Reviewed by DAVID L. VINEYARD:         

BIG JIM McLAIN. Warner Brothers, 1952. John Wayne, Nancy Olson, James Arness, Alan Napier, Veda Ann Borg, Hans Conreid. Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Richard English, Eric Taylor, James Atlee Phillips (uncredited), William Wheeler (story); quotes from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. Director: Edward Lustig.

   It’s 1952 and all that stands between us and ruin is Joe McCarthy, Big Jim McLain, and Mal Baxter …


   Things were never blacker — or is that redder?

   Sadly only two of those are fictional characters, though Tailgunner Joe was at least ninety percent a product of his own vivid alcohol mist of a mind. I suppose we should be grateful no actual communists were harmed in the making of this movie — come to think of no actual communists were harmed by Joe McCarthy either… It was a strange era.

   You can’t separate the Red-baiting hysterical witch-hunts of the era from this badly written, acted, directed, and intended film. The Duke would have been better served to get his buddy Mickey Spillane to write the script, at least that might be watchable. I warn you this one isn’t. Even location filming in Hawaii doesn’t help, since the scenes there are mostly interiors probably shot back in the states, and the few outdoor scenes in the tackiest parts of the island. It’s a half-assed attempt at the docu-noir style so popular then, and handled with no subtlety whatsoever.

   So, now to our plot — such as it is. Jim McLain (John Wayne) and Mal Baxter (James Arness, who was pretty much owned by Wayne at that point of time, acting-wise) are investigators for the House Committee on Un-American Activities — the beloved HUAC of every crackpot right-winger’s dreams (“Were you prematurely anti-fascist? Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party …”) sent to investigate the hold the party seems to have gained in our then territory. Apparently our vital supply of pineapple was under extra-ordinary threat by Communist labor organizers (those radicals who believed in revolutionary ideas like minimum wage).

   Have a sense of humor guys, I know Hawaii was a vital military and shipping asset, I remember Pearl Harbor, that and a trip to the island are why they chose it in the first place to associate communist with the sneak attack by the Japanese. Clever these occidentals.


   I’m sorry, but it is hard to take this clunker seriously, and it stands an insult to those who fought the actual cold war against the Soviets and not the headline war against drunken screenwriters, labor organizers, and actors. Red’s weren’t only in your community, they were in our entertainment — and — gasp — thanks to the garment union, our underwear.

   Meanwhile Jim and Mal are tracking down Mr. Big with stops along the way for a suspicious Nancy Olsen (Nancy Olsen femme fatale), Veda Ann Borg (she’s virtually a Wayne regular from this period on), and Hans Conreid (say it ain’t so Uncle Tunoose). Conried was also in John Wayne’s much more entertaining Red-baiting Jet Fighter — which thanks to producer Howard Hughes had sex appeal to spare from Janet Leigh as a Russian fighter pilot — a film that at least knows it is stupid and enjoys itself. I guess Conreid struck the Duke as more frightening than he did me. Maybe The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T scared him. In Jet Fighter he’s a Russian officer, here he’s only a traitor.


   Of course from scene one you know Arness isn’t leaving this one alive, and since he’s the only person in the film even pretending to try, you will miss him. So now it’s personal for Big Jim against those dastardly Reds. At least this promised to be good for a rousing Spillane style bloodbath finale, but if anyone could kill a good payoff it seems to have been director Edward Lustig, who seems to think he’s making a serious and important film and so develops no thrills and no surprises when Big Jim almost casually catches up with with Struac, the dirty Commie ring leader — played by Brit accented Alan Napier (Alfred to Adam West’s Batman), because to be a Commie you had to have an accent or a foreign sounding name. No red-blooded American with the right amount of vowels in in his name could ever be a Red. For instance no red blooded name like Hammett …

   I wish I was being unfair to this film in the name of a few laughs, but sad to say I’m not. This has all the drama and suspense of cottage cheese (less if you leave the latter out too long).

   Now before you start, I’m a huge John Wayne fan. The High and the Mighty, The Searchers, and The Quiet Man are among my all time favorite films, and I admit unashamedly I held back a few tears when he died in The Shootist. But that’s no excuse for this lunk-headed thud-ear piece of propaganda disguised as a movie. It doesn’t even flag-wave well, being so dull as to negate any patriotic fervor — the only fervor this movie generates is how fast you can reach the remote and cut it off. It needs much more than a few quotes from Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” If you want to hear that masterpiece quoted watch the delightful film Anything For Money with Walter Huston’s Mr. Scratch and Edward Arnold’s Dan’l Webster.

   You might well emerge from this film thinking, that if that’s the best the Communists could do maybe they weren’t such bad guys after all — it is literally such a bad film it achieves the opposite of it’s intent. It diffuses the communist menace with its comic book plot — no. I take that back the anti-commie comics were better written.

   He’s a Go-Get-‘Em Guy for the U.S.A. on a Treason Trail that leads Half-a-World Away!

   That tagline is the most exciting thing about this snoozer.

   You can watch this full movie at Amazon. Do yourself a favor and don’t.

   Incidentally in this film both HUAC and the Duke don’t seem to know it wasn’t illegal to be a Communist in 1952, so Congress hasn’t changed all that much over the decades.


   If you would like to see this done right check out I Was a Communist for the F.B.I., My Son John, Woman on Pier 13, Walk East on Beacon Street, A Bullet for Joey, or Walk a Crooked Mile. They all surpass this film by miles, with genuine suspense and menace even when they are silly or over the top. Even The Whip Hand with rough tough all American Eliot Reed battling commie Raymond Burr is better, and that’s saying a lot.

   Wayne did a little better in contemporary dress in McQ and Brannigan, not a lot, but a little, and the latter has one of the funniest scenes ever filmed with the Duke doing that famous walk across the floor of a London disco replete with mirrored ball and strobe lights. Take that John Travolta.

   Alas Big Jim McLain has nothing going for it despite the screenwriters who have done much better, and the stars who were do doubt sincere. Truth be told a lot less sincerity and more melodrama would have helped. A better movie than this could have been made about the threat of tooth decay and gingivitis. Talk about a red menace …