Mention John Wayne and the tendency for most people is to think of his western roles. He has become so strongly identified with that particular genre in the public consciousness that it’s easy to forget how wide-ranging his career was. The many years Wayne spent at Republic Pictures saw him cast in a variety of genre pictures, some more suited to his talents than others. Aside from westerns, he tended to do well in adventurous pictures, if the setting happened to be an exotic one then so much the better. Wake of the Red Witch (1948) was one of Wayne’s more enjoyable non-western films of the 1940s, emphasizing his strengths as a performer for the most part. The movie itself is a reasonable effort, but is perhaps a little too dense in its plotting, and melodramatic in style, to be considered a complete success.
The story is adapted from Garland Roark’s bestselling novel, and it mixes in romance, high adventure and some pretty low skullduggery. Everything takes place in the South Seas, and opens on board the titular ship, The Red Witch. The crew are gathered on the deck to watch two of their shipmates beat each other into a bloody pulp, supervised by the vessel’s master. This is Captain Ralls (John Wayne), a grim, harsh figure who has ordered the two men to slug it out until he sees fit as punishment for their starting a fight on his ship. Right away we can see Ralls isn’t going to be an entirely sympathetic figure, and that initial impression is backed up by his subsequent actions: conspiring to cast doubts on the sanity of one of his officers, and then deliberately scuttling his own vessel. But why is Ralls doing such inexplicable things? We witness his drinking and the black rages that descend upon him, we hear allusions to a troubled past, but it’s only after his acquittal by a board of inquiry that the pieces begin to fall into place. By means of a couple of flashback sequences, it’s revealed that we’ve been seeing the fallout of a doomed love affair and the rivalry and thirst for revenge it inspired. As viewers, we’re seeing the tale develop through the eyes of Rosen (Gig Young), Ralls’ first officer. Rosen thought everything revolved around the millions in bullion lying in the belly of the sunken Red Witch, and the pearls they are currently seeking. However, these turn out to be merely side issues, and the real source of the mystery is a romantic triangle from the past. The side of this triangle are formed by Ralls, his former employer Sidneye (Luther Adler), and Angelique (Gail Russell). The aforementioned flashbacks show how greed brought Ralls and Sidneye together, and how their mutual desire for Angelique subsequently drove a wedge between them. Still, it’s no simple tale of revenge and thwarted love; the relationship between Ralls and Sidneye is extremely complex, and makes it clear that they still respect each other, while treating their quest for vengeance as a kind of grotesque game.
I think the biggest problem with Wake of the Red Witch is the complicated nature of the story, and the methods used to tell it. As a rule, I enjoy flashbacks in movies. They help reveal plot points to us slowly and allow a greater build up of mystery or suspense in the early stages. However, I feel they’re not always necessary, and can actually muddle a story. When you’ve got a fairly dense plot, with strong character interaction, there’s a good case for using simple and traditional linear storytelling. Honestly, this film has a lot going on, with various action sequences (including a fight with a giant octopus) running concurrent to the main drama. Now it’s all very entertaining, if a little heavy on the melodramatics at times, but it does tend to swamp you a little. The film was shot mainly on sets and in and around Californian locations but it still looks attractive. The lack of genuine location filming could be criticized, but movies with exotic settings were usually shot in this way at the time. Personally, I’m fond of these 40s pictures that recreate jungles and lost islands on the backlot; they have a look and charm all of their own and there’s a kind of artistry to their illusions. Edward Ludwig was never a top rank director despite a long list of credits and eventually moved into television. He does good enough work here though, especially in the action scenes. Also, Ludwig and his cameraman, Reggie Lanning, put together some nicely composed and atmospherically lit shots.
You still find plenty of people who will cheerfully declare that John Wayne wasn’t much of an actor, although that’s often accompanied by the sheepish admission that they haven’t seen that many of his films. I guess the whole larger than life persona of Wayne, the myth that seemed to grow up around the man is partially responsible for this. Of course he did make some eminently forgettable films too, but that’s something that can be said about almost any of the big stars of the studio system. Directors like Ford and Hawks were able to get the best out of Wayne, but it would be a mistake to think he only did good work for them. As important as the directors were, the quality of the role mattered too. In Wake of the Red Witch, Wayne got handed a strong part, and he ran with it. Ralls is a multifaceted character, a very three-dimensional figure. At times, he’s the expansive model of vigor – the kind Wayne could play with his eyes shut. And then there’s the darker side, the man of murderous rages and brooding intensity. It’s the ease with which Wayne managed to move between these contrasting aspects, and quite convincingly too, that makes his performance so memorable.
Gail Russell had a very fragile quality on screen, and for a good reason. That fragility was no affectation, it was a reflection of her own insecurities. Her film career was a short one, curtailed by her drinking and the premature death that came as a result. Nevertheless, she made some great films, particularly in the 40s, before her demons finally ran her to ground. She had already starred alongside Wayne with success in the charming Angel and the Badman, and their chemistry stands out in this film too. Most of her scenes in the movie are played with Wayne, and he seemed to bring out her warmth and vulnerability. Russell’s beauty is unquestioned, but the naturalism she displayed around Wayne only enhanced her screen presence. Forming the final side of the triangle was Luther Adler, an excellent character actor whatever the situation. The best screen villains are always the interesting ones, those who are more than flat cartoon figures. Adler nailed the malevolence and obsessiveness of Sidneye, and managed to make him curiously pitiful at the same time. One of the most fascinating things in Wake of the Red Witch is dynamic between Ralls and Sidneye – despite their enmity, they admire each other and actually appear to take pleasure in their mutual hatred.
Wake of the Red Witch isn’t so hard to find on DVD, having been released in a number of territories. It had been released in the US by Artisan back when that company had distribution rights to the Republic library. Those Artisan editions were a hit and miss affair, with some transfers being acceptable while others were extremely poor. Wake of the Red Witch was one of their better releases, displaying some damage but looking sharp and clean for the most part. There are no extra features whatsoever on the disc. The Republic library is now being handled by Olive Films in the US and this title is due for release in April. It will be offered on DVD or Blu-ray, and I should imagine it will scrub up nicely for those seeking a HD copy. I like the movie quite a lot, in spite of its weaknesses. Apart from the fact it looks good and has that escapist quality that grabbed me when I first saw it on TV as a kid, there also a really fine performance by John Wayne to recommend it. Maybe it’s not a great film, but it certainly is great fun.