Big Jim McLain (1952)

Unbelievably, Britain's Channel 5 prefaced a (rare) afternoon screening of this lunatic right wing propaganda film with a proud announcement that they'd awarded it their 'universal rating' and considered it 'exceptionally suitable for family entertainment'. My guess is that it slipped through the cracks without anyone noticing, because (like the similarly McCarthyite My Son John) it's been off UK television for years. It was scheduled to run a few years back, but pulled at the last minute because someone must actually have watched it.

The film opens with a quote from Stephen Vincent Benet about Dan'l Webster's ghost asking 'how stands the Union?' then introduces us to the plainly heroic investigators of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Big Jim (John Wayne), to whom it's a job that has to be done, and the almost apoplectic Mal (James Arness), who lost a stretch of intestine fighting commies in Korea and literally can't stomach the reds getting away with subverting and betraying the country. A ludicrous committee hearing shows a slick 'professor of economics' dodging the 'are you now or have you ever been' question by pleading the Fifth and smugly going back to his well-paid job to poison more young minds – in real life, fifth-pleaders tended to be jailed on contempt charges and the universities instituted blacklists more extreme than the movie business. Jim and Mal head for Hawaii for a vacation that's actually a probe into a red cell, and we get a bizarre romance with Nancy Olsen – the script writes her up as 'a knockout', but she's frankly a bit dowdy – in which romantic banter often turns to politics as she tries to understand her doctor employer in psychological terms (basically, saying he's a communist because no one likes him) only for Duke to pooh-pooh all this head-examining and write all leftists off as rats who should be put down. We meet a few ex-reds who've redeemed themselves by becoming two-fisted squealers (a character type unique to McCarthy era movies) or, in an extreme case, becoming a nurse in a leper colony. Hans Conreid pops in and does an excruciating comic turn as a mad academic who's there to get some laughs in between the editorial. Veda Ann Borg is a blonde landlady who admires Jim's six-foot-four frame ('seventy-six inches, that's a lot of man!') and insists on being dated before she coughs up info on the conspiracy, which involves creeps like Alan Napier, who kill Arness and get away on that blasted Fifth Amendment.

The ending is unusual but inevitable in what was perceived as wartime: Big Jim half-loses the battle, but returns to the fray, determined to expose more reds and change the constitution so it doesn't protect these traitors (even Senator McCarthy didn't harp on this as much as the movie does, because no one really put up a fight about the constitutional rights of communists). Of course, the CPUSA is seen as a foreign agency in the total thrall of Stalin and the baddies, and communism is labelled an international conspiracy to enslave the masses. Edward Ludwig (The Black Scorpion) directed and Wayne's company produced. Its awkwardness extends to the use of non-actors like police chief Dan Liu in imitation of the documentary cycle of thriller (T-Men, etc). Its naiveté is camp, but you can't help remembering all the people who got hurt in American purges, or thinking that just as the Devil had the best tunes Marx had the best screenwriters.

First published in this form here.

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