Chicago Sun Times A fascinating and insightful study about the making of an American myth. Of more than a dozen books about Wayne, John Wayne's America is by far the best; it is a fresh and original interpretation of his film career and of his impact on American culture.
Los Angeles Times A stunning book...essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture.
The New York Times Book Review I hope this new book will find its way into the hands of those who are ready to think seriously about a pivotal figure in our culture, a figure who was a great star and a flawed man.
The Boston Globe No one has ever written better about the cultural ideology of John Wayne's career than Garry Willis does here.
Having written about the founding fathers ("Inventing America"), the presidency ("Nixon Agonistes"; "Reagan's America") and Shakespeare ("Witches and Jesuits"), Wills now turns his powerful intellect and considerable reportorial skills to another icon: John Wayne (1907-1979). Still one of America's top 10 favorite movie stars 16 years after his death, Wayne proves to be an unusually fruitful subject for Wills's brand of cultural criticism. As much an excavation of the meaning of a pop icon as a portrait of a man, the book explores the business and politics of filmmaking, the price of ambition, the historical reality behind the myths of Wayne's life and the American mythologies associated with him. Wills also excavates Wayne's relationship with his most celebrated directors, especially John Ford, who comes across here as a brilliant filmmaker but a brutal and unforgiving patriarch. Wayne emerges as a self-mythologizing charmer whose personal history hardly matches his image: a draft-dodger who, in the movies, seemed to win WWII single-handedly; a canny careerist acutely aware of his gifts and image who regularly played unself-conscious men who cared little about either. Wills's often brilliant readings of Wayne's most important and lasting films (Stagecoach, Red River, The Searchers, The Alamo, etc.) are film criticism of the highest order, combining a mastery of film theory and American history. Not only is this stunning book essential reading for anyone interested in Wayne and popular culture, it's a key text in Wills's continuing investigation into the meaning of America.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Touted as the biography of an idea, this book traces the impact of one of America's great mythic figures.
[T]he trouble with academics and theorists and social and political critics who write about the movies is that they treat pictures as if they were theses to be proven or discredited. Even when Garry Wills is right in his new
John Wayne's America (and that isn't often), what he's saying seems to bear no relation to our experience of the pictures he's talking about. Before he's out of the prologue, Wills has made factual errors (claiming screenwriter-director John Milius created Conan the Barbarian; it was actually '30s pulp writer Robert E. Howard), put forth embarrassing misreadings and given no indication that he has anything original to say.
Topic sentences come thick and numbingly familiar: "The disappearing frontier is the most powerful and persistent myth in American history ... The Western deals with the 'taming' of the West ... (The) air of invincibility gave Wayne his special status." Everybody got that? Wills wanted to write the book, he says, because Wayne is an intellectually unfashionable star who has figured prominently in the public imagination. Fair enough. But Wills overestimates how deeply Wayne has penetrated into the American psyche. Wayne's popularity spanned decades, but as an American icon, Wayne has remained static (unlike Elvis, whose mutability seems nowhere near exhausted).
Wills' real problem, though, is that he simply doesn't know how to read movies. He claims that John Ford wasn't trying to make Wayne a star with the famous shot in "Stagecoach" that introduces Wayne (a laughable claim to anyone who's seen it and fallen immediately for this intensely likable kid). He falls for the "greatness" of later Ford duds like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," that pile of blarney "The Quiet Man" and the overrated "classic" "The Searchers," while completely missing what may be the older Wayne's most appealing picture, Howard Hawks' relaxed and thoroughly engaging "Rio Bravo," a movie where his authority carries some weight precisely because it isn't invincible.
After slogging through
John Wayne's America, I still wasn't sure why Wills wanted to write the book. But I got a clue from the author photo -- Wills in Monument Valley, trying to look both like a regular guy in his running shoes and baggy chinos, and authorial as he clutches a pencil and book. Wills is too much the serious academic to admit it, but I think that, for him, John Wayne's America is a way of living out a fantasy of being a man who can take the measure of men, of paying homage to a male authority figure who fascinates him without violating his own reputation. "How the fuck can John Wayne die?" asks a mobster in the new movie "Donnie Brasco." Wills doesn't have an answer to that. But his book does show how the Duke might be embalmed. -- Salon
Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 18 previous books, Wills ("Witches and Jesuits", 1994, etc.) brings his usual insightful and far-reaching erudition to bear on one of the most culturally important "stars" America has ever produced.
At one time or another John Wayne has been blamed for everything from cowboy diplomacy to the Vietnam War; the critic Eric Bentley called him "the most dangerous man in America." But as Wills expertly details, the fault is not so much with Wayne as with ourselves: "By a confluence of audience demand and commercial production, the Wayne that took shape in the transaction between the two expressed deep needs and aspirations that took `Wayne' as the pattern of manly American virtue." Wills is not particularly interested in Wayne's personal life, although he offers a number of fascinating details. He focuses almost exclusively on a close analysis of Wayne's image as it played itself out in his major movies (made with such visionary directors as Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Ford). Most of these filmsclassics such as 'Stagecoach', 'Red River', and 'The Searchers'were prime examples of a uniquely American genre. "The Western," Wills writes, "can deal with the largest themes in American historybeginning with the `original sin' of our country. . . . It explores the relationship of the people with the land, of the individual with the community, of vigilante law to settled courts." With their themes of sacrifice, order, and duty, Wayne's films (Westerns and non-Westerns alike) were perfectly attuned to a newly imperial America. What Wills has wrought here is little short of a masterpiece. His intelligence and perception, his range of ideas, and his sheer readability set a high standard for writing about American culture and entertainment. He completely redefines our understanding of Wayne's work, its meanings, and its impact on our collective imagination.
A major achievement in cultural criticism that will not be easily surpassed.