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John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth – Michael Munn

John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth - Michael Munn

Robson Books 2003 , 288 pages , £16.95 , HB

Bitesize: Get off yr horse . . .

“John Wayne was a faggot” “The hell he was” – from Repo Man (Alex Cox)

“He’s the Duke, he’s A number one” – from Escape From New York (John Carpenter)

“John Wayne is big leggy” – unfathomable 80’s song lyric.

As with any modern legend, sorting out the fact from the fiction can be a tricky business. With John Wayne the whole thing is set in overdrive, partly because of his enduring position as a distinctly patriotic representative of US republican thinking, and also because of the constant stream of misinformation supplied by the film studios he worked for. Studios are notorious for creating elaborate backgrounds about their star earners in order to create and maintain audience interest. Biographers too seek new angles from which to tackle their subject – normally through the revelation of some sordid detail in the star’s past or an area of controversy. The plethora of biographies about Wayne run the gamut from the scandalous to the anodyne. Michael Munn’s approach is an attempt to sort the wheat from the chaff, adding weight to his argument because he knew the Duke (albeit as a junior film correspondent, the Duke does come across as being very generous with his time) and has interviewed many of those connected with him. All fine and dandy and this would in itself make a fascinating read, especially as, for all the reverence with which Munn imbues his subject, he is not afraid of confronting the less favourable aspects of Wayne’s life. Sadly this is countered by a need to somehow place the long deceased Wayne in the context of September 11th, via an increase in American patriotic fervour that is seen to be iconically reflected in Wayne’s perceived persona. This is unnecessary, as is Munn’s tedious line of defence that labels all critics wrong about Wayne’s oeuvre and a repetitive over-reliance on a twenty year old list of Variety’s top Westerns, adjusted for box office takings.

It’s interesting that despite a long career reviewing films and passing comment as to the quality of most of Wayne’s output, Munn does not consider himself to be a critic. However, get past the irritants and you are left with a fascinating portrait of the man, and the myth, covering his life, films, marriages, separations and children. There’s an explanation of the origins of his preferred moniker “The Duke”, his courageous fights against “The Big C” and prodigious drinking – although he always turned up to work on time. This is a celebration of a “man’s man”, unafraid to stand up for his country and its servicemen in the light of lily-livered liberals opposed to the Vietnam War. Indeed one of the main selling points is the revelation of an international communist conspiracy to assassinate the iconic symbol of free America. You may interpret this however you wish, the biography would be just as interesting without the flag waving.

Any Cop?: Overall a fascinating, if flawed (some of us have heard of The Killer Shrews and do not view The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires with disdain), biography that would have been great, had it not been for the occasional tub-thumping and descent into pious right-wing moralising.