June 3, 2014
In 1948 John Wayne appeared in Fort Apache, Red River, 3 Godfathers and Wake of the Red Witch. After seeing Red River, John Ford was reported to say, “I never knew that big son of a bitch could act.” He wouldn’t have been so surprised if he had seen Wake of the Red Witch first. Playing an alcoholic, obsessive sea captain hell bent on avenging his lost love, Wayne finds pockets of instability in his individualist persona. Compared to his other films that year, it has faded into obscurity, but Wake of the Red Witch held a pull over Wayne throughout his life. He got the name of his production company from the film, and when he was later battling cancer, he referred to the disease as the “Red Witch”. It is a ghostly film about a lost love, a dreamlike and violent potboiler that exhibits the blacker shades of Wayne’s persona. I was drawn to watch the film (out on Blu-ray from Olive Films) while reading Scott Eyman’s superb new biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend. His book is invaluable for treating Wayne as an artist rather than an icon or a political symbol, and it illuminates the non-canonical work of his long career, most of which was produced at budget-minded Republic Pictures. It was the studio that kept him in the business after his initial star turn in The Big Trail (1930) was a financial disaster, and he remained loyal until the company started easing out of the film business in 1958.
Wayne had paid his dues at Republic in B-Westerns, but since Stagecoach had become the studio’s most bankable star. Though primarily in the business of Bs, company head Herbert Yates reserved a few slots for “Premiere” productions on A-level budgets. Wake of the Red Witch was one of these, made for over $1.2 million. It was an adaptation of Garland Roark’s 1946 novel of trade wars in the South Pacific. Wayne had already worked with director Edward Ludwig on The Fighting Seabees (1944) and co-star Gail Russell on Angel and the Badman (1947). Every loyal, Wayne brought Ludwig back to direct Big Jim McLain in 1952. As he gained more power over production decisions, Wayne attempted to preserve a familial atmosphere on the set, his own version of John Ford’s stock company. Wayne even imported Danny Borzage to play accordion on the set, a loosening-up function that Borzage also served on Ford’s productions. Though taken from a novel, Wake of the Red Witch was Republic’s attempt to copy Cecil B. Demille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), which also featured Wayne as a morally ambiguous ship captain who brawls with a sea monster.
The book was adapted into a script by Harry Brown and Kenneth Gamet. Brown would work with Wayne on Sands of Iwo Jima (1950), while Gamet had already written for Wayne on Flying Tigers (1942) and Pittsburgh (1942). They introduce the world of the South Pacific as already soiled, plundered and ruined by the sclerotic whites who have taken over. The movie opens with this doom-laden line: “the idyllic peace and beauty of the South Pacific lay undisturbed for centuries. But the white man came eventually; he rolled it up, put it in his pocket and took it home to sell.”
The story creates tension by delaying the backstory of Captain Ralls (Wayne), the self-destructive skipper of the Red Witch, which Ralls plans to sink intentionally in the opening scene . While the plot indicates it’s the rich cargo Ralls is after, it turns out to be something far more personal. Ralls is haunted by the memory of Angelique (Gail Russell), the intense daughter of a local South Pacific Commissar. Her hand is given in marriage to rich trade company president Sidneye (Luther Adler), an oleaginous operator who has acquired his wealth on the backs of the South Pacific natives. His company is called “Batjak”, which Wayne borrowed to call his production company in 1951. A clerical error changed the spelling to “Batjack”, but Wayne thought it sounded good anyway, so he stuck with it. Ralls devotes his life to ruining Sidneye at any costs, especially if it includes giving up his own.
Ralls’ instability is represented by two extreme close-ups, where Wayne walks bug-eyed toward the camera. These unusual shots show Ralls consumed by anger, in a state of catatonic rage. In the first he is bottles-deep on his latest bender, right before a horrific beating of his navigator, who would not go along with his plan to sink the ship. After the brawl, of which nothing is shown, there is a close-up of his bloody knuckles. It is an uncanny image, as John Wayne brawls usually end up with hugs and shots of liquor. Here the physical cost of fighting is made visible. The second and final occurrence of the extreme close-up occurs in flashback, to seven years earlier, after he has heard the news of Angelique’s marriage. He is on his boat, trying to burn off his anger in another meaningless fistfight. His face is sweaty and wild-eyed, as if he is suffering from the DTs. The time of the flashback and the present day has been flattened. Ralls is the same man as he ever was, consumed by hatred and addicted to pain.
Angelique is not introduced for forty minutes, her presence an unspoken weight on Ralls’ shoulders. It is her vision that blurs his thoughts, distorts his dreams. Gail Russell’s performance is ethereal and barely there, a wisp of a woman already disappearing into the drapes. Ralls’ devotion to her memory is intense and all-consuming, entering the realm of fairy tale. Little is known about the seven intervening years between plot strands, aside from the fact that Ralls sailed the seas, thinking about her every day. It’s akin to the legend of The Flying Dutchman, who was doomed to sail the seas forever unless he won a woman’s love. Wake of the Red Witch is even darker, in which the love has already been lost, and self-annihilation is the only escape. Wayne brings his usual athleticism to the part, especially in a well-staged battle with a giant octopus, but it brings him no satisfaction or resolution. It is in the haunting finale, with his scuba mask filling with water, that Ralls recognizes a way out. He can reunite with Angelique in the last few seconds before death, remembering when he once had a future.