- - Wednesday, April 9, 2014

By Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 658 pages

Before graduation, these were the three high points of Marine boot camp at Parris Island, as I remember them: qualifying at the rifle range, being told by our drill instructor that we had earned the right to be called Marines, and being marched to the outdoor theater to watch John Wayne as Sergeant Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima.”

We saw one other movie during those 12 weeks — something with Kathryn Grayson, I think, who was much cheered and applauded, but that was just entertainment. “Sands of Iwo Jima” was much more — a course in life as it should be lived by Marines, with John Wayne, the quintessential Marine, as instructor and role model.

We knew, of course, that he wasn’t a Marine in real life. Nor was he really even John Wayne. As he put it in 1957, “The 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.”

We knew not only that he wasn’t really a Marine, but that he never served — at least not directly. As Scott Eyman points out, the studios for which he worked filed exemptions for him during World War II, and he accepted the deferments.

He could have enlisted, as actors ranging from Henry Fonda to Ronald Reagan did, but he was a man in his 30s with seven kids, and as far as Washington was concerned, he served his country by making movies with characters who personified the very best of American values.

That was certainly the case with the Marine Corps, which immediately after the war found itself caught in a cost-cutting frenzy, with its continued existence as a proud stand-alone unit threatened by an administration headed by an former Missouri National Guard artillery captain with an instinctive dislike of elite military organizations with heroic reputations and fancy uniforms, and a determination to see the Marine Corps folded into the other branches.

However, there was a fierce public-relations counterattack from the Marine Corps and its supporters in Congress, with some of the most effective ammunition provided by “Sands of Iwo Jima,” filmed in part at Camp Pendleton, with the full cooperation of the Corps and featuring real Marines — one of whom would become commandant — as extras and in walk-on roles.

The movie was a smash hit, the political pressure deflated, and John Wayne, nominated for an Academy Award, would be forever associated with the Marine Corps. He likewise came to be associated with the American West, especially the post-Civil War, pre-World War I West that became the stuff of legend — the uniquely American legend that captivated so much of the world, the John Ford-John Wayne West immortalized in movies such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “The Searchers.”

“John Wayne’s story is about many things,” writes Mr. Eyman, “the construction of an image, the forging of a monumental career that itself became a kind of monument. It’s about a terribly shy, tentative boy reinventing himself as a man with a command personality, of a man who loved family, but couldn’t sustain a marriage [judging by Mr. Eymans’ treatment, the right wife would have been his close friend, Maureen O’Hara] and of a great friendship that resulted in great films.

“And it’s also about a twentieth-century conservatism considered dangerously extreme at the time that became mainstream in the twenty-first century.”

“Dangerously extreme” — perhaps dangerous, but only to Hollywood’s considerable colony of Stalinists and associated useful idiots who were attempting to subvert our government. What Mr. Eyman identifies as “mainstream” conservatism arguably took root well before the 21st century — and in fact, well before 20th-century liberalism was a twinkle in FDR’s eye.

Mr. Eyman summarizes the ideological struggles of the time as seen from Hollywood without undue bias. However, his primary interest lies in telling the story of John Wayne (born Marion Robert Morrison), the man and the actor, the movies he made and what they’ve meant to America. In the book, he does just that, at perhaps a bit more length than required, but with deep research, clear, strong prose and unfailing good humor.

The great strength of Mr. Eyman’s book derives from the strength of its subject, for a quarter of a century one of Hollywood’s top-10 box-office stars. While many of the most celebrated of his contemporaries have faded into late-late-show nirvana, the man we know as John Wayne, from cinematic birth in “Stagecoach” to an appropriate death in “The Shootist,” remains with us as a symbol of something more, something buried deep in our national DNA.

Mr. Eyman quotes John Ford: “It isn’t enough for an actor to look the part and say his lines well. Something else has to come across to audiences — something which no director can instill or create — the quality of being a real man.”

In the end, it may be just as simple as that.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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