A preposterous but entertaining adventure melodrama, Blood Alley (1955) was one of several anticommunist movies star John Wayne made during the 1950s. An independent production for Warner Bros., it was the first under his familiar Batjac label, and was to have starred Robert Mitchum. Mitchum apparently didn't get along with director William A. Wellman, and a few days into production got so mad he pushed the film's location manager into the San Rafael Bay. Needing a star to take Mitchum's place but lacking the time and money to find anyone better, Wayne himself took over. Mitchum's departure was no great loss as the part is more in Wayne's style anyway. Blood Alley is quite dated in many ways, but is reasonably exciting.
Set in present day China, Wayne is American seafarer Tom Wilder, a prisoner of the Red Chinese. A jailbreak is arranged, with Wilder disguised as a Soviet soldier (!) and whisked to the village of Chiku Shan, where he meets benefactors Mr. Tao (Paul Fix) and Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall). They've sprung him from jail to captain a rust-colored ferryboat they intend to commandeer as part of a daring escape. They plan to move all 180 of the village's residents "plus ducks and pigs and a couple of trained canaries" to freedom in Hong Kong. At first Wilder is aghast: the proposed ferryboat is decrepit, nearly a hundred years old, barely capable of six knots. The 300 miles down the Formosa Strait are waters certain to tear the boat to pieces, and that's if the Chinese hardliners don't kill them all first. Of course he'll take them.
Blood Alley is at times peculiar and embarrassing but well-produced and reasonably suspenseful. After nearly going mad in a Chinese prison, Wilder has taken to talking to himself, an old habit hard to break. Throughout the film he looks up at the ceiling, occasionally conversing with an imaginary friend (lover?) he calls "Baby." This may have been a device used more effectively in Albert Sidney Fleischmann's original novel, which he adapted for the screen, but onscreen it only makes Wilder look balmy. Mitchum might have pulled it off, but Wayne's conversations with "Baby" are merely silly.
Filmed in large part along the northern California coast, Blood Alley is handsomely produced (apart from some obscenely inadequate miniatures), its centerpiece being an elaborately recreated Chinese village. Albert Ybarra's production design is convincing enough with its authentic-looking buildings and sampans that this reviewer wondered for a time whether a second unit crew actually went to Asia.
Conversely, most of the Asian speaking parts are unconvincingly played by non-Asians, and the film's attitude toward them is condescending. Paul Fix is okay as village elder Mr. Tao, but Swedish blonde bombshell Anita Ekberg is only slightly more convincing as a Chinese woman than Harpo Marx was in The Story of Mankind as Sir Isaac Newton. The two Asians in the cast with substantial roles are standard Hollywood stereotypes: Joy Kim's maid is saddled with Pidgin English dialogue like "My thinky Captain sailorman need cutty hair, all light?" Ship's engineer Tack (Henry Nakamura), by contrast, had spent some time in California, and predictably is super-Americanized. In the larger sense, the Chinese are painted in the broadest of strokes. Soldiers are bloodthirsty, lecherous dogs eager to rape white woman, while the anti-communist villagers are good-natured innocents with broad smiles and cute babies ready to risk their lives for a taste of democracy. Naturally they all look up to their white savior with unwavering admiration.
A subplot has the considerate villagers unconvincingly taking the one pro-communist family along with them out of fear that family will be blamed (and subsequently executed) for the villagers' escape. The family's elder, Old Feng (Berry Kroeger, playing his part like Fu Manchu) is corpulent and corrupt, sending his nephews out to kill Wayne in a swell fight scene (effectively shot with the camera silently observing the melee through the window on the ship's bridge) and other dastardly deeds.
One area where Mitchum might have fared better than Wayne is Wilder's scenes with Cathy. Wayne and Bacall have no chemistry at all, and the script's perfunctory romance and her character's archly-written personal crisis don't help.
Video & Audio
Filmed in CinemaScope (and presented here with an aspect ratio of about 2.50:1), Blood Alley looks good in its 16:9 anamorphic transfer, despite some flaws. An early CinemaScope title originally printed in WarnerColor, the presentation makes the most of William A. Clothier's often impressive cinematography, some of which plays very modern, including a lovely shot of Bacall waiting on a dock. (Clothier uses filters a lot, giving the film a softer look than most CinemaScope releases of the period.) However, the film has lots of dissolves between scenes, all of which have faded and are grainy, resulting in visual "pops" whenever there's an optical. There's also a good deal of speckling throughout, though this varies widely from shot to shot. All things considered, much of the film looks great, as good as it likely ever will. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround is a decent enough approximation of the film's original four-track mag mix. Optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish are included.
Special mention goes to the animated menus Warner Home Video has given all the John Wayne titles in this wave. While very often too much time and attention is paid to these trifles, in this case they really are attractively done, and evoke the mood of each picture quite nicely. Hats off to whoever designed them.
Included is an odd montage of miscellaneous Pathe Newsreel Footage, four minutes in standard format. There are four distinct clips: Wayne receiving an award sometime in late-1952 or early 1953 (winners and presenters include Vincent Price, Gene Nelson, and Greer Garson), making a "Crusade for Freedom" speech apparently during production on Operation Pacific (co-star Patricia Neal is in costume), at an American Legion poppy sale, and on location for Blood Alley. None of this material is dated or identified or explained, and some of it is missing audio.
What's billed on the menu screen as 1955 Promo on Blood Alley is actually seven-minute excerpts from two "Behind the Camera" segments of Warner Bros. Presents a short-lived television series hosted by Gig Young. The two segments are very quaint by today's standards, with Gig and Duke's off the cuff conversation completely and obviously scripted. Wayne briefly explains how CinemaScope works, then shows "home movies" he allegedly took on the set of Blood Alley. Both segments have been reformatted to 16:9 anamorphic / 1.77:1. The scenes with Wayne and Young come off surprisingly well, but not the film clips. Incredibly, scenes from Blood Alley, originally broadcast in black and white full frame, panned-and-scanned, have been cropped further still to fit the 1.77:1 frame. This isn't particularly important - after all, the movie's on the very same disc - but the results look ridiculous.
The other supplement is a Wayne Trailer Gallery, with original theatrical trailers for Tall in the Saddle, Fort Apache (1948), Blood Alley, The Sea Chase (both 1955), The Train Robbers (1973), Cahill: United States Marshall (1973), and McQ (1974). The trailer for Blood Alley is 16:9 encoded and complete with text and narration.
Blood Alley is a relic of its era, and an expression of Wayne's heartfelt belief in democracy and concern about communism in Asia. As such, it's less ridiculous than Jet Pilot (filmed in 1950) or Big Jim McLain (1952) - those films are laugh riots - but Blood Alley is still pretty silly. It overflows with '50s communist thugs and Asian stereotypes, but is lavishly done and is entertaining in its action and suspense.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.