American Titan by Marc Eliot

Marc Eliot is a biographer who specializes in telling the lives of movie stars. So it’s no shock that his latest bio is American Titan: Searching for John Wayne (Dye St./HarperCollins, 413 pp., $28.99). In his engagingly written, thick narrative Eliot covers the details of Wayne’s personal life, never straying far from the ins and outs of his movie career.

The book includes Eliot’s interpretations of, as he puts it, “how the films reflected his personal life, and how in turn, he reflected himself in his films.”

Part of that personal life was the ironic fact that the man who came to personify the American fighting man in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in a series of memorable film roles never served a day in the military. In fact, as Eliot shows, John Wayne fought hard to avoid serving in World War II, which the United States entered when he was thirty-four years old.

In 1942, Wayne told his draft board that he was the sole supporter of his family and that “an old shoulder injury made him ineligible,” Eliot writes,  “although it didn’t seem to bother him much when he was working as a stuntman or riding horses or throwing punches” in the movies.

His decision to avoid serving in the war, his wife Pilar later said, was the reason that Wayne became “a super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”

John Wayne was a strong Vietnam War hawk who lobbied for four years to make a film about Green Berets in the war. Why? To “take on the [antiwar] protesters” and “take on the enemy,”  Eliot says.

John Wayne and David Janssen in The Greet Berets

He convinced he Pentagon to cooperate on The Green Berets, which was primarily shot at Fort Benning beginning in August of 1967.The movie came out in June of 1968 to scathing reviews led by Renata Adler in The New York Times, who called it “so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail” and “vile and insane.”

Eliot’s bottom line on The Green Berets: It’s “an odd artifact of self-aggrandizement, a monument to America’s mistaken involvement in a war that killed more than fifty thousand GIs.”

There’s one minor mistake in the section on the movie. Eliot calls the famed VC booby traps “Punjab sticks,” not the correct name: punji stakes.

The author’s website is www.marceliot.net

—Marc Leepson

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