For the Silent Generation, the very apotheosis of traditional, homespun, apple pie Americana in motion picture heroism was the artist formerly known as Marion Morrison. Under his professional name of John Wayne, he would epitomise what was seen as the archetypal leading man, starring in both war movies and Westerns, earning the nickname of ‘The Duke’ in a career which spanned more than 50 years.
Always someone known to be politically to the right, some of Wayne’s views have in recent years come under scrutiny, as a 1971 interview resurfaced back in early 2019, one in which Wayne expressed opinions which were highly contentious, if not outright offensive. Wayne also aligned himself with the House of Un-American Activities Committee‘s work, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Wayne’s stance on stamping out Communism put him at odds with so many colleagues in the entertainment industry. He was also reportedly a target of Stalin at one point.
Wayne’s legacy has become murkier over time, and his real life persona has threatened to overshadow his work. He has certainly become far more of a problematic figure, and it has to a certain extent been necessary to try and separate the art from the artist, in an attempt to appreciate his output. Much of his on-screen persona was based around machismo and a rugged, gung-ho characterisation, chiefly with strong moral fibre. Whether wielding either a six-shooter or military rifle, Wayne was for so many years the poster boy for Hollywood’s depiction of integrity, valour and grit.
It seems odd, then, to think of him being in a role other than soldier or cowboy, so much have they become synonymous with Wayne’s image. Yet there are examples of him stepping outside his usual range, one of which can be found in 1975’s Brannigan, a contemporary cop movie. Wayne takes on the lead part of Jim Brannigan, who is a tough, no-nonsense and uncompromising Chicago Police Lieutenant who has been on the trail of gangster Ben Larkin (John Vernon). Brannigan is sent over to London to bring Larkin back home, after he was arrested and put up for extradition.
Being teamed up with Detective Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), and having to work with Commander Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough), Brannigan’s mission ends up becoming a great deal more complicated when Larkin is the victim of an apparent kidnapping. Complicating matters further is the presence in London of Gorman (Daniel Pilon), a hitman who has been hired to kill Brannigan. Along with his having to try and locate Larkin before the captors make good on their threats if the ransom fails to be paid, Brannigan also has to avoid falling foul of Gorman.
To say that Brannigan is not Wayne in his prime would be an understatement. Clearly at least a decade too old to be even remotely close to convincing in the role, he comes across as a bewigged slab of ham lumbering across the screen like some bargain basement Harry Callahan – given Wayne had in fact been offered the titular role in Dirty Harry, this film offers a horrifying glimpse into a reality in which Wayne would have completely ruined that character, had he chosen to portray it anything like his depiction of Jim Brannigan, so we should be grateful we were denied that particular spectacle.
Much like Brannigan being such a fish out of water whilst in London, Wayne is similarly out of his element here, trying to be so obviously cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood’s maverick cop, yet falling far short. This is not to say Wayne is giving anything less than his all in his performance here, but more that he is patently unsuited to the task. In an era when the American New Wave was taking hold, Wayne feels like a relic of the old Hollywood here, trying to stay relevant as the playing field shifts around him, leaving him behind. The gulf between Wayne’s filmmaking heyday and the changing face of Tinseltown is never more evident than here.
However, Brannigan is still an enormous amount of fun, as Geeson more than holds her own alongside The Duke, and Attenborough is clearly having a whale of a time being the initially strait-laced, old school tie-wearing establishment figure who gradually loosens up thanks to the influence of Brannigan. Perhaps the biggest star of the piece, however, is mid-1970s London, seen here in all its faded glory, before the wrecking balls moved in to start the city’s gentrification. Shot in Panavision, the London of that era had never looked lovelier, seeming so bright and vibrant, rather than coming over in the drab, Woodbine-stains hues of beige and brown you might expect.
The BFI’s Blu-ray release of Brannigan includes a nice little set of bonus features, including a 2017 commentary track by Steve Mitchell and critic Nathaniel Thompson, which simply brims with enthusiasm for the film. A highlight of the disc is a half-hour look back at Brannigan, including contributions from surviving members of cast and crew, and is both candid and hilarious in equal measure. A far too brief diversion with stuntman Frank Henson feels more like an afterthought, and an offcut from the main featurette, included just to pad out the extras. Making something more substantial out of it, like a look at Henson’s career in stunt work, would have felt much less like a token filler.
Along similar lines comes the inclusion of two compilations of archive material, one focusing on the locations featured in Brannigan, the other on the British Police. Although both of these are interesting from an historical perspective, the fact that so much of their content actually pre-dates Brannigan so significantly makes them come across as being perhaps a bit too loosely connected to justify their presence. A feature-length audio interview with Richard Attenborough that was recorded in 1983 has rather more merit to it, providing us an overview of his career from actor to director, and it manages to round things out quite nicely.
For all of its relatively slight faults, Brannigan is still a whole load of knockabout fun, helped by some wonderful direction by Douglas Hickox, including a memorable and dynamic car chase through London, and a hilarious Western-style punch up in a London boozer. If you had ever wanted to see a movie in which Rooster Cogburn pushes Baldrick from Blackadder into the River Thames, then Brannigan will most assuredly not disappoint.
Brannigan is out now on Blu-ray from the BFI.