Scott Eyman begins his lengthy, well-researched biography of John Wayne with the following famous quote: “That guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. 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.”
That quote effectively describes what Eyman is up to with his biography. There are the basic facts. There are the movies, with even the least of them getting a little attention. There is the pop psychology surrounding Wayne’s relationship to John Ford. But mostly, Eyman is telling the story of Duke Morrison, knowing all along that if the name John Wayne wasn’t in the title, no one would read his book.
Opinion about the quality of Wayne’s acting has risen and fallen and risen with the passage of time. Eyman quotes James Baldwin, who wrote about movie stars, “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Wayne was a movie star, and his popularity was not because of his acting skills (although he had plenty of them). It was because of his ability to be John Wayne. At the end of his career, that wasn’t enough. But he was on top for longer than most movie stars, and he remains an iconic figure, decades after his death.
Because of the seeming narrowness of his political views, because of the specific range in which he performed, some people assumed Wayne must have been anti-intellectual at best and a little dumb at worst. Eyman shows how untrue this is. Wayne could quote Shakespeare and Milton from memory … he was president of the Latin Society in high school … he was a masterful chess player. He was not dumb or anti-intellectual.
But I’m talking about John Wayne as if he was a real person. It was Duke Morrison who knew Milton and Latin and chess. And it was Duke Morrison who, gradually, over time, created “John Wayne”. It helped that directors like John Ford knew what to do with “John Wayne”, but there were no Svengalis in this story. In an odd, artificial way, “John Wayne” was a self-made man, only the self who made him was Duke Morrison.
The book is good on the details of Wayne’s classic films, and Eyman has many of the participants in those films to offer their stories. Almost every actor who worked with Wayne admired his professionalism and found him a good work companion (the ladies in particular found him delightful, it would seem, with Maureen O’Hara at the top of that list). Because he came up through the ranks, and because he was Duke Morrison, Wayne was always respectful of the crew members (if they did their job well). Eyman hasn’t whitewashed Wayne’s story … the Wayne of the book is far from perfect. But he places Wayne’s movie career in a narrative arc that makes sense, and this leads to a bittersweet final few chapters, as Red River and Rio Bravo turn into McQ and Brannigan. Morrison did such a good job of creating John Wayne that he ultimately couldn’t escape his creation. For the most part, Wayne sidesteps self-pity, but the reader understands the difficulties in living up to a fictional character.