In “Among the Euro-Weenies,” a classic report on European attitudes toward America in the 1980s, P. J. O’Rourke describes going to dinner in London. “Your country’s never been invaded,” sniffs a companion. “You don’t know the horror, the suffering. You think war is . . .” As he pauses to pick a condescending metaphor, O’Rourke selects one for him: “a John Wayne movie.” Rather than reject the idea, however, O’Rourke embraces and enlarges it: “We think life is a John Wayne movie.”
Apparently we still do. Earlier this year, Harris Interactive released its latest annual poll on America’s favorite movie stars — and there was Wayne, holding steady at No. 7, even though he’s been dead for longer than No. 3 star Jennifer Lawrence has been alive. It remains to be seen whether future generations will remember Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt as fondly, but clearly the hero of True Grit holds an enduring appeal. Scott Eyman thinks he knows why: “Wayne became more than a movie star for his time,” he writes in his excellent and definitive biography. “He became indivisibly associated with America itself.”
His career began with an American act of reinvention: A young man from Winterset, Iowa, abandoned a birth name that wasn’t quite fit for stage or screen, saving us the indignity of saying that we think life is a Marion Morrison movie. In 1929, at the age of 22, he became John Wayne, a moniker chosen by a Fox director who admired the Revolutionary War general Anthony Wayne. “The ‘John’ seems to have been an afterthought,” writes Eyman. But it worked well, giving “the two halves of the name the equivalence of two blocks of granite that fit miraculously together.” Friends used a nickname from his boyhood: “Duke.”
His film career debuted off-screen, as he lugged props around studios and performed odd jobs such as “pasting labels for premium booze on bottles that actually contained cheap bootleg hooch for Fox executives who wanted to impress their girlfriends.” By 1930, however, Wayne had secured a starring role in The Big Trail, which was supposed to be a blockbuster western. When it flopped, Wayne descended from a world of big budgets and high expectations into a purgatory of cheap cowboy flicks. He spent most of the 1930s as a Hollywood jobber, earning a good living but always wondering if he’d have another shot at fame. His odds were bad. B pictures, writes Eyman, “were usually like the Mafia — once you were in, you were in for life.”
Then John Ford came to Wayne’s rescue. A successful director, Ford had wanted to cast Wayne in a suitable role for years — and in 1939, they made Stagecoach, their first great collaboration. Filmed among the boxy buttes of Monument Valley, it tells the story of several strangers as they ride through Apache territory, with Wayne playing a hero-outlaw known as the Ringo Kid. The film was a hit, and critics haven’t stopped raving: “Stagecoach had a mixture of reverie and reverence about the American past that made the picture seem almost folk art,” wrote Pauline Kael. For Wayne, it was a breakout role, and he knew his debt to Ford. “I simply owe to him every mouthful I eat, every dollar I’ve got, and practically every bit of happiness I know,” he said in 1946. Ford understood that the debt was mutual: “Duke is the best actor in Hollywood. That’s all.”
Wayne had a distinctive drawl, but Ford recognized another quality: “He was the only person I could think of at the time who could personify great strength and determination without talking much. That sounds easy, perhaps. But it’s not. Either you have it or you don’t.” For his part, Wayne believed that the best actors drew from personal experience rather than stage training: “If a kid came to me to ask me how to prepare for a screen career, I guess what I’d say would be to go to school, learn to handle liquor, mix with people, get into trouble, work in lots of different jobs, and always remember his reactions to things and people. That’s the best equipment in front of a camera.” Eyman cites James Baldwin, the essayist and novelist who contended that the great movie stars — Wayne among them — were naturals: “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.”
#page#Wayne and Ford would go on to make more than a dozen features together, including Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The best of the bunch, however, was The Searchers — “Wayne’s greatest acting achievement,” writes Eyman, in a role that’s “too large for any genre but the western at its most mythical.” It’s a revenge saga, with Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who pursues a band of Comanches after they abduct his niece in Texas. Eyman is a little too drawn to recent interpretations of the film, which obsess over racial conflict, but he also appreciates the movie’s real majesty as the study of a man whose frontier virtues are necessary for the spread of civilization but also a barrier to his subsequent assimilation into a genuine community.
When Wayne played a character, he usually played a version of himself: self-reliant, patriotic, capable, and courteous. He was also a conservative. In 1952, he wore a “Taft for President” button that was so big it attracted the attention of a young Barry Goldwater, who was visiting Los Angeles. Goldwater tried to persuade Wayne to switch his support to another Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, on the grounds that Ike could win. Wayne stuck with Taft, but he and Goldwater became friends. Years later, Wayne lent his name to a certain periodical’s promotional mailings: “National Review is my favorite magazine. Why don’t you give it a try?” (When Wayne received one of these letters addressed to himself, he scribbled a note to William F. Buckley Jr.: “Bill: What do you need to be convinced? — Duke.”)
Wayne’s forays into film direction often included a political purpose. As early as 1947, he wanted to make a movie about the Alamo, turning the famous battle into a Cold War parable of American resistance to totalitarianism. The Alamo finally came out in 1960 to mixed reviews, including the common complaint that it featured too many speeches. A few years later, Wayne was walking on the campus of the University of Southern California, where he saw anti-war protesters heckle a young Marine over the Vietnam War. When he discovered the Marine had lost his arm, Wayne exploded in anger and accosted the students. The incident led him to make The Green Berets (1968), about Americans fighting for freedom in Vietnam. It was a commercial success but a critical disaster, threatening to finish his career among movie reviewers. Then Wayne rebounded the next year with one of his best performances, in True Grit.
When he wasn’t making movies, Wayne was a man of surprising culture. He worked hard to become a good chess player. He enjoyed reading Winston Churchill and J. R. R. Tolkien. A person once saw him smoking and asked if he wasn’t afraid of killing himself. “We are all under a sentence of death,” he replied. “Bet you don’t know who said that. Whittaker Chambers.”
Many of Wayne’s most admirable characters had their flaws, and so did Wayne himself. “For Wayne, a movie set was home, and he loved being home,” writes Eyman. His actual home appears to have suffered from it. “I’ve been married all my life,” Wayne once said. Then he clarified: “Well, not to the same woman, but I’ve been married all my life.” His three marriages ended in two divorces and a separation. He seems to have felt lasting guilt for the failure of the first one, as well he should have: “Wayne had been indulging himself with actresses for years,” among them Marlene Dietrich, reports Eyman. Moviegoers weren’t alone in looking up to his onscreen persona: “I’ve played the kind of man I’d like to have been,” he confessed.
Even John Wayne, it seems, occasionally wished that his life had been a John Wayne movie.