During research for this week’s extended profile of the late Elmer Cravalho, Professor William Puette of the University of Hawaii’s Center for Labor Education And Research recommended that I check out the 1952 film Big Jim McLain, which starred John Wayne and James Arness as heroic investigators for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) sent to Hawaii to root out dangerous communist subversives. The film is laughable, even for its time (co-star Nancy Olson, who plays the love interest to Wayne’s McLain even though she was 21 years younger than him, reportedly hated the script but accepted the part because it meant spending six weeks in Hawaii and making a picture with the famous John Wayne).
Though confusing and ridiculous–the commies, which are led by a vaguely European man who speaks in an unidentifiable accent, act more like spies and saboteurs, which means the investigation should have fallen into the jurisdiction of the FBI–the film does show (without irony, of course) the casual intermixing of civilian and military surveillance. In fact, real-life U.S. Navy intelligence officer Commander Edwin Layton played himself in the movie, though to be honest I missed the part of the movie that explained why the Navy was involved in a HUAC investigation in the first place.
As a time capsule, however, the movie is priceless. HUAC was a dangerous star chamber that ruined the lives of countless innocent people, most of whom were in organized labor or Hollywood itself, and its portrayal as a vital defender of liberty exemplifies the right-wing’s simplistic world-view. The film also contains a scene where Wayne and Arness visit the USS Arizona, which at the time of filming was still a decade away from the large white Memorial that exists there today–though completely irrelevant to the movie’s plot, it’s kind of neat to see today.
Photo courtesy IMDB.com