Powder your nose, baby,” the craggy-voiced skipper bellows. “We’re coming into Hong Kong.” Getting there wasn’t easy for wily Merchant Marine Capt. Tom Wilder. But it’s exciting – and all an action fan might expect from a movie teaming legends John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and director William A. Wellman. Wilder braves dangerous waters and pursuing Red Chinese forces while steering a boatload of Chinese refugees and a doctor’s daughter (Bacall) along a 300-mile waterway to freedom’s shores. Wellman and his crew cram the CinemaScope frame with riches both scenic (Northern California locales authentically stand in for the Formosa Straits) and action-packed. This ship is under full steam. Destination: Blood Alley!
When you have an actor with an iconic name such as John Wayne, you naturally go into every movie they're in with a certain set of expectations. For starters, Wayne was always an assured presence; someone who didn't make second guesses. If his character made a mistake, Wayne would stand for that mistake and make things right with upright assurance and grit. Wayne rarely deviated from those character basics, but every now and again he tried to stretch where he could put those attributes. In 1955 Wayne starred in a pair of seafaring adventures Blood Alley and The Sea Chase. For Blood Alley, Wayne stars as an American merchant captain charged with taking refugees out of Red China and into the free waters of Hong Kong with the help of a headstrong woman played by Lauren Bacall.
With his ship seized by the Communists in Red China, Captain Tom Wilder (John Wayne) wastes away in a prison cell. To help maintain his sanity he frequently talks to an imaginary friend called "Baby." One day his luck changes when a care package arrives enabling his escape and passage to safety. However, for the bargain of safety, Tom may have been better off staying locked up. Under the guidance of Mr. Tso (Paul Fix) and the daughter of an important doctor named Cathy (Lauren Bacall), Tom is asked to help ferry an entire village of people out of communist-held China and into the safe harbors of Hong Kong. The only problem with the plan is 300 miles of dangerous river called "Blood Alley" filled with uncharted wrecks, rocks, rapids and numerous patrol boats.
Blood Alley sees your typical John Wayne character splash onto the screen. A hero through and through, Wayne's Tom Wilder is a man of decisive action. He may think the mission is crazy, he may think it's impossible to move an entire village of people and sneak them out of China, but he's not weak. He's been challenged to do the right thing and help these people because only he knows the river and the challenges along the route. Not being a coward, Tom steps up to the challenge even if it potentially means his death. Like I said, it's your typical John Wayne action epic… only on water.
Under the direction of William Wellman, Blood Alley is a solid action/adventure movie with a decidedly political anti-communist agenda. Without overstating things, the movie wears its blood on its sleeves. Originally set to star Robert Mitchum in the lead, Wayne was only intending to produce the film. When Mitchum was fired and no other lead actor available to replace him on short notice and salary constraints, Wayne had to step in. Likewise, when Wellman fell ill and couldn't finish the film, Wayne sat in the director's chair. Additionally, the film is populated with John Wayne stalwart costars like his longtime pal Paul Fix, Lowell Gilmore, and Mike Mazurki.
At the end of the day, Blood Alley is a decent flick. Not amazing. Not terrible. It provides ample entertainment value for what you get out of it. Given their vast personality differences it's actually a bit surprising that Wayne and Bacall have such great chemistry. It's this chemistry that actually saves the film. Admittedly there is some off color humor, some slightly off casting choices (keep your eye out for Swedish actress Anita Ekberg as one of the refugees!), but at its core, Blood Alley is an enjoyable ride. It's a product of its time and place in world history and politics. If if you can forgive its inherent proclivities you should have a good time with this action adventure yarn.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Blood Alley drifts onto Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive and is pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case. The disc opens to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Blood Alley features an interesting 2.55:1 1080p transfer. Shot in Cinemascope with Warnercolor, the film was made during that transitional period when movie studios were shifting towards widescreen in order to compete with television offerings. As a result, The film suffers from baked in issues. After a full restoration effort and a new 2K scan, Blood Alley was only ever going to look just so good. Film grain is present but can be a bit intrusive and noisy at times. Thankfully details are strong allowing you to appreciate facial features, close-ups, and the film's terrific production values. Colors are a bit hit and miss. Sometimes they can appear lush and vivid with lively primaries and the very next shot can appear a bit soft with murky colors. Yellows are also a bit off making some scenes appear too blue or too red. Unfortunately, these anomalies are cooked into the film and even with the best restoration efforts can only be mitigated. Overall, this is still a great looking film and this transfer is leagues better than my Laserdisc, so fans should rest easy knowing they're getting the best possible presentation given the circumstances.
Kudos to Warner Brothers in the 90s for recognizing the importance of properly archiving their films. Originally Blood Alley was released with a four-track stereo mix as well as a standard mono track. Sadly, that four-track stereo mix no longer exists, but the mono track was archived and preserved and presented here in stereo. Thankfully this is a very robust stereo mix with plenty of power and extra oomph where it counts. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout without any interference. Sound effects are terrific with a great layering effect that gives a nice sense of dimension and space to the mix. Scoring by the great Roy Webb is spot on and brings a nice sense of ambiance to the film. Free of any age-related issues like hiss or pops, this is a splendid track that does great service to the film.
For fans hoping for more grit and gristle after the 2005 DVD, there isn't a whole hell of a lot in the bonus features department for Blood Alley. It's a shame some retrospective interviews weren't available because the behind the scenes drama of just getting the film going would have been awesome. However, the Gig Young with John Wayne interview material is pretty great and well worth giving a look.
Pathé Newsreel Footage (HD 3:56)
1955 Blood Alley Promo 1 (HD 7:30) This is a great bit with Gig Young and John Wayne discussing the production a bit as well as covering Wayne's history in making movies.
1955 Blood Alley Promo 2 (HD 7:40) Here, Wayne discusses the Cinemascope technology and takes the audience on a tour of the Blood Alley sets throughout the San Francisco Bay area.
Trailer (HD 2:36)
While Blood Alley may not be The Duke's towering cinematic achievement, you can't fault the man for doing his best with the material and far from ideal production circumstances. Wayne may not have been the best choice for the lead, but he did what he could with what he had to work with. It's a solid piece of action entertainment. Warner Archive brings the film to Blu-ray in the best form possible. The transfer is strong but suffers from baked-in issues while the stereo mix is a nice upgrade. Bonus features may be light but they're well worth viewing. At the end of the day, Blood Alley may not be the greatest John Wayne movie ever, but it's certainly a fun one and fans of the big guy will enjoy taking a look at. Worth a look.