Big Jim McLain

Big Jim McLain is a 1952 political thriller film starring John Wayne and James Arness as HUAC investigators hunting down communists in the post-war Hawaii organized labor scene. Edward Ludwig directed.

Big Jim McLain
Directed byEdward Ludwig
Produced byRobert M. Fellows
John Wayne
Written byRichard English (story)
James Edward Grant
Eric Taylor
StarringJohn Wayne
Nancy Olson
James Arness
Alan Napier
Veda Ann Borg
Music byPaul Dunlap
Arthur Lange
Emil Newman
CinematographyArchie J. Stout
Edited byJack Murray
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • August 30, 1952 (1952-08-30)
Running time
90 min.
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.6 million (US rentals)[1]

This was the first film in which Wayne played a contemporary law enforcement officer, instead of an Old West lawman. Near the end of his career, in the mid-1970s, he took on two more such roles, each time playing an urban cop.


House Un-American Activities Committee investigators Jim McLain (John Wayne) and Mal Baxter (James Arness) come to Hawaii to track American Communist Party activities. They are interested in everything from insurance fraud to the sabotage of a U.S. naval vessel and plans to have local unions go on strike to prevent the loading and unloading of ships on the Honolulu docks.

After receiving useful information from reporter Phil Briggs (Vernon "Red" McQueen), the agents begin searching for Willie Nomaka, a former party treasurer, who has allegedly experienced a nervous breakdown and is being treated by psychiatrist Dr. Gelster (Gayne Whitman). The doctor's secretary, Nancy Vallon (Nancy Olson), is helpful as well. McLain asks her on a date and a romance develops.

Nomaka's landlady, Madge (Veda Ann Borg), assists in the investigation, flirting with McLain. Nomaka's ex-wife (Madame Soo Yong) also helps McLain. Nomaka is eventually found under another name in a sanitorium, heavily drugged and unable to speak. Party leader Sturak (Alan Napier) gives orders to Dr. Gelster to get rid of him but McLain rescues Nomaka and takes him to safety. However, two of the communists kidnap Baxter and Gelster accidentally kills him by giving him an injection of truth serum.

Sturak orders the members of the communist cell to attend a meeting. Sturak orders Gelster to confess his Party membership to the authorities and identify several non-essential members of the "cell" so that government will believe that the cell has been destroyed and the others can continue their work. The meeting is interrupted by McLain who punches out one of the communists after the communist uses the "N-word." McLain is losing the brawl that follows when the police arrive and place the communists under arrest. The men responsible for Baxter's death are convicted of murder, but ultimately McLain and Nancy Vallon see the others plead the Fifth Amendment and go free.


Production notes

  • The film was shot entirely on location in Hawaii and includes scenes of Pearl Harbor, Molokai, Waikiki and downtown Honolulu 30 April-16 June 1952.
  • Several of the people cast in the film were Honolulu citizens: Honolulu Chief of Police Dan Liu, news reporter Vernon "Red" McQueen, wrestling champion Zinko "Lucky" Simunovich, University of Hawaii professor Joel Trapido, Bishop Kinai Ikuma, Sam "Steamboat" Mokuaki, Charles "Panama" Baptiste, Rennie Brooks, Akira Fukunaza and Ralph Honda.
  • World Premiere was in Kohio, Hawaii on 28 August 1952.
  • The film was rushed into release to beat two other John Wayne films, RKO's Jet Pilot, which was not released until 1957, and Republic's The Quiet Man.
  • After the opening credits, a voice-over narrator recites quotes from the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benet, immediately followed by a voice-over tribute to the House Committee on Un-American Activities for its pursuit of inquiries "undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them."
  • A title card at the end of the film states that the incidents in the film were based on the files of the Committee, although names and places were changed, and acknowledges the cooperation of the Committee in the making of the film.
  • Nancy Olson hated the script but figured that six weeks in Hawaii and a chance to work with a star like John Wayne seemed a good enough reason to accept. She thought the film would flop and nobody would see it. She was right to a degree – it wasn't one of Wayne's more successful pictures – but she didn't count on how often it would appear on television. She later said people stopped her all the time to mention it. Olson, a staunch liberal Democrat, said she and Wayne would often have political arguments but she would always let Wayne have the last word.
  • John Wayne recorded an advertisement for Camel cigarettes on the set.
  • In some European markets the film was retitled as Marijuana and dispensed with the communist angle, making the villains drug dealers instead. This was achieved entirely through script changes and dubbing.
  • The film's publicity slogan was: "He's A Go-Get-'Em Guy for the U.S.A. on a Treason Trail That Leads Half-a-World Away!"

See also


  1. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
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