There are several things initially off-putting about Blood Alley. Produced by and starring John Wayne at the height of his Red-bashing glory days, it’s a hymn to anti-Commie Chinese people-power that offers up far too many Caucasians in Asian drag, undercutting the film’s attempts to lionise the Chinese character. The production strains against an evidently skimpy budget, as northern California stands in for southern China. That said, Blood Alley commends itself entirely and purely as a William A. Wellman film, and, once it kicks into gear, stands as expert adventure filmmaking. The old stalwart Wellman, much like the tale’s hero, wields technique and experience to save the day, rendering his film deeply engaging on a level close to pure cinema. Wayne plays Tom Wilder, a seasoned salt whose life of steaming tramps, and tramp steamers, along the Chinese coast has been brought to a screaming halt by the Communist revolution, and at the outset he’s in prison, where he’s resisted going batty through privation and torture by talking to his strangely feminised personal deity. He busts out when mysterious benefactors smuggle him a gun and a Soviet officer’s uniform for a disguise. Once out, he’s taken in hand by good-natured hulk Big Han (Mike Mazurki) and boated to a seaside village which has decided to relocate en masse to Hong Kong, involving a complex and intricately detailed plan that demands Wilder skipper a paddle-driven ferryboat loaded down with this migrating populace across the Strait of Formosa, a body of water Wilder dubs the eponymous Blood Alley.
A year after Wellman’s experimental attempt to create a neo-Expressionism in the context of Technicolor-emblazoned ‘50s commercial cinema with Track of the Cat, Blood Alley, though hardly as carefully woven from strands that entwine style and story as that film, is nonetheless essayed in similarly stylised hues and flourishes, carefully offsetting the costume design of his characters with interior décor to declare their private psychic spaces and gaudily decorate his screen. Blood Alley looks forward to John Ford’s swan song Chinoiserie 7 Women (1966) in farewelling the romantic-exotic panoply of the early twentieth century’s melting pots, and the open, peripatetic, venturesome world that fuelled the fantasias seen in so much genre cinema. Revolutionary ideology, post-Colonialist reaction, and Cold War politics are depicted here as forces beginning to seal off the world into zones of mistrust; whilst 7 Women inflects the grace-note with a study in altering gender dynamics, Blood Alley ironically offers a socialist ideal in miniature in the course of twisting Chairman Mao’s nose. Lauren Bacall is Cathy Grainger, daughter to the compulsory boozy, exiled Western doctor. Her father has been shanghaied into service by the Communists and is later heard to have been executed, and Cathy’s determination to uncover the truth of his fate becomes a major tension between her and Wilder. Cathy, like her Asian comrades, quite often displays more depth of character and physical bravery than the nominal white superman, a tension Wellman seems to enjoy sustaining, as he probes the difference between types of action and how they relate to the motives of people taking them, pitting pragmatism and discrete risk-taking against a more emotionally imperative and ideologically necessary kind.
The plan for escape has been put together by the villagers under the leadership of Mr Tso (Paul Fix), and demands they forcibly drag along the prestigious and expansive Feng family, who, formerly prosperous capitalists, have signed on with the new regime. The Fengs are controlled by their solipsistic patriarch (Berry Kroger), who likes sitting in his once magnificent car, immobilised since Japanese soldiers took off with the engine, and looking through a Viewmaster in place of passing scenery. When the time comes for the escape, Old Feng is tied up and dragged aboard the boat. The steamer’s prospective engineer, Tack (Henry Nakamura), though Chinese, has been trained Stateside in the arts of steamship maintenance and amusing individualism, puffing away on cigars through hair-curling crises. Wilder sketches out a map of the coast from memory on the back of Cathy’s father’s medical diagrams, and has to hide from an army search in a coffin, only to break out on realising that he’s left his map where the searchers can find it. Such droll touches are mixed in with more awkward sexual comedy as Cathy and the bullish, happily unattached Wilder strike sparks which each resist, and, after he teasingly makes a play of trying to seduce Cathy’s hyperactive housemaid Susu (Joy Kim) to drive her off, Susu gives Cathy a bell to ring in case he tries the same thing with her, and the bell’s proximity to Cathy remains henceforth a barometer for how she’s feeling about Wilder. Kim has to spout an excruciating number of “likees”, but she also offers the film’s most energetic performance.
The film’s supporting players includes a surreally cast Anita Ekberg as one of the village girls who is last glimpsed romantically paired with Mazurski’s Han – now there’s one for the books – and a young James Hong as a Communist officer. Bacall was always a curiously contradictory actress, in that whilst she radiated a cool, autonomous charisma, she wielded that charisma best opposite strong male leads. She gives a lively performance, and she would more or less repeat the role in J. Lee Thompson’s version of this story in a subcontinent setting, North West Frontier (1958). Wilder soon has to save Cathy from the compulsory near-rape, skewering her assaulter with his own rifle’s bayonet. Once all these laboured preliminaries are dispensed of, and the villagers’ intricately planned escape begins, Blood Alley kicks up to another, far higher plain of visual exposition, and Wellman, in spite of the limited budget, fights heroically to present an epic adventure, finding sonorous poetry in a last lingering shot of the abandoned village’s waterfront and the villagers gazing back at their severance from an untold history. The intricacies of the plan, from faking the sunken wreck of the paddle boat designed to cover its theft, to trapping patrol boats with submerged traps painstakingly constructed over years, are fascinatingly detailed and dynamically depicted by Wellman. Wayne reportedly contributed to the direction, without credit, warming up for his thematically similar, but rather inferior, The Alamo (1960).
Cleverly orchestrated little sequences continue at a steady space, as the villagers are forced by rapidly dwindling resources to find wood for the boilers, and then food, after their stocks are rendered instantly inedible when it’s suspected one of Feng’s clan has poisoned the supplies in order to force a return: in a sequence that’s both riveting and disturbing, Wilder extracts the culprit in confronting the sullen collective of the Feng’s clan, testing the limits of their fanaticism by plucking a child out to be fed the poisoned food. The lad’s mother intervenes, and throws the meal in the face of the responsible man, and Wilder starts force-feeding him with tainted rice. Wellman’s touch intensifies in a sequence that pays tribute to his roots in silent cinema, as two of the Fengs attempt to assault Wilder as he steers the ship through a storm, Wilder fighting them off whilst trying to keep the vessel steady: knives are flashed, blows landed and Wilder bloodied, rain and sea whirl in elemental fury, and the whole sequence plays out in dumb-show expressivity as Tack sends men to Wilder's aid and Cathy is hurled aside by the frantic captain as he tries maintain control of his belleaguered vessel. Wellman proffers vignettes, like the children of the village trying to catch fish in a row upon the steamer’s deck, with a precision that looks forward to Kubrick’s on the thematically similar, if supposedly politically opposite, Spartacus (1960), in visually compressing the essence of the idea of a world of humanity on the move.
Like many of Wellman’s later films, Blood Alley is overtly preoccupied with figures wrenched out of the native habitats and thrust into violent and terrifying situations, as in Battleground (1949) and Westward the Women (1951), where, as Ford would later in 7 Women, he reconciled his own haute-macho perspective with unusual frontier feminism. This preoccupation would find cumulative expression in the melancholy autobiography of Lafayette Escadrille (1958), Wellman’s last film which, sadly, was fatally compromised by a low budget, an inconsistent tone, and studio interference, and caused Wellman to retire. Just as the story here evokes the painful separation of peoples from their homelands, West from East, and the modern world from the old, so too does Wellman’s handling have one eye on cinema past and another on cinema future. The sense of tactile and incidental detail is mixed with devices of Expressionism and anti-realism throughout, as in Wellman’s best films back to The Public Enemy (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), and Battleground, whilst the insistence on location shooting where possible, rather than filming on the back-lot, anticipates the realistic, procedural intensity of the on-coming American New Wave in the likes of Kubrick, Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964), and early Peckinpah.
Whilst the film lapses again into rhetorical facetiousness – Wayne pausing to wax lyrical over the dedication of his Chinese wards, and the Feng family splitting, the old man ranting in fury as most of his clan reject his leadership before a Red navy cannon shell permanently silences him – nonetheless Wellman continues to etch his cinema in lucid and exacting physical terms, culminating in a brilliantly staged finale in a ship’s graveyard, left behind by centuries of piracy in Blood Alley. Cathy, having ventured inland to find is her father is truly dead, has to dodge raining explosive shells as she hops from wreck to wreck, in a thunderous storm of splinters and splashes. The villagers then have to haul the boat, African Queen-style, through reedy swamps, in order to dodge pursuing warships, before finally slipping out to sea and over to Hong Kong, where their arrival meets a thunderous reception from a dazzled free world. Would that all Asian refugees in the following half-century had received such warm welcomes in the West.