The Duke, the Longhorns, and Chairman Mao: John Wayne's Political Odyssey
As he researched his biography of actor John Wayne, Steven Travers conducted countless interviews. Specifically, he sought details surrounding the weekend of an intersectional football battle played on September 17, 1966 in Austin, Texas, between the USC Trojans and the Texas Longhorns. Although USC won the game 10-6, Travers was more interested in the details of a pre-game inspirational talk to the USC squad by John “Duke” Wayne, a former Trojan footballer and legendary screen star. Travers interviewed Steve Bisheff, a southern California sportswriter who provided information. At the conclusion of the interview, Bisheff remarked to Travers, “I don’t see how the incident could possibly be the subject of an entire book, but good luck with it.”
Bisheff’s observation was prescient; the story of Wayne’s inspirational speech does not support a book or even a chapter. Travers ends up talking about the incident for perhaps 30 pages, the vast majority of the discussion centering on who he interviewed and what information they offered. The recollections of an event now decades old are spotty at best, and, in the end, Travers cannot even be certain about what transpired on that day in 1966.
"Travers’s true goal in writing THE DUKE, THE LONGHORNS, AND CHAIRMAN MAO is to discuss Wayne’s Hollywood career and lifetime political journey. Along the way, he shares with readers many interesting and informative anecdotes about the actor born Marion Robert Morrison..."
But Travers’s true goal in writing THE DUKE, THE LONGHORNS, AND CHAIRMAN MAO is to discuss Wayne’s Hollywood career and lifetime political journey. Along the way, he shares with readers many interesting and informative anecdotes about the actor born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907. Morrison and his family would migrate to California, where he would become John Wayne, Hollywood actor and legend.
Travers does a workmanlike job in tracing Wayne’s early Hollywood life. Actually he begins before the movies when Wayne was recruited by Howard Jones to play football for USC. By then, he had already obtained the nickname of “Duke.” The family dog was named “Duke,” and neighborhood firemen called the small boy who often accompanied the dog “Little Duke.” As Wayne grew to well over six feet in height, he became simply “Duke.” At USC, he played on an outstanding freshman squad. One of their supporters was cowboy star Tom Mix, so Jones arranged for Trojan football players to obtain jobs in Hollywood during the summer.
Wayne went to work at Fox for $35 a week. During that summer, he injured his shoulder in a swimming accident, and his football career was never the same. But his work for Fox introduced him to the movies, and his good looks caught the attention of director John Ford. One of his first films with Ford was a football movie called Salute, which recruited actual college players and was called by Variety “the best picture of its kind to date.” Marion Morrison became John Wayne, and a movie career was born.
If Travers had limited his book to the actor John Wayne, THE DUKE, THE LONGHORNS, AND CHAIRMAN MAO would have been an entertaining saga of a Hollywood legend. But the author appears strangely enchanted by myth, legend and anecdotes in an effort to paint Wayne as a political giant. He seems intent on making the man into some shaper of the political landscape of the ’60s and ’70s. In truth, Wayne was somewhat apolitical but, like Ronald Reagan, adopted conservative views after the cultural revolution of the Vietnam era. Travers seems obsessed with defending Wayne’s political views and attacking liberal ideology. He defends his failure to serve in World War II when many other actors of his age bravely went to war. He seeks to equate his politics with those of President Obama and seems to forget that our current President was 18 years old when the Duke died.
Travers does a good job of recounting John Wayne’s life. But too many myths and legends of politics are forced upon readers in order to make unnecessary political points. Wayne was simply an actor and, in some ways, an under-appreciated one. His appeal to the American public was on the movie screen, not on the political stage. His legacy lives on in movies and need not be forced into other aspects of American life.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on April 20, 2014