Saturday 16 November 2019

John Wayne: True grit and and plenty of prejudice

Biography - American Titan: Searching for John Wayne by Marc Eliot, Harper Collins, hdbk, 412 pages, £18.99

Mad flash of a relic: Like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne was out of joint with the new times during his 1970 interview with Playboy
Mad flash of a relic: Like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Wayne was out of joint with the new times during his 1970 interview with Playboy
American Titan: Searching for John Wayne by Marc Eliot

Duncan White

In 1970, Richard Warren Lewis, of Playboy, went to Newport Beach, California for a one-on-one with John Wayne. What resulted was one of the most magnificently appalling interviews in the history of Hollywood.

At 63, the Duke was overweight, wore a toupée and had lost a lung, yet Lewis found him in good spirits. They dined on the Wild Goose, a Second World War minesweeper that Wayne had refitted as a 136ft luxury yacht. The ice shards in their Tequila, Wayne confided, had been hewn from a 1,000-year-old Alaskan glacier.

Earlier that year Wayne had won best actor at the Oscars for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. This belated recognition from the academy, after more than 150 films, might have mellowed a lesser man. Not the Duke. Hollywood, he told Lewis, was now being run by "high-class whores" making "perverted films" like Easy Rider. Midnight Cowboy was just "a story about two fags" and High Noon was "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life".

With the Tequila flowing, Wayne got going: Communists were infiltrating American schools, Vietnam protesters had failed to distinguish freedom of speech from "anarchy and treason", and liberals were making way too much out of the My Lai massacre. The conversation turned to black activism.

"With a lot of blacks," Wayne said, "there's quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent, and possibly rightfully so. But we can't all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."

Lewis guided him on to a different subject. Did he have any sympathy for the plight of American Indians? "I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that's what you're asking," Wayne replied. "Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."

It wasn't news that Wayne could be belligerent, even if this was a different order of weak-minded bigotry. He had been a vocal Cold Warrior during the purge of Hollywood Communists and, in The Green Berets, had made one of the few pro-Vietnam War films.

This is what makes Wayne such a fascinating subject: how do you square the hypocrisy with the charisma? He advocated traditional values but boozed, gambled and cheated on each of his three wives. He advocated hawkish foreign policy but had avoided the draft in the Second World War. He advocated free speech but changed the plot of The Green Berets at the behest of the Pentagon to bring it into line with the "official" position.

In the hands of the right director, that being John Ford, these contradictions could be coaxed into something truly compelling. In his finest performance, as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, he embodied something of the cruelty inherent in the pursuit of Manifest Destiny. By 1970, Wayne was living the role he had carved out for himself.

Like Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he was out of joint with the new times. Instead of the westward course of American settlement, it was the rise of the counterculture, of civil and sexual rights, and a questioning of traditional values that challenged his world view and undermined his relevance. That Playboy interview was the last mad flash of a relic.

Marc Eliot's new biography of Wayne, American Titan: Searching for John Wayne, quotes extensively from the interview but not from the racist passages. Twice Eliot mentions Wayne being heckled as a racist but he never explains why. In most circumstances you would assume the biographer was trying to cover up for his subject. Not Eliot; American Titan is no hagiography.

It is instead a shoddy book. The errors pile up, page after page thick with misspellings, missing words, repetitions, incorrect usage, non-sequiturs and unattributed quotes. Eliot's efforts to be sceptical are undermined by his evident veneration for the Duke's manliness.

Here is Eliot imagining a young Wayne on a summer job as a fruit picker: "It felt good to be outside doing physical work in the warm California sun, with sweat running in rivulets down his bare muscled chest." Ripe pickings.

American Titan offers no new archival discoveries and Eliot has conducted no fresh interviews. In his Author's Note, Eliot informs us about what is wrong with all other movie actor biographies (they don't understand "the medium of film") and explains that what we have just read is a consideration of Wayne as an "auteur" (who knew?).

"I prefer bring my point of view to my work [sic]," he writes, "rather than having a point of view influenced by 'experts'." In that, Eliot undoubtedly succeeds.

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