I consider Marc Eliot a good biographer for beginners. Those who want a competently crafted summation of an actor’s life, free of any true negativity or salacious gossip. His books are launchpads, opening the doors for more incisive examinations of Hollywood. I say this have read and reviewed two of his previous books, Nicholson and Michael Douglas: A Biography. While I didn’t praise those two prior writings, American Titan: The Search for John Wayne is Eliot’s best written book to date, correcting many of the previous issues I cited in his earlier books, despite still being a casual examination of Wayne, a “search” with no real findings. This is a great book to read before going over to Scott Eyman’s brilliant biography on Wayne, John Wayne: The Life and Legend.
Compared to Eyman’s book – and it’s hard not comparing the two which came out within months of each other – Eliot focuses mostly on the movies. He provides very detailed accounts of plot, casting, and filming, lending an additional quality to this book that’s more filmography as opposed to biography. There’s also quite a bit of set-up regarding Wayne’s early work as stunt man and gopher on the films of John Ford and other B-Westerns of the era. I also enjoyed how much precedence is given towards Wayne’s friendships with Ford, actors Ward Bond, and others because it was this affability that allowed him to create the “witch hunt” group that ended up ruining careers in the 1950s.
When I reviewed Nicholson I commented about the lack of footnotes explaining pertinent information. I doubt Eliot took my advice specifically, but the footnote problem has been rectified. He generally relies on them to explain the preservation efforts of certain films, so if you’re interested in whether a movie is readily available, they’re a great help. The addition of an author’s note at the end, detailing Eliot’s approach, does well to explain why the author focuses deeply on the films, as he considers Wayne an auteur. This is a fantastic angle at looking Wayne’s career, and his argument is solid, if not a taste dry for those who don’t subscribe or know the “auteur theory.”
There’s no replacing what Eyman’s already documented, but Eliot’s book compliments it with its limitations towards the film with a bit of light biography sprinkled in. It’s intriguing that there can be such different takes to one man.
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