Directed by William A. Wellman
October 1, 1955
After his ship is seized and he is thrown in prison, an American captain is freed by a group of villagers who convince him to pilot their boat to freedom.
I hate to say it but there is nothing too special about this film when it comes to the story. If it were not for the presence of John Wayne as Captain Tom Wilder and Lauren Bacall as Cathy Grainger, I do not think anybody anyone would even remember this film. It is an amiable and light adventure romp but nothing too special. The two leads are what make this movie.
Bacall and Wayne are not that good of a screen couple here. They go through the motions but lack the chemistry of other pairings. I think if they had just kept them as friends rather than try to build that then obligatory screen romance it would have worked a little better. Still though, Bacall’s talent and Wayne’s screen persona help overcome the shortcomings here.
One thing that really stood out to me was the character of Cathy’s father. You never see the guy but apparently everybody knows him in the Chinese village. They are all concerned about this character that is never seen and feels almost as if he was inserted into the story to Bacall’s character a reason to be there. It does not have to be a major part, but I think somebody should have at least been there in a scene or two and said a few lines to John Wayne and moved on. He could have died off screen all they wanted but I think he should have made at least a brief appearance.
Fun fact: the legendary James Hong, who has quite the list of film credits to his name, appears in this film uncredited as a Chinese soldier that Wilder kills when he tries to rape Cathy. I felt it was a rather shocking moment for an adventure film. It was not something I would expect in a film that is more fluff than substance. They were explicit (for the time) in what was going on. There was no missing it.
Another thing you cannot miss about this film is that all the significant Chinese characters are played by white actors. It was not too uncommon at the time though at this point it was occurring less and less. Most of the time here they tried to make the actors look appropriate but in the case of Big Han (Mike Mazurki), who is Wilder’s First Mate, it is not as if they even tried. Heck, the actor did not even put on an accent like the other actors did. At least Paul Fix (Mr. Tso-the village elder), Anita Ekberg (Wei Ling-Big Han’s wife), and Berry Kroger (Old Feng-the Communist Feng family patriarch) put some effort in. Tack (Henry Nakamura), Wilder’s Chief Engineer, is the only Asian character played by an actual Asian though his character goes into being a stereotype of the Americanized Asian.
This film is based on a book written by Albert Sidney Fleischman who also wrote the screenplay here. The obvious purpose of the film was to cash in on the anti-communist fervor of the 50s as well as push Wayne’s own views. In that aspect it succeeds in spades.
The story and the direction that tells it are serviceable enough and Bacall does her usual fine work and Wayne does well enough here as Wilder as well. Not great but it is not a total shipwreck. Robert Mitchum was to play the lead but was canned after an altercation with the producers. Gregory Peck then turned the role down and Humphrey Bogart requested too much money which forced producer John Wayne to cut his honeymoon short and take over the lead. I agree with assessments of the time that Wayne was miscast as Wilder, but his screen presence helps to smooth things out. Wayne was a good actor that could be moved to greatness by the right director but more importantly he was a movie star.
There is a difference between a movie star and an actor. I have gone into it here before, but my view is as follows: Robert Downey Jr. is an actor. People went to see his MCU films in large numbers but not his version of Dr. Doolittle. On the contrary, Wayne could get butts in the seats on his name alone no matter the film. Even today people watch his films no matter how strong or weak they are. Blood Alley is an example of this. I argue if it were any other star in the lead this movie would be lucky to see a low budget DVD release. I watched it on a restored Blu-ray. And that is because of the John Wayne name attached and no other reason.
Blood Alley is not a must-see film, but few straight up adventure films are. It is nonetheless a film that you will enjoy when you watch it. You will not have too much to talk about afterwards because it is all straightforward. It is dessert and not dinner but sometimes junk food is good. I say watch it!