Last Updated on June 19, 2018 by Steve Mayhew
We are moving on to John Wayne movies of the 1950s.
Big Jim McLain (1952)
Due to a knowledge breakdown on my part – I got the release of the year wrong – this review should have featured in the previous article, as it was actually released before Trouble Along the Way. My bad.
I find it somewhat incredulous that in a decade in which JW starred in The Quiet Man, Hondo, The Searchers and Rio Bravo – classic JW vehicles one and all – that he also churned out films like Big Jim McLain.
And this isn’t even the worst of the bunch. We’ve still got The Conqueror to talk about – and I’m trying to put that off for as long as I can.
Films always need a villain, and the designated flavour of the month back in the late 1940s / early 50s was Communists, or to give them their full name, commie-pinko subversives.
And who better than to take these guys on but old Duke himself. Seeing as JW hated Communism with a passion that bordered on obsessive compulsive it’s not too much of a stretch for him here, playing the title role with gusto and clenched fists as, working as an investigator for the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he carves his way through a phalanx of those Russkie SOB’s like crap through a goose.
I note the absence of Paul Fix in this film, so maybe his agent knew something Wayne’s didn’t.
James Arness co-stars as JW’s headstrong partner and the minute you hear someone tell Wayne to make sure Arness doesn’t ‘blow his top’ you just know that’s the death knell for the future Matt Dillon.
I could have written this stuff myself if I hadn’t been only 6 months old at the time. To say this film lacks subtlety would be an understatement, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s a crude, risible, hysterical piece of propaganda with a script that does JW no favours at all – yes, I mean you (again), James Edward Grant – but worse than that it’s totally misleading.
The voice over at the beginning of the film declares that ‘anyone who continued to be a Communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason.’ It’s a known fact that literally hundreds of people were hounded from their jobs and their homes for having apparent Communist sympathies way before the cut-off date of the end of WWII, so the sentiment expressed in the film is inaccurate.
The film occasionally masquerades as a travelogue, with endless shots of Hawaiian ladies dancing and swaying at the drop of a hat and a strange interlude regarding the USS Arizona war grave in Pearl Harbor.
Whilst there’s nothing wrong when it comes to honouring the American war dead I don’t see the relevance to the main thrust of the film. We also get to hear how a leper colony works, with any child unlucky enough to be born to a couple with leprosy separated from their parents after 6 months and sent to the mainland. Again I don’t see how this piece of factual reporting fits into the narrative.
And it’s amateurish as well. Flying into Hawaii the air hostess mentions they’re flying past Diamond Head. Wayne points his partner to the window on the right side of the plane but when it cuts to Diamond Head the camera pans from left to right. Either that or the plane’s flying backward.
The villain is played by Alan Napier, or, as my generation would call him, Batman’s butler Alfred – tv series only.
Unfortunately, try as I might, I’m unable to recount the actual plot of the film as there didn’t really appear to be one, other than Wayne falling for widow Nancy Olson, and punching out the lights of a gang of Commie dupes along the way.
I also seem to remember someone uttering the words ‘Communism is a vast conspiracy to enslave the common man’. I should point out we still have that these days, only it’s called Starbucks.
I could go on about all of the negatives in this film – in fact I could write a book on the simplistic rhetoric and falsehoods that this film perpetrates on the audience – but life is just too short so I’ll keep it simple. Avoid at all costs.
PS Wayne utters the words ‘Hello the house’ at one point. Maybe he thought he was still back in Ireland making The Quiet Man. If only.
Island in the Sky (1953)
The first of three movies JW made with veteran director William Wellman in the 1950s, Island in the Sky could be viewed as a companion piece to the later Wayne / Wellman vehicle, The High and the Mighty, both dealing with the subject of aviation.
In fact, they both deal with the subject of the dangers inherent in the past time of aviation, so probably not the kind of movie you’re going to want to watch whilst flying at 32,000 feet above terra firma.
The film is scripted by Ernest Gann, who also wrote The High and the Mighty.
I found the dialogue occasionally a bit too stolid and profound eg. ‘when one of your kind is down it becomes so important to the age-old battle that he rise again’, but the cinematography, especially the location flying sequences (no back projection here), lifts the film up a notch.
There’s a quaint air of mystery to the whole plane flying thing that’s strangely endearing. A choir provides a celestial angelic theme to the film itself after which a humourless voiceover provides an old-fashioned and endearing air of mystery to the business of actually flying a plane.
And why not? As Mel Brooks once queried, “how the hell do those things even get off the ground. they’re heavier than a potato”.
The religious slant to the proceedings is compounded by Wayne, playing pilot Captain Dooley, thanking the Lord when he lands his plane safely in the Arctic wilderness then invoking the Lord’s prayer after realising he and his four co-flyers only have six days of rations before they perish.
The storyline is very basic – pilots go down in the wilderness and their plucky flying friends join forces in a search and rescue mission.
What with Davy Crockett (Fess Parker), Matt Dillon (James Arness), Curly the Stagecoach driver (Andy Devine), my old mate Dobe (Harry Carey Jr.) and the ever-faithful Paul Fix on the lookout there was never going to be any question JW and the guys weren’t going to make it – apart from the co-pilot, played by Quiet Man actor Sean McLorry, who ends up sleeping with the angels.
It’s actually quite a good film and it’s a shame it was out of circulation for so long, nearly forty years if I’m correct, due to legal issues. If you want to find out more about why this film (and also The High and the Mighty) went AWOL for so long check out The Lost Films of John Wayne by Caroline McGivern for the lowdown on that particular situation.
The High and the Mighty (1954)
Another JW / William Wellman / Ernest Gann effort, released the year after Island in the Sky.
The film is an ensemble piece and appears to have served as a template for later disaster movies such as Airport and The Towering Inferno. Its influence can also be traced to the comedy hit Airplane, in which Robert Stack riffed on the character he plays here as the pilot.
There’s an Oscar winning supporting actress performance from Jan Sterling and a supporting actress Oscar nominated turn by Claire Trevor, here starring alongside another member of the JW female co-star collective, Laraine Day.
Robert Newton, Phil Harris and numerous other character actors round out the cast.
On top of that you get a wonderfully memorable theme tune by Dimitri Tiomkin, who also won the Oscar for Best Score, although how JW was already familiar with it during the shooting of the film – he whistles the theme constantly throughout – will forever be a constant mystery to me.
JW plays co-pilot Dan Roman, a man with a tragic past. He holds himself responsible for the death of his wife and young son who perished along with all the other passengers in a plane he was piloting. The stage is therefore set for a classic tale of redemption for the errant Captain Dan.
To be honest I found the film a bit too long with a running time of nearly two hours and 20 minutes. There are also too many characters to keep tabs on and it definitely could have done without a lot of the needless flashback sequences that permeate the film.
Having said that, the restored version released on DVD a few years back is an impressive looking movie, shot in colour and Cinemascope, with cinematography by Archie Stout and William Clothier.
The tension rachets up nicely as trouble first starts with the propeller engines and the plane, on its way from Hawaii to San Francisco, reaches the point of no return in flight distance. Round about the halfway mark, once the brown stuff hits the propeller, Wayne’s character morphs from bystander to full blown hero.
The first thing he does is to hold the door open at the back of the plane whilst the passengers chuck their luggage out in the hope of staying in the air. For my money they’d have all been better served by unloading the heavy set Phil Harris, the tub of lard that is Robert Newton, and the annoying kid with the model aircraft instead.
Oh yeah, and let’s not forget Paul Fix. I mean, that guy gets everywhere.
Not being a stickler for the rules, Duke takes over the flying of the plane by slapping Stack around the chops a couple of times and labelling him yellow. Stack wants to dump the plane in the sea before it runs out of fuel but JW just knows, despite his own previous flying record, that they’ll make it to San Francisco airport in one piece.
I think the writer Ernest Gann definitely had a religious streak in him. In Island in the Sky the stranded flyers indicate their position to the rescuers by placing a bunch of branches on the ground in the form of a cross. In the climax to this film the runway appears in the distance lit up like a giant cross, complete with the same angelic choir incorporated on the soundtrack in the previous film.
Obviously a movie of its time – I just love the way Regis Toomey, the airline representative, continually smokes a cigar within feet of the stricken plane after it’s landed – it’s aged quite well and deserves its stature as a genuine non-Western Wayne classic. Just wish I could get that bloody theme tune lout of my head.
Blood Alley (1955)
The last of the JW / Wellman trilogy of films, with the production getting off to a bad start when Robert Mitchum, originally down for Wayne’s role, apparently got rather tired and emotional and pushed a transportation manager into a Californian bay.
Now, I can’t remember the exact details but when I met Andrew McLaglen back in the late 1990s he told me that just wasn’t true. McLaglen was an assistant director on the picture and according to him there was no drink involved or any altercation between Mitchum and any other member of the crew.
He told me that Wayne personally rang him and asked McLaglen to report back from the location on what the real story was. Again, apologies for the scant detail on this but McLaglen told Wayne that Mitchum had not been drunk and that he had not pushed anyone off a pier into the bay. Either way Mitchum left the film and Wayne had to step into the role, seeing as Blood Alley was a Batjac production.
It’s another handsome looking Warner Brother Cinemascope effort. It’s also another Commie-baiting companion piece to Big Jim McLain, and for that reason alone it’s the weakest of the three films Wayne did with Wellman.
John Wayne plays sea captain Tom Wilder, imprisoned for two years by Chinese commies. A mysterious benefactor helps Wayne escape but there’s a price to pay. JW must captain a ferry boat full of Chinese citizens who wish to escape Commie rule, and get them to Hong Kong in one piece.
The 300 mile escape route is known as Blood Alley, so the odds of everyone surviving the journey are pretty slim.
Wayne and Bacall take turns trying to outdo each other making fun of the ‘velly nice’ peasants in those far-off innocent days of political incorrectness.
Paul Fix goes all the way and actually plays a Chinese character with requisite dodgy Chinee accent.
The whole thing is also a bit slow – the ferry finally weighs anchor literally by the halfway mark in the film – and it’s short on action as well. In other word’s it’s boring as well.
The Chinese peasants are of the worst basic Hollywood type, with one character telling Wayne ‘Nice room you bet. You likee?’. Sorry, Duke, but I no likee. I no likee a lot. Stick to Westerns.
The Conqueror (1956)
When this film was released in 1956 I was four years old. I’ve spent the intervening years attempting to avoid it like the plague so the fact that I actually sat down and watched the whole thing from beginning to end shows that, when it comes right down to it, I’m willing to take one for the team.
There must be a special place reserved in Hell for whoever worked as John Wayne’s agent back in the 1950s.
Big Jim McLain was bad enough – and I’m not holding out much hope for Legend of the Lost and The Barbarian and the Geisha either (more on these last two at a later date) – but The Conqueror is rightly derided as the worst film John Wayne ever made – bar none.
It makes Ed Woods sci-fi dud, Plan 9 From Outer Space, look like Citizen Kane. I hardly know where to begin in describing this film.
JW plays Genghis Khan, a fact that should be enough to put even the least discerning Duke fan off, and if it doesn’t, why not? On top of that the audience is treated to the sight of Lee Van Cleef trying to dance, Duke sporting the most ridiculous hairpiece known to man and, in her first appearance onscreen, Susan Hayward displaying such a worried look it’s obvious she must have just read the script a few moments before stepping in front of the camera.
I’ll tell you how bad this film is. It’s so bad even Paul Fix went awol, that’s how bad it is.
He also opted out of Big Jim McLain so maybe Wayne should have hired Fix as his agent instead. And the dialogue?
Please, don’t get me started on the dialogue. How about ‘You are beautiful in your wrath’ for starters. Who the hell even talks like that? And the story is just plain ridiculous.
I still can’t understand why the brother of Genghis Khan commits suicide at the end of the film just because his loyalty has been erroneously questioned. It doesn’t make any sense, in fact nothing about this film makes any sense at all.
At some point whilst enduring this film our resident canine decided to let his feelings known via the medium of flatulence. At least, I think he did, because something was definitely stinking the house out, and I’m still not sure my money’s on the dog.
What makes this exercise even more absurd is that immediately after making The Conqueror Wayne went on to star in The Searchers, arguably one of the best – if not the best – films he ever made.
The only positive thing I can say about The Conqueror is… nope, can’t think of a damn thing.
This is Hollywood filmmaking at it’s worst: big screen stars wasted in a big budget vehicle that assumes audiences will eat up whatever is thrown at them.
I believe the word for this is turkey, and The Conqueror is the biggest turkey of them all, with a few large slices of ham, courtesy of the actors, thrown in for good measure.
To paraphrase the most laughable line from the film – ‘I feel this Tartar woman is for me. My blood says “take her” – well, sorry to all you JW fans out there but I feel The Conqueror is definitely not for me. My blood says burn all the negatives.