Tuesday 29 July 2008

Big Jim McLain (1952)

John Wayne was one of Hollywood's best known conservative republicans, fighting his side of the political fence against an industry that was and is primarily full of liberal democrats. The one and only Vietnam War film released while the Vietnam War was still being fought was Wayne's The Green Berets, politically very much opposed to the trend of today's Vietnam War films. This one was made while the Korean War was still on and it's as patriotic as you can imagine.

Anyone not prepared would see the beginning as a documentary on how great the House Un-American Activities Committee was, and yes, that seems as unlikely as you'd expect. John Wayne and James Arness, one of the few Hollywood actors to actually outstrip the Duke in the height stakes (by two inches, no less), are HUAC investigators, Jim McLain and Mal Baxter, who are frustrated at the committee's habit of letting go people they've proved are Communists. Such Communists just go straight back to their jobs as if nothing had ever happened. That seems more than a little hypocritical, given that the committee had hit Hollywood hard in 1947 and made a very nasty dent in the industry.

This film, like a few others with more telling titles, was released as propaganda by the studios to counter what HUAC was doing to them. Others include Red Planet Mars, I Married a Communist and even I Was a Communist for the FBI. Like many propaganda films, it's incoherent, inconsistent and inappropriate, all because everything is secondary to the point it has to make. It's so forced that half the cast, Wayne surprisingly included, sound like they're reading an autocue at gunpoint. Some of it appears to be dubbed. Leading lady Nancy Olson apparently cringed at the content while making the film as much as I did watching it, but she leapt at the part so that she could work with a legend like the Duke.

Five minutes in, when McLain and Baxter hop a plane to Hawaii for Operation Pineapple, their first stop is at the shrine to the USS Arizona, complete with wreath throwing and closeup of the memorial plaque. Ten minutes after that McLain proposes to a local lady he's known for a couple of days in the very same conversation that he admits he's using a false name to get information out of her. And she goes along with him! Then we meet a mad scientist played by Hans Conreid, who talks about a secret weapon that would make all men and women look alike. By this time I'd completely lost track of what I was watching. While the cast dance through their propaganda dance, I just sat back and let the thing stun me.

See John Wayne in swimming trunks! See John Wayne in a Hawaiian shirt! See John Wayne run away from a fight! See John Wayne look small when he's standing next to James Arness! See... I dunno. Watch it yourself and be amazed. It's a documentary, a comedy, a drama, an investigation, a travelogue, a spy film, a love story, a film noir. It really doesn't have a clue what it is, beyond propaganda, and that makes it unintentionally hilarious. Apparently in the German version, McLain is up against drug dealers instead of communists. That may amazingly have made it more coherent.

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