John Wayne is a man’s man. His movies are often packed with action and require little thinking (which can be refreshing), but sometimes, he churns in a very good performance and his film goes down in history as legendary. According to my IMDB, I have seen more than 50 of his movies, meaning if you factor out most of his early 1930’s B-level projects before becoming “The Duke”, you could say that I have seen all of his major films. However, prior to this week, that was not the case. My viewership of his movies has declined in recent years as my taste has changed slightly, but when I saw TCM was having a marathon of his, I went through the guide and saw a few that I had somehow missed so far in my lifetime.
“What’s that? A John Wayne movie you haven’t seen, Greg? Go git ’em!” my subconscious told me. So, I recorded the three films below and set out to watch them this week. However, I found that there was probably a reason why I had never seen them, though I had indeed heard of them all. They simply just aren’t that good. Not to say they are “bad”, but as stated in the title of this article, they are forgettable, to say the least. Below are reviews of three John Wayne movies that I thought were “okay”, even though I would never watch them again, and cannot really recommend them all that much, for various reasons, and mostly not even due to Wayne himself.
Blood Alley (1955)
After seeing The Conqueror, one of the best bad movies ever made, any film involving John Wayne and Asians has to send a shiver down any film critic’s spine. While The Duke does not play a Chinese man in Blood Alley, he is surrounded by a cast of hundreds which includes “authentic” Asian actors and plenty of white guys playing the part, something typical of racist early Hollywood. Wayne stars as an imprisoned American ship captain who is rescued from jail and begged by a village to help move their entire population in a ramshackle old riverboat three hundred miles to Hong Kong.
Much like the third film reviewed in this treasure trove, the anti-communist propaganda is apparent, as the village looks to become free of “Red China”. Filmed in the exotic land with obvious China-like scenery known as the Sacramento River Delta, the voyage is so daring, traveling through a stretch of coastline nicknamed “Blood Alley” because of the immense danger that navigating it encompasses—John Wayne is the only person on the planet capable of pulling it off. Lauren Bacall, daughter of a high-ranking villager, is thrown in as a love interest, but she never meshes well with Wayne. Then again, no one in this cast meshes well with anything.
While the plot is not entirely preposterous, we never real see any danger that Wayne is warned about. The only bit of entertainment is Wayne’s conversations with an imaginary woman, and even they become annoying quickly. For fans of Paul Fix, they will probably run away from this film screaming in agony, as the gentle western character actor finds himself donning the horrifically racist squinty-eye make-up (complete with a kind of fu-man-chu!) as Mr. Tso. But it does not end there. Mike Mazurki, who might be taller and more strapping than Wayne appears as “Big Han”, and the best character in the entire movie is Anita Ekberg as Wei Ling. While I do not remember her having a single line in the film, only in 1950’s Hollywood could a blonde-haired Swede be cast as a Chinese woman—her character is so ridiculous that we see her assembling a machine gun and attaching it to the bow of the boat all while carrying a baby on her back!
Blood Alley is not a terrible film, but it also does not deliver the dangerous excitement that it promises and comes across as rather dull. Pedestrian acting aside, this movie has almost no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but even with bouts of boredom, does somehow manage to hold your attention. I guess that is an accomplishment. The camerawork and special effects involving the riverboat are decent, therefore my final score will be an elevated 6 out of 1o. It is worth seeing once, if only so you can play Where’s Waldo? in trying to pick out how many real Asians are actually cast as Asians.
The Sea Chase (1955)
For a movie with such an exciting title, The Sea Chase offers very little in terms of “chasing”, unless you count a slow-moving battleship following a slow-moving cargo ship from about a thousand miles away for the majority of the movie as a “chase”. With such a nice cast featuring Wayne alongside David Farrar, Lana Turner, Tab Hunter, James Arness, Claude Akins, and even Alan Hale (yes, the skipper too!), it is amazing how lackluster this film ends up being. To make a long, over-complicated story short, Wayne plays a German captain of a cargo ship stuck in Australia on the outset of World War II. While the script and story both go out of their way to shove down our throats that Wayne is not loyal to the Nazi Party (could such a super patriot ever perform a role like that? *GASP!*), he still yearns to return to Germany, and his leaving Australia after being told to stick around is what prompts the Royal Navy Commander, played by Farrar, to pursue him on his way around the world, passing through deserted islands, landing in South America for a brief time, and then on to Europe!
As I said earlier, there really is no hot-and-heavy “chase” between the two ships, more like a slow journey that allows for over-the-top melodrama to play out aboard ship, as love triangles and conflicts arise due to Turner being the only female on the vessel. As for Wayne, no, he does not put on a German accent, nor does he even give it a slight try…and thank God for that! Once again, his acting is steady, and he is merely surrounded by incompetence that includes a shoddy script and unbelievable weak acting, except for Farrar, who brings a nice intensity. In an ending that I cannot spoil for you (which I will admit, is actually quite interesting), he gives us the German version of Davy Crockett, refusing to go down quietly. The Sea Chase has only one thing going for it: the cinematography.
In HD, the film is a treat for the eyes, but the gift ends right there. In a word not often used to describe a Wayne movie, this film is simply boring. With only moments of excitement, too much time passes with absolutely nothing happening, not justifying a second watch. I really thought this would be something after the first few minutes, but it just flutters away in the breeze…just like the flag of the Weimar Republic which Wayne proudly flies from the ship at the climactic ending. Did I mention he isn’t a Nazi? 5.5 out of 10 stars.
Big Jim McLain (1952)
Much like The Green Berets in later years, Big Jim McLain is agenda-driven propaganda masked as a film. The only problem is, The Green Berets is a highly entertaining films despite its flaws, and this film is not. Where do I even begin with this? It truly is a unique movie, and does not suffer from any one major thing (except for a certain piece of acting), but its those little cringe moments that add up to produce a resounding dud. For starters, John Wayne is actually very good in his role. Sure, it takes some getting used to, but he pulls off the detective very well, and it is nice to see him in a suit instead of a dusty cowboy get-up.
However, the good acting ends with Wayne, who can be pretty wooden at times. James Arness is over-the-top and dramatic as his co-investigator as the two are sent by the House un-American Activities Committee to investigate communists in 1950’s Hawaii. That is where the propaganda comes in: this film takes the shape of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where the communists are portrayed as being human but not really human (and located everywhere!), and up to some evil conspiracy, even though the actors portraying them fail to convey anything regarding the terror-inducing, democracy-threatening lunacy they are accused of. The rest of the acting is atrocious. Veda Ann Borg is loud and annoying, but the worst performance goes to Dan Liu, who portrays, well, himself. He was the Chief of Honolulu Police at the time, so naturally, they thought to cast him in the role, which I admit is pretty neat. Now, this does not necessarily automate a bad performance, because some non-actors have churned in real good roles throughout history. This is not one of them. To say that Liu recites his lines as if he is reading them out of a book, emotionlessly enunciating each word like he is talking to a pre-school audience would be kind. Simply put, it is the worst acting performance I have ever seen (and I have noted a few gems on this blog previously). Period. It is so bad that this movie becomes worth watching solely because of him, and believe me, there are not many reasons to give this a shot.
Some of the darker scenes do give this a nice 1930’s gangster-esque feel, but I cannot help but wonder what this film (shot on location in Hawaii, and featuring a lot of outside scenes) would have looked like in color—it surely would have bumped the score up a little bit. As for the entertainment value, it sorely lacks on all fronts. There is no action except for a fist-fight, and the script is little more than anti-communist propaganda. While Wayne’s character voice-overs are fine, except for the severe paranoia (hey, Commies are people, too!), the initial narration when introducing HUAC gives us the same vibe we would get if watching a 1950’s elementary school-level educational video about communism (See the flash? Hide under your desks! The Russians are coming!). As for the final score? It is tough to say. Seeing John Wayne in a very different role makes it interesting, and bumps it up to a 6, however, when Dan Liu is on-screen it just screams 4. So, I will average it out and award a very generous 5 out of 10. Like a lot of media and popular culture from that era about communism, this film, as bad as it is, is a piece of history.