John Wayne's Other Red River
"Blood Alley" was the first movie which John Wayne produced under his Batjac label and originally was to feature Robert Mitchum, that is until following a disagreement Mitchum left and John Wayne found himself having to step in. What that means is that "Bloody Alley" ends up another one of those John Wayne action adventure movies where he plays the hero, gets the woman and delivers some minor moments of comedy. It may have a storyline with a less that subtle anti-communism message and sees Wayne playing a Captain trying to help villagers escape to Honk Kong and evade the Red army but it is all very familiar. Would "Blood Alley" have been any better with Mitchum, it would have been different but strangely probably not as enjoyable.
Having spent a couple of years in a Chinese Communist prison, Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne - The High and the Mighty) finds himself released and being taken on a Sampan ride to a small Chinese village where he meets the villages Elders and Cathy Grainger (Lauren Bacall - How to Marry a Millionaire). He soon discovers that they were behind his release as they want him to captain a rusty old ferry along 300 miles of troubled river, taking the entire village and their animals to the safety of Hong Kong. Despite thinking it is insane to even consider the mission which will see them sailing close to Chinese gun ships he begrudgingly agrees.
You could chuck "Blood Alley" together with other Wayne movies where he plays the reluctant hero, the man who is persuaded to help out despite not really wanting to. As such whilst the movie may start with Capt. Wilder in a Chinese prison talking to a make believe person he calls Baby and basically coming across as being quite confusing it doesn't take long to settle down into familiar territory.
That familiar territory arrives the minute having escaped from prison and been taken to a small village he meets the attractive Cathy Grainger and learns that they want him to captain an old ferry boat along 300 miles of a dangerous river to take all the villagers to Hong Kong. It almost goes through the motions as you have Wilder initially not being interested, then agreeing with a little gentle help from Grainger. And you know that by the time the movie is over Wilder and Grainger will have argued, probably slapped each other and eventually kissed. It's all very routine as you know that this movie will end in no other way than with John Wayne having been a hero.
But whilst familiar it is entertaining especially when having spent a while delivering the set up we eventually get the actual journey through troubled waters. Director William A. Wellman really gets to grips with the action side of this journey and whilst never a really tense affair he does manage to keep our attention. A run in with a Chinese gun ship is quite dramatic and a battle between Wilder and two communists is surprisingly striking due to the technique of taking us out of the room and observing it silently through a window. In fact the use of observing scenes through a window is a reoccurring technique which works well every time and makes "Blood Alley" just a little different in places.
This will be of little shock when I say that John Wayne plays Captain Wilder basically as John Wayne delivering the same sort of performance and character which he delivered in various movies during the 50s and 60s. It kind of works or at least it does when you get past the opening with Wilder being stuck in a Chinese prison which is so messed up its just wrong. But what makes Wayne's performance more interesting is that he is playing opposite Lauren Bacall as Cathy Grainger and whilst a strong women she is also sexier than other stronger women. It maybe predictable that Wilder will end up kissing Grainger but the way she almost flirts with him, making eyes at him make's this feel different and more entertaining.
Aside from Bacall and Wayne, well it's a case of many non Asian actors playing Asian characters and not doing a very good job of it either. It just feels very wrong from hearing Chinese which I am sure is just gibberish through to having someone as sexy as Anita Ekberg playing a Chinese woman. Even the couple of Asian actors who are cast don't come off that well with characters which are more caricature like than real.
What this all boils down to is that "Blood Alley" is what you could call a generic John Wayne hero movie which basically sees him playing himself as he reluctantly helps out a group of people. It maybe set in China and see him helping a small Asian village but it is very much a movie built to that John Wayne formula. But it has it's moments with some surprisingly decent action and is boosted by Lauren Bacall who adds something different to the normal love interest character which crop up in these sorts of movies.