By the mid-50s, John Wayne had long abandoned playing characters in his movies. Instead—with very rare exceptions like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956)—John Wayne was content with playing John Wayne. Tough, authoritative, and incalculably charismatic, his swagger was the epitome of American masculinity and his arrogance the confidence of a nation who’d emerged from two world wars the most powerful on earth. His roles could demonstrate varying levels of compassion, sternness, warmth, and haughtiness, but there was always the sense that we were seeing different sides of the same character.
Recently our friends at Warner Archive Collection released new Blu-ray editions of two of his lesser known films that perfectly demonstrate the force of nature that was John Wayne in mid-career: John Farrow’s The Sea Chase and William A. Wellman’s Blood Alley. Released within five months of each other in 1955, the films are remarkably similar. Both are nautical chase stories with Wayne playing the beleaguered captains of pursued ships. Both feature famous Hollywood starlets who somehow end up on Wayne’s respective ships: Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall. And in both films, John Wayne plays the same character: John Wayne. Never-mind that in The Sea Chase Wayne plays a German with questionable loyalties towards the Third Reich: he never attempts a German accent. Never-mind that in Blood Alley Wayne plays an American captain who’s spent his career trading in Southeast Asia: he stumbles through his few lines of Chinese in a flat, inflectionless monotone. John Wayne is John Wayne: America personified.
The Sea Chase sees Wayne as Captain Karl Ehrlich, master of the decrepit German steam freighter Ergenstrasse. On the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, his ship is docked in Sydney, Australia. And though his loyalties to the new Führer are suspect, his patriotism is not—in his cabin hangs an imperial German flag from World War One. So when war breaks out, Ehrlich orders his ship to flee Sydney in the dead of night, making a beeline first for the Auckland Islands for supplies, then to neutral Chile, then home to Germany. The voyage is a desperate one. In addition to being hunted by the British navy, Ehrlich faces scant provisions, a potentially mutinous crew, Nazi fanatics among his ranks, and worst of all, Lana Turner.
Turner plays Elsa Keller, a Nazi spy entrusted to Ehrlich’s care. Frustratingly, her being a spy is never really brought up again once she comes aboard the ship. She’s strictly window dressing that exists to frustrate and tempt the stalwart captain. Thankfully Turner has the good sense to stay in her quarters during the meatiest scenes involving Ehrlich’s gradual transformation into a veritable Ahab. When his ship runs out of coal, he orders the crew to chop up furniture for fuel. When they run out of furniture, he tells them to chop up the lifeboats. In these moments we see Wayne at his most terrifyingly imperious—he practically dares his men to rebel as he axes the lifeboats himself.
If Farrow fumbled Turner’s character and Ehrlich’s impenetrable motivations, then he at least instilled the film with a sense of high adventure, occasionally making us forget that these heroes are technically Nazis. Much of this comes from Farrow’s intimate knowledge of sailing, having run away from home as a teenager to become a sailor. During World War II he served with the Canadian and British Royal Navies, working on anti-submarine patrols before being discharged in 1942 following a terrible bout of typhus. But the man never lost his eye for the grandeur of the sea, the hive-like complexity of its crowded innards, and the frayed nerves of men cramped for too long too close together. Perhaps in Wayne he saw a reflection of the gallant (and autocratic) sea captains he served with during the war—perhaps the very same hardness that spurred Ford to cast him so many times as military officers both on the American frontier and on the front-lines of World War II. Much like those sailors who kept the Atlantic open, Wayne’s Ehrlich was too stubborn to let things like death and defeat faze him.
If Captain Ehrlich was a determined fugitive, then Blood Alley’s Captain Tom Wilder was a reluctant smuggler. Originally an American Merchant Mariner, he was arrested by the nascent Chinese Communist government while docked in their country. After a few years he’s bribed out of jail by the people of Chiku Shan, a remote coastal village desperate to escape Red China for the shores of British-controlled Hong Kong. The journey is a perilous one—not only must they dodge patrol boats, Wilder must navigate the deadly straits of China’s coastline without a map, relying solely on his own memory. And after his time in prison, said memory may not be very reliable anymore. Their ship—the only one the villagers could get—is a nineteenth century flat-bottomed riverboat, seemingly ripped straight from Mark Twain’s Mississippi River. What’s worse, among the villagers are a family of staunch Communist aristocrats forced along lest they alert the local authorities. And these Communists take every opportunity to sabotage Wilder’s impossible journey. Oh, and the presence of Lauren Bacall as Cathy Grainger, the daughter of a Western missionary to Chiku Shan, doesn’t help either. But seeing as how she has no chemistry with Wayne and her scenes are so unimportant you could edit them out, it seems pointless to work oneself into a lather over her.
Despite having little to no understanding of Chinese culture and politics—anyone with a passing knowledge of Maoism would know that village aristocrats would literally be the first against the wall during the Revolution—Blood Alley remains an enjoyable if slight piece of filmmaking, just as long as you can forgive it for taking at least an hour to actually get the cast onboard the boat to Hong Kong. Much of this comes from the film’s emotional grounding. Whereas The Sea Chase is preoccupied with the everyday rituals and theatrics of professional sailors, Wellman focuses on the plights of refugees and civilians in conflict zones. Much like Farrow, Wellman also served in the military. But his experiences were quite different. He began by working as an ambulance driver in the Great War before becoming a fighter pilot with the French Foreign Legion, scoring several confirmed kills and surviving being shot down. As such, Wellman came face-to-face with the savagery and carnage of war to an extent Farrow probably couldn’t imagine. With such experience, he had no illusions about battlefield gallantry and heroics. The people of Chiku Shan are scared and downcast, betting their all on one last crazy gamble for freedom. And once more Wayne channels the energy suffusing the entire film—exhausted, uneasy, yet instinctively driven and distinctively Wayne.