Adventure on the danger waters of the Orient!
The lead is a replacement, taking the role after the original star was fired and the second and third choices declined. The second lead took the role to be with the original star. What could possibly go wrong?
The ultimate leads are John Wayne and Lauren Bacall, and the film is 1955’s Blood Alley. Robert Mitchum was the original starred who Bacall wanted to play against, though in her autobiography she spoke fondly of working with Wayne, with the two teaming up again for Wayne’s last feature, The Shootist.
After Mitchum was fired for either being high on pot or for pushing a crew member into the bay, Wayne offered the role of Captain Tom Wilder to both Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck, who both declined. As this was a production of Wayne’s own Batjac production company, he final faced facts and took the role himself, postponing his honeymoon with third wife Pilar to do so.
Directed by William Wellman, Blood Alley is the weakest by far of the three Wayne vehicles he directed. William Clothier, one of- if not the favorite cinematographer of John Wayne for his pictures, does a fine job as well recreating the feel of the Chinese coast from the other side of the pacific. Clothier’s work is among the highlights of the picture and is highlighted further by being in color and cinemascope.
One of the other highlights is the Roy Webb score, which tries hard to build some excitement at the right moments and in some cases simply creates it from nothing given the relatively pedestrian on-screen action.
Though often labeled unfairly as one of Wayne’s worst films, Blood Alley is merely exceedingly average escape story. Here John Wayne is American merchant captain who escapes imprisonment by the Red Chinese after a Chinese village pays a ransom for him. In exchange they ask him to help sail them all on a paddle wheeler to Hong Kong.
Lauren Bacall is the resident Westerner in the village, playing Cathy Grainger, the daughter of a doctor taken captive himself and murdered by the Communists after a procedure goes awry. Though supposedly Chinese, the villagers and crew are a hodgepodge of nationalities, including Paul Fix, Berry Kroeger and Anita Eckberg.
Though the film is nothing special, there are some unique qualities. The villagers have created a unique- though implausible- way to enable them to escape with a river craft on the high seas. They’ve piled stones in the bay to trap and ultimately rip the bottom out of a regularly scheduled patrol boat. They’ve done much the same to create a mock smokestack, designed to create the illusion that the stolen craft has in fact sunk in the fog. Both unlikely (in the slightest) to work, but creative.
There is never much suspense as we know the little group will ultimately get to their destination. This they do in spite of somehow surviving a storm, running out of food (as a result of sabotage) and wood (for the boiler) and also an insanely ineffective assault by the Chinese navy. Though obviously stock footage, the depiction of the Chinese navy here is one of several innocent diversions from reality. True, they probably couldn’t hit much at the time, but they didn’t have anything near the size, scope, and power of the US 7th Fleet, either.
Keep it light and focus on the escape, because if you dig deeper you really aren’t going to find much.
As many know and anyone with half a mind picks up on immediately, there is a bit of a propaganda element here, though for the most part it is limited to two speeches the Captain gives and they aren’t too lengthy. Don’t let it sway you, though the ultimate pairing of the super liberal and the ultra conservative in Wayne in Bacall is more than a little amusing. Though the propaganda is more than a footnote, it isn’t the overwhelming pervasive theme; rather choosing to linger in the background.
For their parts, neither John Wayne nor Lauren Bacall seems to really want to be there. Granted Wayne is truly their as a fallback, but even with the poor dialogue he seem rather unengaged and perhaps looking for that delayed honeymoon. Bacall, on the other hand, just seems plain bored, and rightfully so. For most of the film she is almost a hanger-on, having only two really key and involved sequences. The subplot with her father is a purely meaningless distraction and the love story is woefully underdeveloped. It seems unlikely Mitchum or Peck would have fared much better, and only Bogart’s obvious relationship with Bacall makes that casting a potential improvement.
Perhaps the real love story of the film is between Wayne and “Baby,” an imaginary being he (presumably) created to help resist torture when in Chinese captivity. Throughout the film, Wayne casts his eyes skyward in audible conversation; Bacall does it a few times as well. Though some find the mechanism a distraction, and with good cause to some extent, this is the only way we learn much of anything about the Captain as a person. In fact, most of what relationship he has with Bacall throughout is exclusively through “Baby.” Imagine the film without her and you’ll see what I mean. (That “Baby” is a woman is an assumption, but there is no way Wayne can be seen calling an imaginary man “Baby.)
Others have claimed that Blood Alley tries to recreate some of the key elements of The African Queen. Well there is an escape on a boat, but any greater similarities between the two are sorely lacking. Whereas Queen was about the relationship between Rose and Charlie with an escape lingering as a plot mechanism, Blood Alley is all about the escape with a simple post-it note about a relationship stuck on top. A far better example of a film seeking to imitate Queen, but successfully, would be the much later Rooster Cogburn– with John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. If Alley has a counterpart, it is probably the later film The Sand Pebbles.
Though not a weak film by any standard, the sheer mediocrity of this one confirms that there are much better ‘escape’ films out there for passing time with on a rainy afternoon. Either The African Queen or Rooster Cogburn would be a good place to start. Though The Sand Pebbles always seems overly long to me, it isn’t bad either.