Briley | John Wayne and Big Jim McLain (1952): The Duke’s Cold War Legacy John Wayne and Big Jim McLain (1952): The Duke’s Cold War Legacy Ron Briley Critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times described Big Jim McLain (1952), in whichWestern star John Wayne portrays an investigator for the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) cleaning up communist subversion in prestatehood Hawaii, as an unsatisfactory mixing of”cheap fiction with a contemporary crisis in American life.” He concluded, “No one deserves credit for this picture,” and most reviewers agreed. Time found the action “implausible and fumblingly filmed,” whileNewsweekbelieved the weak melodrama was saved by a “certain amount of adroit comedy players.”
On the other hand, Kay Proctor of the Los Angeles Examiner extolled Big Jim McLain as a “walloping good movie,” alerting John Wayne viewers to the dangers of the communist peril. In the final court of public opinion, Big Jim McLain was a box office success, ranking twenty-seventh on Variety’s list of top-grossing films for 1952. While the film was made for slightly over $800,000, it earned $2,600,00 in domestic rentals during its 1952 release ‘ Although McLain was commercially successful, it is not usually perceived as a film withstanding the test of time. It is usually described as a period piece, representative of the anticommunist film genre, in whichfilmmakers, responding to Congressional inquiries regarding communist influence within the Hollywood community, attempted to demonstrate their Americanism by bashing communism and communists as a clear and present dangertoAmerican security andprinciples. Accordingly, one mightbe prone to dismiss McLain as simply another historical Hollywood relic, such as / Was a Communistfor the FBI (1951) or My Son John (1952), of America’s paranoid 1950s response to communism and the ColdWar. Most anticommunist films, however, did not feature a national icon such as Wayne, who in 1995, although deceased for sixteen years, was selected by Americans in a Lou Harris poll as their favorite movie star.2 Also, a closer screening ofMcLain indicates that many of the political views are almost identical to those espoused in Wayne’s controversial The GreenBerets (1968), another moneymaking film panned by reviewers. Wayne’s simplistic solutions to complex problems, exemplified by Jim McLain punching communists in the mouth, are still appealing to American audiences , whether they are screening old Wayne films or more currentmanifestations oftheWayne persona with ClintEastwood, Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo, or Chuck Norris. Many young boys growing up in the 1950s wanted to be like Big Jim McLain or Sergeant Stryker (Sands oflwo Jima), but found the black and white values and cinema ofWayne to be oflittle value when confrontedwiththe realities ofVietnam.
3 We may ignore the legacy ofBigJimMcLain at our own children’s peril. Critics often found fault with Wayne and his films, but with such hits as Stagecoach (1939), RedRiver (1948), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), and Rio Grande (1950) the actor’s reputationwas firmly established. In 1952, the Motion Picture Herald poll ofAmerican theater owners and film exhibitors selected Wayne, for the second consecutive year, as the nation’s number one box-office attraction . The reason for the actor’s popularity , according to a Time cover story, was his sincerity, featuring a trademark of “manly incorruptibility” in which virtue “must face evil in single combat, to triumph or bite the dust.”
4 These qualities well describe the conflictbetweenBig JimMcLain and his communist protagonists. Directed by Edward Ludwig and based upon a screenplay by Wayne’s friend James Edward Grant, Big Jim McLain was the first film product of an independent production company formed by Wayne and business associate Robert Fellows as part ofa multipicture arrangement with Warner Brothers.5 Following the credits , featuring patriotic music and the question “How Stands the Union?” from Stephen Vincent Benet’s The Devil and Daniel Webster, the film begins with a voice-over describing the activities of HUAC. Shot in a documentary fashion, the Congressmen ofthe Committee are portrayed as heroes, who, though vilified by the uninformed or misled, are protecting the nation by uncovering communist subversion.6 The narrator states that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 was guilty of high treason. Committee members inquire…