(director: Edward Ludwig; screenwriters: from the short story by Richard English/James Edward Grant/Eric Taylor; cinematographer: Archie Stout; editor: Jack Murray; music: Paul Dunlap/Arthur Lange/Emil Newman; cast: John Wayne (Big Jim McLain), Nancy Olson (Nancy Vallon), James Arness (Mal Baxter), Alan Napier (Sturak), Veda Ann Borg (Madge), Gordon Jones (Olaf), Madame Soo Yong (Mrs. Namaka), Red McQueen (Phil Briggs), Gayne Whitman (Dr. Gelster), John Hubbard (Lt. Comdr Clint Grey), Robert Keys (Edwin White), Hans Conried (Robert Henried), Dan Liu (Honolulu Chief of Police), Peter Whitney (Commie truck driver), William Forrest (J.E. Lowry, McLain’s supervisor); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Robert Fellows/John Wayne; Warner Bros.; 1952)

“Pathetic anti-Communist propaganda film with a snarling John Wayne at his ugliest as a macho windbag special agent for HUAC.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Pathetic anti-Communist propaganda film with a snarling John Wayne at his ugliest as a macho windbag special agent for HUAC. Edward Ludwig (“The Last Gangster”/”The Fighting Seabees”/”Wake of the Red Witch”) directs as if HUAC was the last means of defense in America from the invading Soviet Commies and John Wayne’s simple-minded right-wing politics were needed to save a vulnerable America from its ruthless gangster-like political enemies. This one plays out as a right-wing fantasy film that fails to be even-handed in telling its fictionalized Commie spy story. It misleadingly and uncritically tells how HUAC is prevented from putting spies in jail by the dreaded Fifth Amendment, which it wants repealed. It thinks nothing of using undemocratic snooping methods such as conducting illegal wiretaps and beating up suspects to get information, as it anticipates by some fifty years President George W. Bush’s Patriot Act in the post-9/11 period.

It’s awkward and inaccurate in its hysterical attempts to educate the public about the dangers of Communism, but is big on giving former Commies another chance if they lay on us a confession of how they now fully believe in America and would do anything to stop Communism–including be snitches. At the same time it wants to be an entertaining film that tries to mix in a love story, a mystery story and comic relief. But fails at all those efforts because the screenplay is too sketchy and the absurd story breaks down as a hard to stomach paranoid take on America being overwhelmed by spies. If you didn’t know better, you would think the Duke is working for the KGB.

It’s based on a short story by Richard English and written by James Edward Grant and Eric Taylor. It compares unfavorably with other like-minded Red Menace films from 1952, such as My Son John, Red Planet Mars, and Invasion: USA. At least they had some entertainment value as camp, as this one offered only a smug self-righteous vicious attack on anyone not on the same page with them.

Jim McLain (John Wayne) and his partner special investigator Mal Baxter (James Arness) are funded by the House Un-American Activities Committee and are sent from Washington to Hawaii to crack a Communist cell operating there. Their investigation has them discover under Commie boss Sturak (Alan Napier) that the Party plans a shipping work stoppage to Korea as engineered by Commie labor leader Ed White and Whelan, a labor relations counselor, and then have a Party bacteriologist Mortimer plan an epidemic on the island.

McLain while investigating on his first day meets the ambitious medical secretary Nancy Vallon (Nancy Olson), who works for Dr. Gelster (Gayne Whitman), a psychiatrist and a Commie who is under suspicion because he’s treating former party treasurer Willie Nomaka for a nervous breakdown but the patient, wanted for questioning over a Naval sabotage incident, has suspiciously vanished. That lead enables McLain to widen his investigation and still leaves him enough time to romance Nancy, the attractive widow of a serviceman killed during WW II. Mal has the rotten luck to get killed by the Commies in the line of duty, and this gets McLain so riled up that he wants to punch out the small man who did it but won’t because real Americans are a fair-minded people.

It’s hard to take anything about this offensive flag-waving propaganda film in a serious or light manner, as it’s bent on delivering its right-wing anti-Communist message at any cost. The picture is incompetently put together, looks choppy, has a muddled script and, if that weren’t enough bad news, the actors were more wooden than puppets. Aside from its fine location shots of an unspoiled Hawaii, done in B/W, its only worth is as a time-capsule relic of those commie witch-hunting days of the bygone McCarthy era.

John Wayne and Nancy Olson in Big Jim McLain (1952)