“Last Time I Was Here, People Were Getting Bombed a Different Way!”: John Wayne in Brannigan


The embodiment of America – John Wayne – plays a fish out of water Chicago police detective sent to London to extradite a gangster (John Vernon) in Brannigan (1975).  The film is essentially one of those ’70s police thrillers that we saw stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson making with the main exception being that John Wayne was at least 15 years older than they were– and it shows.  His movements are more rigid; his aged visage make his saucy interactions with a young British police woman seem as equally creepy as they are charming.  Brannigan, newly released on Blu-Ray by Twilight Time, is not a great John Wayne film, nor is it a particularly good film. But it does have a few enjoyable moments (some intentional, some not).

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is how it verges on the parodic.  The opening credits set the tone for what is to follow.  We see close ups of guns, bullets, and badges that veer in and out of focus.  The camera longingly caresses the barrel of a revolver before freezing on its cylinder.  Further underlining this phallic display of firearms is the musical score by Dominic Frontiere.  Purely a product of the mid-70s, the score is stranded between the percussive blasts and horn vamps of a Bond soundtrack and the brown-chicken-brown-cow porno strums from Isaac Hayes’ theme for Shaft.  The meaning, as will be continuously brought to the foreground when Brannigan butts heads with his “neutered” British supervisor (Richard Attenborough), is that guns are masculine, American, and sexy as hell.  (There is an audio track featuring the isolated film score on the Blu-Ray, for those who are interested.)  Following these opening images, Wayne storms into a paper hanger’s lair by busting down the door and announcing – proto-Schwarzenegger style – “Knock knock!”  He follows this up by beating the suspect with a 2×4 as if it was a pimp cane.  It’s an over the top action film and, in that context, that where Brannigan both succeeds and flounders.

Specifically, another noteworthy set piece calls back to the Western roots of Wayne’s persona when he gets into fisticuffs in a British pub.  One punch is thrown and it quickly devolves into a game of physical pinball.  Patrons are repeatedly thrown into a jukebox that skips songs each time it is hit before landing upon “Let the Sunshine In.”  To quote Ron Burgundy, it escalates quickly and becomes an amusing moment of physical comedy.

Unfortunately, the film is filled with more than a few set piece failures.  Coming into the film, I had heard positive remarks about the car chases.  However, many of them lack coherent geography.  One chase sequence involving London Bridge features establishing shots of the two cars (one driven by Wayne; the other by the villain) nearly on top of one another.  Then, there is a point-of-view shot from Wayne’s perspective that suggests the two cars are far apart.  After the POV shots, director Douglas Hickox cuts back to an establishing shot showing the two of them close together before the chase makes it upon the bridge, where time and space becomes as logical as the labyrinthian plot.

Also troubling is the already alluded to ethnocentrism at the center of the film’s politics.  It becomes very clear that Wayne does not respect the laws and customs in the United Kingdom, and that his presence has as much to do with catching the bad guy as it does with teaching Scotland Yard how to do proper police work.  Attenborough continuously reminds Wayne that his gun makes him nervous and, when he explains British law regarding firearms and requests the Duke surrender his firearm, Wayne responds “I always wear this….It isn’t in violation of United States law, and I work under the Chicago Police Department’s regulations, which makes it obligatory.”  Yes, John Wayne: the embodiment of America.  

Yet, in spite of this, I found Brannigan occasionally entertaining because of how it is an uncritical parody of 1970s the vigilante thrillers (the same way that The Expendables films seem to exist in relation to 1980s Cannon films).  It never seems fully aware of how problematic its politics are, but it does approach them with such an crass overtness and light touch that it crudely opens up a space to contemplate them.

The Twilight Time release is rounded out by a fine, although slightly soft, HD video presentation, a mono soundtrack and an isolated musical score.  Also included are about three minutes of Judy Geeson’s silent home movies from the set (I particularly liked seeing Attenborough clowning around) and a commentary featuring Twilight Time co-founder Nick Redman and actress Judy Geeson.  It’s a fine commentary (she talks at length about working with Wayne and his sense of humor and how she was cast), but this set is obviously geared towards the John Wayne completest.  

Brannigan is available as a limited edition blu-ray only through Screen Archive Entertainment and the TCM Shop

About Drew Morton 39 Articles
Drew Morton is an Assistant Professor of Mass Communication. While his students call him “Doctor” or “Dr. Drew,” he is unable to help people suffering from medical ailments (he can only prescribe films) or from sexual dysfunction (although he can be quick with a double entendre). His film criticism has appeared in Cultural Transmogrifier, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Pajiba.

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