Book Review: American Titan: Searching For John Wayne by Marc Eliot

Feels more like a history book than a biography.
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John Wayne is one of the most legendary actors to come out of Hollywood, but most of us don’t know much about him other than what we’ve seen on the big screen and with his passing in 1979, over 30 years ago, his films have been regulated to DVD views and classic television stations. Even with his enormous catalog of nearly 150 films, a number of them have been lost over the years because film was considered disposable and there was no reason to save it.

But in this latest biography, author Marc Eliot gives us a look not only into the films he was making, but also into the man’s life and into the lives of his friends and family. Beginning with a prologue that culminates with Wayne busting into the suite of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor after winning his Oscar for True Grit, it’s immediately obvious that this biography is going to have some interesting stories to tell about the man nicknamed “The Duke”.

And there are some very interesting stories at the beginning of the book. It starts by giving an overview of the family environment with his parents. His father would go from job to job, start businesses, and did not have a reliable financial background. He would either squander away his money or out of the good nature of his heart give it away. His mother was cold and distant towards him favoring his younger brother. The family was dysfunctional and Wayne himself would later on continue the cycle in his three failed marriages.

Along with background information on his family, there are also parts of the book devoted to some of his colleagues, actor Henry Fonda, who was competition; Marlene Dietrich, who was his insatiable mistress; and John Ford, a close friend and surrogate father figure.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is the section that occurred right after World War II. There was a big anti-Communist movement in the United States. The HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) was trying to root out all communists in the country and focusing on the film industry and a number of its liberal alumni. Wayne himself was a big voice against Communism and was involved with the blacklisting that occurred. In today’s world, it seems hard to believe that not only this kind of modern-day witch hunt occurred but that the Hollywood elite were actually once predominantly conservative.

While there are many different things in this biography, it tends to gloss over the events and not delve deeply enough into them. Some of this could be simply due to the fact that every single film in his catalog appears to be mentioned in the book. Going into great detail or leaving some films out may not be the author’s intent, but what happens is that by not slowing down to focus on specific events enough the reading pattern becomes very predictable and somewhat repetitive. It talks about what film is being made, how much he gets paid, how long it took to shoot, what the basic premise is, and then a little bit of information of what was going on in the actor’s life at the time and then repeats for the next film.

There are certainly a lot of facts for readers and fans of John Wayne, and the author does a good job of sourcing his material. Overall, this biography feels more like a historical reference book, which isn’t a bad thing but as such it would have been nice to have a more thorough table of contents that not only referenced chapters but cross-referenced films so the reader could easily find their favorites quickly and read the events surrounding them.

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