by Kristin Battestella
Well actually this a very specific niche trio of John Wayne adventure films from the forties – a few non-western or war pictures despite the war time, if you will. Ironically, these rip roaring tales were surprisingly tough to find streaming or from Netflix snail mail compared to Wayne's other larger than life pictures – so settle in and enjoy, pilgrim!
Reap the Wild Wind – Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), John Wayne, and Paulette Goddard (The Great Dictator) mix shipwrecks, swindlers, and love triangles in this colorful1942 Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments) mid 19th century high seas adventure. Although sailor slang and nautical terms will be tough for some audiences without subtitles, schooner photography, whooshing winds, and thrashing waves invoke the perilous sea and forgive any obvious matte screens, rear projections, and soft focusing on the ladies. The underwater scenes and ye olde diving gear aren't bad, either, but my word that poor calamari! Cute monkeys and doggies add to the sweet period frocks, and the two hour plus run time moves fast between the rugged Key West inquests, stylish Charleston balls, and Victorian steam ship prizes. The young Wayne should have been a romantic lead more often, but here he's an angry seaman descending into illegal trade and reckless diving, shaping some intriguing turnabouts and character dimensions. Milland starts as a pompous jerk, yet there's a begrudging respect between the men. Though a progressive, pants-wearing businesswoman, Goddard's Loxi isn't always likable thanks to a laid on thick moxie and her playing both boys for her own gain. Several slaves are portrayed as stereotypically sassy, happy, and ready to gossip, too, while selling off enemy thugs to a whaling ship is wrongfully played as humorous. And Susan Hayward (also of the ill fated The Conqueror with Wayne) is meant to be from Cuba? DeMille tried his darnedest for an epic, coastal Gone with the Wind complete with a society shocking Scarlet loving the rogue and making aunts faint. However, this remains a fun melodramatic tale for the cast and seafaring spectacle.
Tycoon – South America, railroads, and romance lead to explosions, mountain tunnels, bridge perils, and an against the clock quest in this 1947 Technicolor saga. While matte paintings and facades are cardboard obvious and the sound is very uneven; sweet cars, lovely cathedral interiors, brightly dressed sophisticated ladies, and suave men's suits add proper flavor alongside rail carts, dynamite tools, and mining disasters. Likewise, John Wayne is an honest foreman who knows his job – when he's not being misbehaving and getting his contractor bosses in trouble with railroad financier Cedric Hardwicke (The Ten Commandments) that is. Wayne seems a little older than the role requires compared to leading lady Laraine Day (Dr. Kildare), too. However, The Duke knows what he's doing, and the audience immediately likes his getting the job done right and standing up to pressuring stockholders or rival engineer Anthony Quinn (Zorba the Greek). Unfortunately, the love and adventure mix feels like two separate movies – and building a dangerous railroad crossing without any fatalities on the job seems just a bit more important than a runaway date that ends up out of gas near some Inca ruins at sunset, because of course. Out all night with a girl and nothing happened but the Hayes Code is going to marry you! The pace drags thanks to coming and going soap opera styled conflicts, and Judith Anderson (Rebecca) has nothing to do. Melodramatic music swells when a woman dares talk back, telling her man she is wrong and will conform to his lifestyle. WTF? There are cliché Latino kids, but precious little espanol – eggs for breakfast? They're huevos! Although no one is trying on a fake bad accent, the locale doesn't feel as authentic as it should. The titular battle of wills hoped for something epic with an overlong two hour plus time, but the tale should have been woven tighter. Fortunately, this ditty proves Wayne could be a leading man with varied character depths, and a dangerous flash flood raging river finale goes out on top.
Wake of the Red Witch – Don't worry, I confuse the mid 19th century high seas adventure of this 1948 John Wayne and Gail Russell vehicle with Reap the Wild Wind, too. Here, The Duke's a crusty captain imposing the law on his ship but withholding coordinates and an impressive gold bullion cargo. He's commanding as always, capable on shore and off, but his rugged violence crosses the line – and gasp, Duke don't cross the line, eva! It's some fine dimension on our heroic image and the erroneous notion that Wayne only made westerns. Although, this feels like a sea faring western: two respected men fighting over the local water rights while a dame's on the line. Ships, girls – they're both called 'she' for a reason. Of course, the young romance is a bit meh, and the age difference between 40-year-old Wayne and his not yet bittersweet but no less angelic Angel and the Badman co-star Russell at 24 is apparent. The unneeded narration is a trite exposition technique slowing the action, and the story that we should have seen in the first place is mostly all told in two flashbacks. The soft volume can make the who's stealing from whom rivalry confusing, but the pretty hoop skirts are always nice to see. There is some reused footage, but the woodwork, waves, frigates, and sails set the mood in spite of the black and white limitation, adding scope and danger to the tense below decks and double crossings. It's not Hornblower, and the film constructs are too apparent in the storytelling, however, sharks, cannons, shipwrecks, early diving suspense, octopus duels (yes again), giant pearls, and even bigger man eating seashells complete the adventure. If you like classic movie melodrama, fun swashbucklers, and John Wayne, this will be a pleasant little viewing escapade.