Last Updated on April 24, 2018 by Steve Mayhew
Get comfy and grab a coffee for this the next of 5 more John Wayne Movie reviews from the late 1950’s. They’re not all good. Feel free to comment below or head over to our Facebook page.
Jet Pilot (1957?)
Howard Hughes has a lot to answer for when it comes to producing JW movies. First he gave us The Conqueror and now this misfire –although I note Paul Fix is back on the team. He must have needed the money.
It’s a shame because it’s written by Jules Furthman – who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and To Have and Have Not to name a few, directed by Joseph Sternberg and music by Bronislau Kaper, but I’m afraid it’s yet another 1950s turkey for poor old Duke
Apparently filming ran from 1948 through to 1953, mainly due to constant tinkering by Hughes, with the film finally being launched onto an unsuspecting public in 1957.
It’s an uncomfortable mix of drama and comedy, a piece of Russian scaremongering that doubles as a recruitment documentary for the U.S. Air Force, but Top Gun it ain’t.
To me it’s an American propaganda film in all but name although even the anti-Russian sentiment is almost out-of-date by the time the film belatedly hit the screen.
Like most Howard Hughes films the centre of gravity for this movie is the size of cleavage displayed by the female lead, and Janet Leigh dutifully obliges as Russian pilot Anna who defects to the West – although she still sports an immaculate American accent.
When she first appears the whistling of the jets in the background increase exponentially as she climbs out of her plane. It gets even louder in a later scene when she starts to disrobe in front of a bemused JW.
Mind you, it’s good to see Janet Leigh in a shower sequence that doesn’t call for her to be butchered by a man wearing his dead mother’s clothing.
It’s a very green film, and I don’t mean that in an eco-friendly way. Numerous sets are decorated with green doors, green furniture, green chairs, Leigh wearing a green dress, Wayne in green uniform.
I’m figuring Howard Hughes maybe over-produced a job lot of green paint from one of his factories and couldn’t get rid of it. On the other hand, it could be the film stock wasn’t exactly stable, what with Wayne in one scene sporting nearly as much red lipstick as Janet Leigh
I guess it’s ok if you’re into looking at interminable scenes of jet planes flying back and forth across the screen accompanied by a voiceover to give the aerial sequences some kind of narrative context, but it gets rather boring to watch after a while.
On the other hand there’s an interesting feminist slant to the plot whereby Leigh has to prove her flying chops as a woman. It’s also intriguing to see Leigh sporting a a Princess Leia hairstyle 20 years or so before Star Wars, proving yet again there’s no such thing as an original idea when it comes to the world of films.
If truth be told John Wayne, as American pilot Jim Shannon, isn’t really cut out to be just the romantic lead, He’s a man of action, so he needs to punch out a few lights a couple of times every reel.
Unfortunately for all you JW fans out there it’s Janet Leigh instead who gets to whack JW around the head with the butt of a gun when it turns out she’s actually a double agent.
In the words of the man himself, she was ‘a Soviet tootsie roll who made a chump out of me’. Capitalism triumphs over Communism in the end though, but then we all knew it would even before the film began.
In the final analysis I have to say it’s not the best film JW has ever appeared in, and certainly nowhere near as horrific as The Conqueror. Unlike that film – see my review in the previous article – even our dog respectfully kept its thoughts to itself on this one so I guess I’m duty bound to honour that position as well.
Legend of the Lost (1957)
I had this theory once that, at the the end of The Searchers, Ethan Edwards walked off into the wilderness, morphed into Pike Bishop and joined the Wild Bunch.
I am now prepared to abandon that idea and conclude that Ethan turned into Joe January instead, because if John Wayne is not invoking the spirit of one of his best loved Western characters in Legend of the Lost then I’ll eat my ten-gallon hat.
In fact, it should be subtitled ‘The Searchers Go to Libya’, seeing as, in his job as a guide for hire, he goes off on an ill-advised hunt for treasure in the desert. The comparison doesn’t end there though. This film is a thinly disguised Western in all but name, what with the marauding desert Taureg’s doubling for the Comanche’s and JW wearing a costume more befitting his later turn in Rio Bravo.
I’ve only ever caught Legend of the Lost on TV but I think I’d pay a lot of money to see it on a big screen.
Cinematographer Jack Cardiff –he took over the directing reins from John Ford when Ford fell ill whilst making Young Cassidy in the early 1960s – captures the clear blue sky and the majestic grandeur of the desert so stunningly in widescreen Technirama – whatever that is – he nearly knocks Freddie Young’s efforts in the later Lawrence of Arabia into a cocked hat. Add to that the presence of the luscious Ms Sophia Loren as lady of the night Dita, and you have a real visual treat for the eyes.
My decision to hand over copious amounts of hard earned cash to see the film on a big screen would, however, be seriously compromised because, although the scenery is absolutely magnificent, I’m afraid the story that is played out in the foreground leaves a lot to be desired.
The film starts off promisingly enough with a scene-stealing performance from Kurt Kasznar as the crooked town prefect of Timbuktu, and a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe compounded by a later scene in which a couple of spiders fall on Ms Loren whilst they wander through the ‘Valley of the Tarantulas.’
Like the main characters who lose their way in the desert, the film wanders off the beaten path of plausibility by the introduction of Rossano Brazzi, playing an emotionally conflicted individual who can’t decide if he wants to make a decent woman of Dita or ravish her on the spot whilst JW takes a nap.
He’s a thoroughly bewildering character who these days might be diagnosed as bipolar but is sadly beyond the acting talents of Mr Brazzi.
Brazzi hires JW – Dita tags along for reasons not worth mentioning here – to help him find his father who has apparently found a lost city of treasure way out in the middle of the desert. When they get there it turns out the father has been murdered which sends Brazzi into a psychotic rage, culminating in our hero getting stabbed in the back and Sophia forced to slow Brazzi to a gentlemanly walk by shooting him six times in the chest.
That’s it really. The whole story in a nutshell. Not so much Legend of the Lost, more a Lost Opportunity let down by a bizarre script. One for die-hard Wayne fans only I’m afraid.
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)
This John Huston directed drama set in Japan in the 1850s would appear to be one in a number of other Hollywood movies produced in the 1950s that promote, in the wake of WWII, the spirit of reconciliation between Japan and America.
Other films set in the land of the rising sun include Teahouse of the August Moon and Sayonara, both, rather strangely, featuring Marlon Brando.
In the former, Brando plays a Japanese interpreter called Sakini, a performance so bad he makes Sean Connery’s risible Japanese peasant in You Only Live Twice look like the brother of Akira Kurosawa.
The Barbarian and the Geisha is another John Wayne film that I’d never seen before and, unfortunately, a John Wayne film I doubt I will watch again.
Wayne is somewhat miscast as the real-life figure Townsend Harris, tasked by the President of America in 1856 with attempting to ratify a treaty with Japan. Just in case the audience are a bit unsure of where the film is set, there’s enough flutes on the soundtrack and numerous shots of shadows walking behind paper walls to indicate the location of the story
The indigenous inhabitants, represented by a local governor, make it quite clear that they don’t want JW or any other American attempting to trade with them. Frankly, I’m not surprised after he inadvertently allows a bunch of sailors with cholera to land on Japanese soil, resulting in Townsend having to burn down their village in order to stop the disease spreading any further.
And JW dances – again. I refer anyone reading this to the review of The Fighting SeaBees, which features in my earlier article on Wayne’s WWII movies, in which I deliver my verdict on Mr. Wayne’s lack of terpsichorean talent.
There’s some attempt at drama less than twenty minutes before the end of the film when one of the Japanese aristocrats is assassinated for indicating a preference to sign a treaty with America, but it’s just too little and too late.
The climax of the movie is a successful vote for the treaty, that’s how negligible the story is. The only impressive thing about this film – apart from co-star Sam Jaffe’s apparent fluid command of Japanese – are the outlandish sideburns that JW sports.
Whilst avoiding the overt racism of Blood Alley – although Sam Jaffe’s observation that ‘they can’t pronounce the letter L’ skates pretty closely against the tide of political correctness – JW keeps hitting his head on the low beams of his house, emphasising that the Japs are considerably smaller than the average cowboy.
There’s no other way to put it so I guess I’m going to have come clean here, but I found this film very, very, VERY boring, although the sight of JW being thrown around by a small vertically challenged Japanese person is something I thought I’d never live to see. Then he appears wearing a naval commander’s getup complete with a Navy tricorn hat after which I gave up and lost the will to live.
A waste of Huston and Wayne’s talent I’m afraid.
Although on the surface a romantic comedy drama concerning a group of wild-life hunters who capture animals for the zoo, it’s really just another opportunity for director Howard Hawks to yet again explore the dynamics of a group of alpha males, with one or two women thrown in for good measure.
Just as in Rio Bravo, Wayne’s character, Sean Mercer, is the leader of the group – naturally – but in reality he’s just an observer and ring leader who looks on in bemusement at the antics of the other characters, played by Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot – stepping into the shoes of Paul Fix as ubiquitous JW sidekick and co-star – as well as Hardy Kruger, to name just a few.
Into this near all-male enclave saunters saunters wild-life photographer Anna Maria D’Allesandro, hitherto known as Dallas, played by the delightful (and sadly recently deceased July 2017) Elsa Martinelli.
Again, as in a lot of other Hawks films, most of the character’s sport nicknames such as Pockets, Chips, Brandy and The Indian. And just to reinforce the director’s penchant for constantly referencing his previous movies, there’s a reprise of the song Whisky Leave Me Alone, first heard in the Kirk Douglas vehicle The Big Sky.
Martinelli is the interloper in the group, as was Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo, and Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings. Wayne’s character follows the same story trajectory as Dean Martin in Rio Bravo, having suffered a broken heart in a previous relationship.
Unable to articulate his feelings for Dallas, JW eventually woos her by using a group of baby elephants to prevent her leaving. Cue the cute Henry Mancini tune baby Elephant Walk – Mancini also wrote lyrics for the song which you can find on the internet.
The location shots were filmed in Tanganyika, which now forms part of Tanzania, and the animal capture sequences are quite impressive with Wayne strapped to the front of the jeep attempting to lasso any unfortunate creature that wanders across his path.
I note Cliff Roberson is uncredited as Wayne’s double for some of these scenes but you can definitely see at times that JW is actually handling his fair share of the stunts.
If I have a complaint I’d have to say the film is a bit too long. There’s also a superfluous musical number a la Rio Bravo thrown in for good measure, with Buttons on harmonica and Martinelli appearing to be playing playing boogie woogie piano for real.
A couple of dance sequences also get thrown into the mix to show how hep to the scene these groovy cats are. Apart from that it’s a pleasant way to pass two and half hours if you’re in the mood.
The screenplay is by Leigh Brackett who delivers an affable easy-going storyline, very much as she did with Rio Bravo. Hatari! Isn’t exactly in the same league as that film, but it’s enjoyable just the same.
By the way, did you know Hatari is Swahili for danger? No, I didn’t either.
Donovan’s Reef (1963)
When you consider that John Wayne and John Ford started working together back in 1939 (excluding Wayne’s bit parts in Ford’s late silent films), I guess it’s inevitable that the occasional lesser effort will surface every now and then, and Donovan’s Reef falls into that category.
It’s not an unwatchable film by any means, and the fact that the year before they partnered on the classic Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, indicates that, given a good story and decent budget, late JW / JF films could compete with the best that Hollywood had to offer at the time.
It’s just that, with Donovan’s Reef, Wayne is really only going through the motions in a part that he could have played with his eyes closed.
Add to this he was by then about 22 years older than his love interest opposite number, Elizabeth Allen, and the cracks are starting to show. Having said that, Dorothy Lamour, who plays Lee Marvin’s on-off girlfriend, was at least 10 years older than Marvin at the time so the film should be applauded for being an exercise in equal opportunity when it comes to inappropriately aged elder partners
I like the actual look of the film, shot mainly on location in Hawaii, which gave Ford the opportunity to sail his beloved yacht Arraner over from California to guest star in the film.
I note that a review of the DVD on Amazon states that the film ‘subtly deals with moral issues such as racial bigotry, corporate greed, American belief of societal superiority and hypocrisy.’ The film must be very subtle indeed, either that or my critical faculties were not sufficiently engaged enough by the source material to recognise the presence of those elements within the narrative.
There’s one laugh-out loud moment when Elizabeth Allen as a snooty Bostonian company board member sits in the back of a jeep as it races down the road.
The jeep hits a bump which sends her up in the air whilst the vehicle continues on it’s way, unceremoniously dumping her – or more accurately her stand-in – on her backside in the middle of the street.
There’s also an amusing reference to contemporary culture in which a group of small children break out into an impromptu demonstration of the twist dance craze of the time, but it’s not enough to push what would turn out to be the last time Wayne and Ford worked together towards classic status.
The best I can say is that it fits the bill perfectly for the post roast meal / booze up down the pub Sunday afternoon asleep in the armchair slot.