McQ & Brannigan: Taking a break from Westerns, John Wayne maneuvers the urban frontiers of the 1970s

McQ(1974) and Brannigan(1975) are not great films and may not figure in a Best of John Wayne List.  But watching them today, they both come across as well crafted pieces of mainstream entertainment in which John ‘Duke’ Wayne is seen attempting to connect with a contemporary audience by featuring in modern-day urban crime dramas.

Throughout his lengthy  career that spanned almost 50 years, John ‘Duke’ Wayne was the symbol of The  American west. Though he has played a variety of roles set in different  time periods , his predominant image has always been that of a Western hero. When one thinks of  John Wayne, the image that come to mind is that of this big guy, dressed in hats and spurs, riding a horse through the rugged old-West landscapes.  But by the 1970s, the popularity of  westerns were waning . Duke’s young  successor Clint Eastwood had effortlessly transformed from a western hero to a modern , urbane action hero through the Dirty Harry films. Duke was originally offered Dirty Harry, but he turned it down. As he said later:

“I turned down Dirty Harry. I turned it down for what
seemed to me to be three very good reasons. The first is that they
offered it to Frank Sinatra first, but he’d hurt his hand and couldn’t
do it. I don’t like being offered Sinatra’s rejections. Put that one
down to pride. The second reason is that I thought Harry was a rogue
cop. Put that down to narrow-mindedness because when I saw the
picture I realized that Harry was the kind of part I’d played often
enough; a guy who lives within the law but breaks the rules when he
really has to in order to save others. The third reason is that I was too
busy making other pictures.”

He would regret turning down Dirty Harry, when he saw how popular those films became. So. as penance, he chose to do not one but two urban cop dramas back to back . One set in US and the other set in the UK. There was also another reason for his change of heart. His 1972 western, Cahill, US Marshall, turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of his career. Wayne realized that he had to change with the times, whether he liked it or not. Dirty Harry represented  a cop who broke all the rules because he believed more in the victim’s rights than the perpetrator’s. It was made in the template of a western, except the fight between good and bad takes place in the modern city instead of the old West. Wayne borrowed the same template for his urban cop dramas: McQ(1974) and Brannigan(1975). Both films had Wayne playing detectives. It’s ironic that Duke’s first turn as a cop came when he was 66 years old ( though he had played a Federal Agent in Big Jim McLain (1952)). In both films he carry the same gun: a Colt Diamondback .38 Special with a four-inch barrel. Both films feature a tentative romance with a much younger woman that remains  platonic .But there is a big difference between the tone of the two movies. McQ was a dark film, more like a Neo-Noir, which dealt with police corruption and drug trafficking, while Brannigan was a more lighter film, exploring ‘ the fish out of water’ theme, where we find a U.S. Cop trying to adapt to the alien surroundings of London.

McQ , set in Seattle , tells the story of a tough detective whose friend, also a cop, is murdered. In the course of investigating his friend’s death, McQ  uncovers corruption within the police force. John Sturges, famous for films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, directed the film. The film features a terrific car chase in the climax, shot on the beaches, with Duke being followed by the baddies lead by Al Lettieri (of The Godfather fame). But the best scenes in the film are between Wayne and Colleen Dewhurst, who played an aging prostitute who gives McQ some vital information regarding the case, and gets killed for it. The film was originally written for Steve McQueen (which explains why the film has a “Bullitt” hangover), and It had to be heavily rewritten to suit Duke. And like Bullitt, McQ also travels around in an extremely rare car- Brewster Green 1973 Pontiac Trans Am SD-455; McQ also uses the MAC-10 submachine, and this film became (in) famous for creating a demand for the gun. John Sturges is considered one the greatest Western directors of all time, having directed classics like “The Magnificent Seven” and “Gunfight at the OK Corral”. Though he brings his journeyman professionalism to this film, it’s a pity that the he never made a Western with the greatest Western icon, John Wayne; and the only film they collaborated on turned out to be a not-so-memorable modern cop thriller – which I don’t think was a comfortable genre for either of them. Duke himself didn’t like the film, and thought it was hackneyed and stilted. I thought the car chases in the film were really good, with the legendary stunt coordinator, Hal Needham, devising some innovative car chase sequences. Also, Al Lettieri puts in a great performance as the chief antagonist, drug lord Santiago. The drama part of it is rather stilted, with tech-specs being average to below-average; the lighting and editing is pretty poor- almost giving the feel of a TV series rather than a big time studio feature film. I also wish Duke had gotten to play a part like this when he was a little younger (and more in shape). But the reason why the film remains watchable is because of Duke’s presence; older or paunchier, he still commands the screen like no one else. It was an admirable effort (maybe not very successful) from him to move towards a modern\detective genre that he hadn’t attempted before; the film is much darker and edgier than anything he was doing around that time.

Brannigan, on the other hand, is a much lighter film, with plenty of humor and glamorous London locales, with Duke making a more successful transition from his western hero to a modern cop than he did in McQ. It is my favorite film of the two, and Duke plays a character that he’s much more comfortable with; it’s a modern version of the old-West ‘out-of-town-gunslinger,’ who rides into an old-West town with his badass attitude and shooting skills to help out the honest but mild mannered townsfolk to take down a bunch of unscrupulous bad-guys. Duke is perfectly cast as the modern American cowboy who lock horns with the prim & proper British lawmen, and give them an education in his fiery brand of law Enforcement (Most of the British cops don’t carry a gun and they don’t allow Duke to use his either); also, John Wayne shooting up a post-swinging-sixties-London is definitely an exciting concept. The premise of the film was a good one: A tough Chicago cop comes to London to extradite an American mobster, whom Scotland Yard have in custody. Unfortunately, Scotland Yard have lost him, so Brannigan sets about finding him with the help of a lovely female detective, played by Judy Geeson (she was one of the students in Sidney Poitier’s class in “To Sir With Love”), Geeson is really good as the detective sergeant who becomes Duke’s driver and confidante; The two of them have a very infectious & easygoing buddy\buddy, or even father\daughter like chemistry that some times looks like might falter into ‘incest,’ but (thankfully) never does; by this time in his career, Duke had given up on romancing girls on screen, and he definitely was not going to romance a girl of his daughter’s age. Geeson also gets the coolest line in the film, about ‘Yanks’ being “overworked, over-sexed and over here.” The film is well directed by Douglas Hickox, best known for making films like “Theatre of Blood” and “Zulu Dawn”. Duke’s counterpart in Scotland Yard is  Cmdr. Swann (an effete name to contrast Duke’s masculine Brannigan), played by Richard Attenborough. The coming together of these two radically different personalities – with their contrasting acting styles –  is the most entertaining aspect of the film. Their ‘culture clash’  provides plenty of genuine laughs. As the two detectives relentlessly track down their man, there are plenty of memorable action sequences; the highlight being a well-staged car chase that includes a jump over the rising Tower Bridge. There’s also a free-for-all pub brawl that’s right out of a John Ford movie, with Attenborough showing a never before seen macho side of himself. The film also has a great supporting cast comprising of John Vernon and Mel Ferrer, and a pretty good score by Dominic Frontiere. And the London locations are definitely photogenic- The film was  just  one of the two movies to be shot in London’s ultra-exclusive private Garrick Club – and colorfully photographed . The film is still very derivative: if “Dirty Harry” inspired “McQ,” then it’s another Eastwood starrer, “Coogan’s Bluff” that inspired this film. But it’s a much better film than “McQ”, much better written, performed and directed – Duke has much more witty one-liners here and the plot has some interesting twist and turns involving the bad guys.

The period in which these films were made was a tough one for Duke. His mentor and father figure Director John Ford passed away around that time. Duke himself was suffering from various illnesses.  He was living on one lung -the other lung was removed when he had cancer. He had put on a lot of weight and was finding it hard to breathe or move. He couldn’t run. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t breathe properly – he always had an oxygen tank close by. On top of all that, His marriage to his third wife Pilar, broke up. But, despite all that he  still had it in him to carry a picture of this sort . He pulls of the two roles with a mix of charm, humor, trademark swagger and oodles of Charisma that only a star of his magnitude possessed.. He was already a much revered  living legend by then. But, he was also a very divisive figure, being an ultra conservative guy in the ultra liberal seventies. It was during the shooting of these films that he had the famous encounter with the students of Harvard University. The students had invited him specifically to roast him for his  radically conservative views. But, Duke, as in his films, won them over with his trademark honesty and sense of humor. 

McQ and Brannigan were not the successes that Wayne had hoped for. McQ was just an average hit , while Brannigan was an outright flop; which is very surprising because I thought the latter was the more entertaining, and much better looking film than the former; I still feel Brannigan is one of the most re-watchable of Duke’s late-career films; and much better than even his Western from that period, like “Rooster Cogburn” or “Cahill.” McQ is a very forgettable film, and I believe that if Brannigan had released before it, it would have done much better at the box office; it’s possible that McQ soured the audiences on Duke’s cop avatar. Anyway, The failure of these films put a big question mark on his bankability as a super star, and he would be forced to return to making Westerns.  He would make just two more movies after this; and both Rooster Cogburn (a sequel to True Grit) and The Shootist, would find Duke back in the Old West.  But then his cancer returned, rendering him incapable of making anymore movies. His final public appearance would be at the 1979 Academy Awards ceremony, where he presented the best picture.  McQ and Brannigan may not be great films, and may not figure in a Best of John Wayne List, But I’m glad he did them. It gives us a good indication as to how good he could be in these kind of roles. I wish this explosion of cop movies had happened a decade earlier – around the time when Duke was making “Rio Bravo” and “Hatari.”; he would have been really good in them, whether it’s a hard-edged cop drama or a buddy cop movie. At one time (in the early 60s), director Howard Hawks was planning to make a detective thriller, with Duke playing Philip Marlowe; Pity! it never happened.


5 thoughts on “McQ & Brannigan: Taking a break from Westerns, John Wayne maneuvers the urban frontiers of the 1970s

  1. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after browsing through many of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m certainly happy I stumbled upon it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back frequently!


  2. Do you remember where you heard about the Hawks-Wayne-Philip Marlowe story? I’ve been studying Wayne’s career a long time, but that’s a new one on me.

    Nice article. Attenborough replaced Sir Ralph Richardson in Brannigan. Richardson said he thought Wayne would make a great Falstaff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read it in Howard Hawks’ biography written by Todd McCarthy. You should read it. It’s a very interesting book and has lots of good stuff about the making of several Hawks films. BTW I didn’t know that Richardson was the original choice for Swann. Thanks for the info


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