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). The Sea Chase is something of a stretch. This time Wayne is a German tramp-steamer captain escaping a British destroyer during the early days of World War II; the emphasis is less on action or politics than on the relationships between the Duke, his crew of familiar TV faces (Claude Akins, James Arness) and Aryan siren Lana Turner.

This picture will not be mistaken for art; in fact, its among the campier artifacts of Wayne’s cinematic career (in The Sea Chase he actually tells Turner that she’s beautiful when she’s angry). 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 (it boasts a spectacular stereo soundtrack.) B-

The Sea Chase
  • Movie
  • 117 minutes