Today we reminisce about
Blood Alley (1955)
Directed by William Wellman
Starring: John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, Anita Ekberg
* Published specifically for The Third Annual Lauren Bacall Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood *
“You’re one in God’s footsteps.”
American Merchant Marine Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne) has been held in a Chinese prison for the last two years, ever since his freighter was taken from him. There is no reason or hard evidence given for his arrest and detainment but in Communist China, the “Red” authorities do as they please. Because Wilder is a private citizen and was not working for an American governmental or military branch, he remains imprisoned with no plans for liberation. He does, however, receive an anonymous letter informing him that a plot has been hatched to break him out of prison and which gives him instructions on how to proceed. In order to gain the attention of the prison guards, Wilder sets his straw mattress on fire and has it replaced with a new one. Inside of it, he finds a Russian martial uniform and a loaded gun that have been carefully hidden. Amazed by the discovery, he swiftly escapes to freedom and goes to the rendez-vous point in order to meet his liaison. When he arrives, he meets a stern Chinese man who takes him as a passenger on his paddle boat without as much as saying one word to Wilder.
They soon arrive in the Chinese coastal town of Chiku Shan where Wilder is warmly welcomed by the locals as well as by a beautiful American woman named Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall). From her, Wilder learns that he has been bailed out of prison by the villagers who raised money to bribe Chinese officials so to facilitate his breakout. The reasoning is that they all wish to leave Red China to escape the oppressive and deadly wrath of communism, taking with them all of their goods and animals. Since Wilder is an experienced seaman who knows the way from Chiku Shan to Hong Kong (an area known as “Blood Alley”), they want him to navigate a ferry boat but without any sort of aids like maps and without even the help of lights to guide them through the dark waters at night. Wilder is not convinced that he can be of assistance to them but in a moment of clarity, he starts sketching a map from memory. He eventually agrees to man the boat and starts making plans with village leaders but not before the Reds invade Chiku Shan looking for the captain. In the process Wilder kills an officer as a result of protecting Cathy and manages to hide the body until the Reds leave, knowing that it will be a certain amount of time before they notice that one of their men is missing.
Time is now even more of essence so the ball starts rolling on the plan to leave. A part of the villagers board a large, village-owned ferry boat to make it look to outsiders as if they are headed somewhere. After a while, the technicians stage a sinking to make it appear as if the boat has sunk and all of the passengers have perished. In reality, every passenger has made it to safety and will re-board a stolen ferryboat that Wilder and his crew have hijacked from the Reds. Their escape has been carefully planned for over a year and no detail has been spared, allowing them to go on their way with a few days advance over the Reds when they finally realise what has happened. During the daylight hours, the boat is kept hidden amongst the heavy seaside greenery while the passengers remain on land. Only during the night time hours does the boat sail, slowly but surely reaching its long-awaited destination. Cathy, who has come along with everyone else, has her own personal conflictions occupying her including her growing feelings for Wilder.
Will Wilder and the others be able to make it to Hong Kong safely and, if so, how will they be received? What will the Reds do in the face of such a betrayal?
Background & Brief Thoughts
Author Albert Sidney Fleischman wrote the novel Blood Alley based on his experience in the United States Navy during World War II. A noted and celebrated writer of children’s books, Fleischman primarily published works of fiction early on in his career. Blood Alley attracted the attention of filmmaker William Wellman who, in a rare move for Hollywood, allowed Fleischman to write the entirety of the screenplay. Despite the film’s lacklustre reception, Wellman enjoyed working with Fleischman so much that he once again hired the author for his 1958 film Lafayette Escadrille with Tab Hunter, which would end up being Wellman’s last cinematic project. John Wayne acted as the film’s producer in conjunction with his company, Batjac Productions.
Seeing as how the film was adapted from the original author of the material, the pace of the film is slower and more drawn out like that of a story going from chapter-to-chapter. The good aspect of this method is that the story feels more complete and there is no rush to hurry the plot along. On the contrary, there are moments when you can get lost in overly lengthy scenes that may not have a lot of substance. Considering that the film is around two hours long, its imbalance is slightly unforgiveable. When writing the synopsis, I realised that the reasons for Wilder having been imprisoned were very obscure as was the detail of his past in the area. It would have been helpful, not to mention intriguing, to know these facts in order to also better comprehend the character. Wayne does an honourable job of creating a lively, colourful personality but unfortunately you do not end up with a personage who is wholly original. It is thanks to Duke’s unbreakable nature and numerous other similar screen roles that give Wilder some personality.
The locales used for the film were very nice and had a very authentic feel. In all honesty, I was very surprised to learn that filming had taken place near the San Francisco Bay in the United States. Costumes and set furnishings were also very adequate. An issue noted by modern critics is the use of yellowface on prominent supporting Caucasian cast members. While this practice is as regrettable as any other false ethnic transformation, it was not meant to insult the Chinese or any other Asian nationalities and should not take away from the overall value of the film.
Lauren’s character, Cathy Grainger, is the daughter of a doctor who had worked in Chiku Shan for the last seven years, serving villagers and the Red Chinese when necessary. Their stay had been relatively calm until recent events when a medical operation went awry and the doctor was taken into custody. Cathy believes that her father will eventually be released and will return to the village, making her adamant about staying in Chiku Shan rather than coming with Wilder and the others. Wilder actually finds out that Cathy’s father has been murdered by the Reds but does not have the heart to tell her until it is time to sail; a laggard decision which makes it so that Cathy does not believe him to be telling the truth. Nonetheless, she boards the boat with the intention of getting off before arriving in Hong Kong, at which point she will search for her father whether he is dead or alive.
Cathy is a very strong-willed, independent woman who is also very beautiful. When you first see her welcoming Wilder to Chiku Shan, there is little doubt about her ability to be a leader and, if need be, to run the show. Beneath her charm and feminine allure, there is a harder aspect to her personality that seems to allow her self-preservation. She provides us a clue as to why this is immediately after Wilder kills the Red officer who attacked her by asking, “Do you think that is the first time that a soldier has tried to touch me?” This very likely insinuates that she has been the victim of rape at the hands of the Red Chinese. Her reaction is such that it makes you admire how strong of a person she is yet it makes you want to mourn the abuse that she has suffered. Moreover, it is sad to see that she has almost come to expect this kind of behaviour whenever the village is raided. One can understand her reserved disposition as well as Lauren’s decision to play the character the way she did.
Critics did not give much praise to this film or to its leading stars, panning the story and scoffing at the lack of romantic chemistry between Duke and Lauren. While these two were not pawing at each other left and right throughout the film, they did have a positive connection which made their eventual coupling seem quite natural. Lauren remained very composed as Cathy but nothing could hide that smouldering glimmer in her eye. Rest assured that there is nothing off-putting about seeing her and Duke in an embrace, sealed with a passionate kiss. As for the story, it is not one of the most exciting that you will see but it has a good message and its intentions are in the right place. This is an honest effort from Lauren, Duke, and several of the supporting players. If you are a Lauren fan, I would absolutely recommend adding this to your watch list.
- Robert Mitchum was initially cast in the role of Captain Tom Wilder and actually filmed quite a few scenes from the film before he was unceremoniously fired from production after an incident with a crew member. The story goes that Mitchum threw Warner Bros. transportation manager George Coleman into the San Francisco Bay in a fit of rage while he was under the influence. It was director William Wellman who fired Mitchum, unable to cope with his marijuana use and temperament even though the two had a long known and worked with one another. Their first project was 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, also starring Burgess Meredith, and their second picture was 1954’s Track of the Cat (also produced by Wayne’s Batjac Productions), this time co-starring Teresa Wright.
- Most of Anita Ekberg’s performance consists in her being included in long shots or in close-ups with no dialogue. Nonetheless, she was given a lot of press attention for her role both in terms of publicity shots and in getting important billing. The cherry on top of the cake is her winning a Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer, a category that was discontinued in 1983.
- The DVD menu and even the official movie poster has Lauren Bacall appearing as if she were Asian, with very dark hair and tinted skin whereas in the film she is blonde with light eyes and pale skin.