Before Charles Bronson, before Sylvester Stallone, before even Clint Eastwood, John Wayne ruled as Hollywood’s number one American action hero — a swaggering, two-fisted Mount Rushmore come to life. This kind of mythic image-making necessarily obscured Wayne’s real, if narrow, talents. When we think about him today, it’s usually in the context of the jingoistic politics of his later years. Still, he got his craggy puss into a lot of genuinely great films, from his commercial breakthrough in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to his screen farewell in Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976). That’s not bad work for a guy who rarely chewed off dialogue more complex than ”Howdy, pilgrim.”
The Wayne epic now making its home-video debut is routine star vehicle typical of ’50s assembly line filmmaking; it has more than its share of absurdities but is reasonably diverting nonetheless. In Blood Alley, Wayne plays a China seas skipper ferrying a bunch of anti-Communist Chinese to Hong Kong, a setup that gives him the opportunity to make speeches about Communist perfidy, romance costar Lauren Bacall, and beat up on various wily Oriental adversaries (mostly played by Occidentals).
This picture will not be mistaken for art; in fact, it is among the campier artifacts of Wayne’s cinematic career. But as a demonstration of how old-fashioned star power can enliven the tiredest of formulas, it’s worth checking out, especially in Warner’s carefully restored video versions (the impressive wide-screen locations lose a little on the home set.) B-