but the other was a genius (no other word will do). The genius had brains but no beauty. The smart one was—Mr. Eyman cannot restrain himself—”gorgeous.” Ford was an established director, so there was no question who was the master and who the supplicant when their paths first crossed, though Wayne’s looks and Irish ancestry made him a person of interest.

First he presents Wayne as the kind of man who would rather die than let ambition trespass upon friendship: “The unspoken question was when, if ever, Ford would offer Wayne a part in a John Ford production,” a proposition backed with a quote from Wayne: “I never expected anything from Jack. He knew mine was a friendship.” But just 10 pages later Mr. Eyman presents Wayne as more eager: “I kept nagging at Ford. ‘When is it my turn?’ ” Self-contradiction is an occupational hazard a biographer must face, I suppose, when trying to juggle life and legend. Mr. Eyman is a scrupulous biographer, well prepared to let honesty prevail. Yet when he presents unsavory details—like Wayne’s membership in the John Birch Society—he can sound like an attorney for the defense. (“Wayne ultimately became uneasy about the Birch Society because of its campaign against fluoridation,” he drily tells us).

Wayne was an actor: It was his job to take orders from directors (especially if they were John Ford). But in life too, as Mr. Eyman tells it, he was an actor driven by forces outside his control. Was he an unfaithful husband? Not really his fault, as he was tempted by attractive and available women. One of them, Pilar Pallete Weldy (destined to become the third and last Mrs. John Wayne), got pregnant before she had a chance to marry her man. According to Mr. Eyman, Wayne left the decision to abort up to her; either way he would stand by her, even if she decided to keep the baby and destroy his career. As to the issue that most excites Wayne’s detractors—his failure to enlist during World War II—Mr. Eyman reveals that in fact Wayne did attempt to volunteer but hesitated to enlist as a private. Maybe so, but surely a man of Wayne’s proven determination—who had learned to lobby for meaty parts in Hollywood—could have become a soldier had it really been his heart’s desire. Yet he was loved, especially by servicemen.

In 1963, Wayne traveled to Barcelona to star in “Circus World,” produced by Samuel Bronston, a wheeler-dealer who relied upon blacklisted and exiled Hollywood scriptwriters, many of them driven from Hollywood by anticommunists like Wayne and sidekick Ward Bond. Even so, neither Wayne nor the scriptwriters seemed fussed about collaborating. One writer, Bernard Gordon (mentioned by Mr. Eyman but not quoted), produced a memoir—”Hollywood Exile”—in which he records the rigors and pleasures of that doomed shoot. Gordon describes Wayne’s response to another of the brotherhood, Julian Halevy, when caught enjoying an unexpected passion: chess. “Surprised?” asked Wayne. “You didn’t think I could read without moving my lips?” Despite political differences, the two men became friendly, if not friends.

As it happens, both Gordon and Halevy were Jewish. Mr. Eyman is at pains to disassociate Wayne from the unabashed anti-Semitism of Bond and his ilk, but makes little mention of his attitude toward other minorities, choosing to ignore a disconcerting incident reported by Gordon. One night in Barcelona Halevy and Wayne encountered some African-American sailors, who embraced their hero and were embraced in turn. Afterward—according to Halevy—Wayne turned to him and said, “Niggers, I can’t stand them.” Who knows why Wayne said such a thing? Perhaps he was testing Halevy? The uncomfortable truth is that both Johns seem to have drawn upon this streak of racism for Wayne’s supreme role as former Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.”

Joyful as it is to write about such masterpieces, Mr. Eyman faces a problem: He has already described and evaluated the productions in his biography of Ford. Some judgments and comments are repeated verbatim; for example Jimmy Stewart’s character in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is designated as a “bloviating windbag” in both books (a memorable phrase not easy to disguise). Mr. Eyman’s can also sound like an accountant rather than a critic; attached to every film is a financial breakdown, including the costs of stars and directors, profit and loss. This Gradgrindian tendency unfortunately distracts from the elements of real tragedy that developed during the making of “The Alamo” (1960), which Wayne directed and which marked the end of the symbiotic relationship between Wayne and Ford. This was the “Star Is Born” moment when the balance definitively shifted from mentor to protégé. Mr. Eyman sensitively chronicles the heart-breaking scene when Ford paid an unwelcome visit to the location in Brackettville, Texas, and was given a phantom crew to shoot unusable scenes. But it was not only Ford who was diminished: The finished product cruelly delineated the limits of what Wayne could accomplish without the man he regarded as his maker, the man he called Coach and—most tellingly—Pappy.

After that, Wayne truly was in harm’s way. When lung cancer was diagnosed in the mid-1960s, Mr. Eyman reports that the patient, in his own words, sat there “trying to be John Wayne.” As he tells it, John Wayne remained John Wayne to the end, finally winning an Oscar for “True Grit” (1969) and dying with outstanding dignity in “The Shootist” (1976). His real-life death in June 1979 is told in harrowing detail.

Often while reading “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” I thought of a scene in “Goodbye to All That,” the World War I memoir by Robert Graves. One fine day Graves, an officer, observed a German enjoying a bath behind enemy lines. He knew that it was his duty to shoot the bather but couldn’t bring himself to destroy the sanctity of that peaceful scene. Graves describes, without a blush, how he instructed one of his troopers to do the deed in his stead. Mr. Eyman does in fact blush at some of Wayne’s more unwholesome enthusiasms, but the word “legend” is not given equal billing in the title for no reason.

In short, there is no substitute for the acting. If I may paraphrase the famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “When the legend becomes fact, print the negative”—and watch the movies that attest to the mutual love, and genius, of the two Johns.

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