WAKE OF THE RED WITCH—overlooked John Wayne adventure premiered at the tail end of 1948, making enough money to come in 43rd among the box-office claims for ’49. Played down in stature among a string of hits, it offers a quite good role for him, with one of his best-matched leading ladies in the lovely and ill-fated Gail Russell. *
Garland Roark wrote a few dozen novels, 15 of them set on the high seas. This was his first and most successful, selling a million copies. Adapting the 454 pages, Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet had plenty to fit into 106 minutes: ruthless, obsessive men, doomed love, seafaring brutality, theft, native exotica (of the primitive Hollywood variety), scoundrels, bloody brawling and a fight with a giant octopus. Now, Kirk Douglas battled a giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, but he had James Mason and a whole crew of the Nautilus helping him: fittingly, Wayne goes mano a octo with the ink-blooded tentacle waver. Plus he gets to rescue a kid from a giant clam. And make out with Gail Russell. I’ll take door number three.**
Like other looters of the South Seas, ‘Captain Ralls’ (Wayne) is keen for treasure, be it pearls, gold or the arms of a maiden lusted after by his business partners/rivals/sworn enemies. Codes of respect vie with double-crossing, plus Ralls has a destructive side, with alcoholic rages that strew deck and cabin with whoever gets in his path. No room for softies in this corner of the ocean.
Republic spent $1,200,000, but cut budget corners by using models and studio sets, some footage lifted from Mutiny On The Bounty and other sources, along with second-unit sailing shots off Catalina. Though the production values are compromised by the mix, the script makes for a pretty good saga, even if convoluted by flashbacks within flashbacks.
The “native”stuff is so much gibberish, but the power banter is sharp, skulduggery well-handled, violence suitably harsh and the convincing love scenes between Wayne and Russell play with an obvious sympathetic connection. Next to Maureen O’Hara, the beautiful Russell—lithe, ethereal ,sad-eyed— had the greatest mutual chemistry with Wayne of any of his leading ladies, including more powerful presences like Marlene Dietrich, Susan Hayward, Sophia Loren and Katherine Hepburn.***
Directed by Edward Ludwig, with an intriguing supporting cast: Gig Young, Luther Adler (an intelligent heavy), Adele Mara (striking), Paul Fix, Henry Daniell, Grant Withers, Jeff Corey, Eduard Franz, Duke Kahanamoku, Henry Brandon, John Wengraf and Myron Healey.
*Duke was on a roll, bracketing this rugged, offbeat nautical yarn with Fort Apache, Red River and Three Godfathers on one end, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Fighting Kentuckian and Sands Of Iwo Jima following. Apart from the mediocre ‘Kentuckian‘, his excellent performances in those classics finally brought him peer respectability for craft after two decades of toiling. Wayne’s solid acting as Ralls fits in well with those better produced, more discussed pictures. He liked the character and took Batjack, the name of Ralls’ shipping company, for his own production outfit: a secretarial typing error made it ‘Batjac’.
** Oceanographic lore notes that the Duke had also dueled to the death with a giant squid in 1942s exuberant nonsense Reap The Wild Wind. Generally impervious to bullets or arrows, maybe he was allergic to shellfish, given the outcomes. Infamously, and to the delight of schlock fans and trivia buffs, the goofy rubber mocktopus here was recycled for Ed Wood’s Bride Of The Monster, when his guerrilla crew stole the prop. They forgot to grab the motor, resulting in a desperate Bela Lugosi rolling around with the thing, re-immortalized by Martin Landau in Ed Wood.
*** Wayne was very fond of sensitive, troubled Gail Russell. He did what he could to help her, career-wise and personally, from 1946, when he cast her opposite him in Angel and the Badman, until 1961, when she died from acute alcoholism at 36, done in by Hollywood’s toll on her fragile psyche.