For nearly thirty years, author and critic Scott Eyman has been writing biographies about figures associated with the history of Hollywood, including a book about famed director John Ford. From Ford, it’s not a far jump at all to John Wayne, the actor he frequently cast in his films and who looked up to the director as a father figure, even referring to him as Pappy. So it’s quite fitting that Eyman’s latest biography is of the Duke himself.
Coming in at well over 600 pages, Eyman’s examination of the life of John Wayne is exhaustive in its details, beginning from his birth as Marion Morrison in 1907 all the way through to his death of cancer at the age of 72.
The amount of quotes Eyman was able to compile from a mind-blowing number of people on every conceivable aspect of Wayne’s life, whether it be his school days, his personal life, his political dealings, or of course his determination and dedication to his film career and the building of his screen persona, is incredible. As noted in the book, Eyman’s sources included an oral history of John Wayne’s life that the actor’s son and business partner Michael had commissioned soon after his father’s death, the many interviews Wayne and his co-workers gave over the decades, and interviews conducted by Eyman himself. There are so many perspectives given of every event that it’s hard to imagine a more detailed biography of John Wayne could ever be compiled. Surely, this document must contain everything a person could ever possibly want to know about him.
John Wayne’s life was largely devoted to making movies, he always wanted to keep working, so a lot of the book details the productions of the films he starred in, both some of his bests and some of his lesser work. Of particular interest to me were the segments on Rio Bravo, True Grit, Rooster Cogburn… and the Lady, The Shootist, and the ill-advised The Green Berets. It was also very interesting to follow the ups and downs of Wayne’s dream project, The Alamo. If one were able to, if it’s even possible, it would be fascinating to view your way through Wayne’s entire filmography with this book as a companion piece to your endeavor.
I don’t share Wayne’s politics, I’m not a big fan of most of his movies, from the sense I got of his personality through reading this book I got the feeling that, although he was a good man at heart, he wasn’t the type of guy I would be likely to get along with if I were to meet him in person, and yet Eyman made me care deeply for the man. The exhaustive detail extends to Wayne’s slow decline at the end of his life, somehow Eyman was even able to find out what he did on what day during his final stay in the hospital, and this stretch of the book was terribly sad. The person you’ve come to know and care about over the previous 500+ pages is now dying right in front of your eyes, an immensely strong man is becoming tragically weak… By the time John Wayne passed away, there were tears in my eyes.
Extremely well written, astoundingly informative, and ultimately very powerful, Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend is a highly recommendable read for anyone with an interest in the days of a Hollywood gone by and in one of the screen’s all-time most iconic actors. There will never be another John Wayne, and Eyman’s book is a wonderful look back at the days when a legend walked the stage.