Wake of the Red Witch

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.


40 thoughts on “Wake of the Red Witch

  1. As always Colin you make lesser-known films sounds really ripe for rediscovery and this sounds like a really meaty role for Wayne (always a good thing). Is it just me, or does this film seem to have been made, at least a teensy weensy bit, in the model of De Mille’s overblown (in every sense) REAP THE WILD WIND? Either way, sounds great – cheers mate.

    • Yes, De Mille’s Reap the Wild Wind could be said to have some similarities – the rivalry, the seafaring setting, and the giant sea monsters! However, I think Wake of the Red Witch is a more interesting film, not least because of Wayne’s complex role.

      • The darkness of the Wayne character as you describe it is definitely very attractive sounding and sounds much better than the De Mille – cheers mate, really enjoyed your detailed take on this one as I don’t think I’ve even seen a clip of it.

          • Cheers matey – well, yes, that’s trailers for you – it’s hard to imagine why anyone went to the cinema in the 30s and 40s, most of the trailers were really terrible – the one for CITIZEN KANE is the only one stacks out for its wit – but then, it would, wouldn’t it …

    • Rick, Wayne will forever be associated with westerns and, to a lesser extent, war movies. He did make a number of sea dramas though and seemed to fit into that setting quite well.

  2. I remember catching up with this one as I wanted to see more of Gail Russell. The story didnt appeal to me though I liked Gail and Luther Adler (such a good actor).
    I preferred the Duke in another seafaring drama ,THE SEA CHASE.

  3. When I first saw “The Wake of the Red Witch” as a young boy, back in the late 1940s, I was greatly impressed by the exciting adventure story, and in particular the underwater scenes (ie the clam and the fight with the octopus sequences). To me, at that age, the conclusion was unexpected and affected me deeply, so much so, that the film was one that I have never forgotten.

    I look forward to the Blu-Ray release.

    • Rod, I first saw the film when I was quite young and I guess that’s why I have great affection for it too. I sometimes think that if one experiences a movie at the right moment, or the right age, then it tends to stay with you. I don’t know how this movie would play out for anyone seeing it first as an adult, but it certainly affected me.

  4. “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”

    This is also true of Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston. It’s fashionable to dislike them and assume they had no talent. At least that’s true in the USA.. In parts of California, Reagan is revered and respected, other parts he is the devil incarnate. Yet if Wayne, Heston or Reagan had not been well known for their political ideas, I think people would be more objective about their talents.

    • I think that’s a fair point. I think there is a tendency to tie actors in their with their politics, and thus judge them on those terms, according to one’s own opinion. Frankly, this is an attitude I have little time for. As far as I’m concerned, everyone has a right to his own political beliefs, be that left, right or center. When it comes to actors, I don’t especially care what allegiances they had; what matters to me is how well they performed in a given role.

  5. Colin, I believe this sometimes comes on TV in the UK and will look out for it – sounds like a great role for John Wayne. He certainly rose to demanding roles in films like ‘Red River’, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ and ‘The Searchers’ (plenty of darkness in all of them), and from your review this sounds like a performance to put alongside those. Plus he and Gail Russell make a great combination in ‘Angel and the Badman’, as you say here, so I’d like to see them together again.

    I’ll admit I was someone who used to be vaguely put off Wayne, probably partly because of his politics (although I agree with you and Muriel that actors shouldn’t be dismissed on those grounds) and also because I’d seen one or two of his worst films on TV. There’s a dreadful one where I think he is a policeman on a horse in London, not sure of the title, which always tends to be shown in the UK. But anyway I’m making up for that now by catching up on his greatest films!

    • Hi Judy. I’m not sure if I’d rank Wayne’s performance in this movie as high as the Ford and Hawks titles you mentioned, but it’s definitely among his better roles.

    • Judy – my favourite John Wayne performance is “Island in the Sky” (1953). I’m partial to survival stories. It’s a fabulous ensemble effort but Wayne gets to show his acting chops. Wayne conveys a marvelous combination of stoic command before his men but shows his private fear and doubt when he is alone. What a good captain would try to do under the most trying circumstances.
      And no back stories of romance or melodrama! In fact, although we get little snippets of background life for other characters, for Wayne’s character, we know nothing of his private life until the last line minute of the movie, which keeps the focus on what his character must do in the present, which is save lives under unbearable circumstances.

      • Muriel, I’m a big fan of Island in the Sky too. Wayne made a few movies with Wellman, but this is the best of them. It’s tough, uncompromising…and cold.

      • Muriel, sorry to be so slow in replying – I’m very late in seeing this comment but just to say that as a Wellman fan I love ‘Island in the Sky’ too, and also think Wayne gives a fine performance in this. I have it on DVD and must watch it again soon. He is also excellent in another Wellman film, ‘The High and the Mighty’, where he gives a very understated performance while some of the other actors go rather over the top.

  6. This is a very even-handed and insightful review of WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, Colin, and it’s nice to see your take on one of Wayne’s non-western roles! I agree that it isn’t an entirely successful film but has many things to recommend it, Wayne’s nuanced performance among them. I also appreciated your remarks about Gail Russell, who had a real special screen presence, her earthy beauty tempered by what seems like an emotional frailty. It speaks well of Wayne that he gave her a break (and one of her best late career roles) when she was down on her luck in Batjac’s SEVEN MEN FROM NOW.

    • Thanks Jeff. By all accounts, Wayne was very supportive of Russell. There were rumors of an affair between them, but Wayne always denied that and I’ve never heard or read anything to make me doubt he was as good as his word on that score.
      When Batjac (Wayne named his production company after his employer’s company in this movie) cast her in Seven Men from Now it was the beginning of a mini-revival for Russell’s career. Sadly though, she was unable to overcome her personal issues.

      • I think Wayne was always kind and brotherly to Russell. Without his support her career would have tanked far sooner. Unfortunately, with her pathological shyness, a film career was probably the worst thing for her. She should have lived an ordinary life, maybe she would have coped better, not been destroyed by alcohol.

  7. Colin,I really liked your comment about the charm of “backlot” jungle pictures;and the like
    most interesting and very true!
    Great trailer by the way.
    WAKE OF THE RED WITCH is one of the very few of Dukes A pictures that I have never seen,
    the Olive re-issue is most welcome.
    Edward Ludwig had some really interesting credits;and recently Lou Lumenick,the New York
    Posts esteemed critic called him underrated.
    Ludwig like Byron Haskin was clearly a director who prefered working in the studio. Even a
    couple of his Westerns are very studio bound affairs.(THE VANQUISHED;THE GUN HAWK)
    I am not too sure that THE VANQUISHED is really a Western,its more of a Southern Gothic
    Melodrama.Any film that has a (Freudian?) scene where Coleen Gray chases Jan Sterling around
    the bedroom brandishing an enormous pair of sissors. is a must see in my book.
    Oddly enough Coleen is the “good” girl in this picture!
    A couple of other Ludwig films I would love to see are JIVARO and SANGAREE.

    • John, I haven’t seen much of Edgar Ludwig’s work so I’m not able to make any worthwhile comment on career overall. I’ve seen his three movies with Wayne – The Fighting Seabees, Wake of the Red Witch and Big Jim McLain – although the less said about the latter the better. I have a copy of The Gun Hawk but I haven’t gotten round to watching it yet.

      Regarding those backlot jungle pictures, I have a real soft spot for them. I saw so many on TV when I was a kid that their artificiality never bothered me too much – it was just part of their look. One that I haven’t seen since childhood is James Whale’s Green Hell – I’d love to watch that again.

  8. I only want to say that although you plainly enjoy WAKE OF THE RED WITCH and write appreciatively about it, this is one movie where I think you are underrating it. For me this is a great movie. I too saw it first when I was young and it was haunting then but it never become less so on many viewings through the years.

    At least part of the reason I like it is well covered in your third paragraph about the way its world is created mostly on sets and the backlot. That was the way of many great movies then, and I cannot think of a better example than WAKE OF THE RED WITCH of what I will call “Republic poetry.”

    I’m sure you and your readers all know exactly what I mean by that phrase.

    I will add that if you did put that on the plus side for the movie, you found fault with the circuitous narrative, and convoluted temporal scheme, but I find this fascinating and well-done and for me it too is a strength of the movie.

    RED WITCH has been said to have affinities with WUTHERING HEIGHTS (meaning Bronte’s novel as well as any movie versions). Just compare WAKE OF THE RED WITCH to the very overrated Wyler/Goldwyn version of Bronte’s novel and it will hopefully become clear how much more interesting, beautiful and in the end soulful a movie RED WITCH is.

    This is one of my favorites movies of John Wayne, and that’s high praise. If some will “cheerfully declare” he isn’t much of an actor, I’ll cheerfully declare he was one of the very finest actors in movies–for believability, for physical presence, for capturing whatever nuances are there. In his best movies, where he is challenged, he is just cannot be topped, especially in his relationship with John Ford, probably the best director/actor relationship ever, as he is great in every one of those films and accounts for the greatest share of his best. But he is great in other movies too, and I will say that for me the highest level of his films, including some by Hawks and Hathaway as well as most of the Fords, does include WAKE OF THE RED WITCH.

    And yes, wonderful chemistry with Gail Russell and they are a memorable couple in this, even more than the excellent ANGEL AND THE BADMAN that preceded it. I don’t know what their relationship was offscreen but I know he plainly cared about her and am endlessly grateful that he gave her that chance in SEVEN MEN FROM NOW.

    As for Edward Ludwig, I’ve seen a fair number of his films, including most of those mentioned here, and not sure what to make of him, because it’s a sometimes likeable but generally not that special group of films, the other conspicuous exception being his last THE GUN HAWK, which is striking. But I never consider a director a casual bystander since I’m so interested in mise en scene and the whole tone and texture of a realized movie, and even with a story as moving as this one, I have to consider Ludwig’s direction of WAKE OF THE RED WITCH to be inspired.

    • Blake, you’re clearly a big fan of the movie and you state the case for it very well. I still find the plotting and structure overly complicated but the film works for all that. I guess the fact I first saw the film as a kid and, despite not having watched it again for maybe 25 years, that it made enough of an impression to stay with me speaks for itself.

      As for Wayne, well I’ve always been a fan. It does get tiresome to read so many negative comments about his abilities. It’s unjustified criticism and too often seems to come from those who haven’t experienced a lot of his performances.

      I feel Ludwig did fine as director here, and I’d need to see more of his work than the handful of movies I know to say much more about him. I really must sit down and watch The Gun Hawk soon though.

  9. Colin, returning to say that I’ve now seen this after recording it from Film 4 – I must say I found the story very confusing as I struggled to follow the flashbacks within flashbacks, so am relieved to hear that you also think it is complicated in structure. It was good to reread your review as I belatedly worked out exactly what happened in some of the plot! Some of the dialogue was a bit hard to make out, which didn’t help. I think Wayne is great in this, though. He must have relished playing such a dark, complicated character which is so different from the roles that tend to be thought of as typical, though as you have pointed out there are so many that don’t fit the stereotype. The similarities with ‘Wuthering Heights’ which Blake points out struck me too. Anyway, I must watch it again and appreciate the performances more now that I (just about) understand the plot.

    • Glad you got to see the movie Judy, and got something out of it too. I think the stereotypical Wayne roles which, unfortunately, tend to be highlighted by his critics are pushed too much to the fore and color perceptions of his range and ability. The truth of course is that you don’t have to scratch too deep to find examples of excellent work such as this.

      Your comment about wanting to see the film again now that you’ve got a handle on the direction of the plot makes me think of how certain film noirs sometimes need a repeat viewing to be fully appreciated.

  10. A fun adventure film with Wayne in fine form and the eye-popping beauty Russell ravishing as always. Director Ludwig helmed one of the harder to find Randolph Scott films, COAST GUARD from 1939, which I have seen. A bottom rung director for the most part but he did make several low rent films I liked. JIVARO, BOMBERS MOON, THE FIGHTING SEA-BEES and the 1940 version of SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON. Great review.

  11. Speaking of Duke, I have two of his Universal programmers from 1936 and 37, SEA SPOILERS and I COVER THE WAR. Both are ok timewasters with the former playing out like a western set at sea with Duke with the US COAST GUARD instead of being a Horse soldier. Reviews up at the usual place.

    • Now there’s an area where my knowledge and viewing is extremely sketchy, Wayne’s pre-Stagecoach movies. I’ve seen some that were very poor indeed but I imagine there’s a bit of a variety in terms of quality.

  12. Colin
    I just now found I COVER THE WAR on You-Tube while looking for something else. Just type in I COVER THE WAR 1937. Some site called UNIVERSAL VAULT. Just thought I would let you know in case you are interested.

  13. You speak of pre STAGECOACH films earlier. Have you ever seen the John Ford film he made just before, STAGECOACH? The film is called SUBMARINE PATROL and stars Richard Greene. I got a copy some while back in a trade. There is a review of mine up at IMDB. Greene was on his way up the Hollywood ladder when WW2 happened and he returned to the UK. Now he seems only to be recalled for ROBIN HOOD.

    • No, I haven’t seen that but I try to catch up with as much unseen Ford as I can whenever possible.
      Greene never found his place again after the war, his career went ahead but he never reached the heights he seemed headed for before the interruption.

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