After he failed to secure the lead role in Dirty Harry (1971), John Wayne made McQ (1974) then he went on to do another cop picture, Brannigan (1975). Brannigan takes the tough guy, proto-fascist cop and sticks him in a “fish out of water” narrative wherein the distinctly American macho man clashes with a cartoonish version of British society. In doing this, Brannigan takes a swing at a fallen imperial power on behalf of a dominating imperial power.
It’s essential to understand that by the seventies John Wayne was the personification of American conservative values and interests on the silver screen. Wayne was ten times the movie star that Reagan ever was. While the latter nurtured a political career the cowboy star functioned as an avatar of the right-wing, blasting his way through film after film. Brannigan perpetuates a system of values that re-asserts the righteousness of the white American male and the notion that such an individual’s sense of justice should always take precedent. As conservative and problematic as Dirty Harry was and is, it was wise enough to explore the morally grey areas afforded by its plot rather than embrace whole heartedly John Wayne’s enthusiastic chest thumping.
The spectacle that Brannigan offers is the same as Stallone’s self-referential action-comedy Demolition Man (1993). In Demolition Man Stallone uses the contrast between the action hero and his new environment to lampoon the conservative politics of his eighties action extravaganzas. Brannigan, on the other hand, has no interest in subverting John Wayne’s brand, opting instead to allow him to function once more as a vehicle for the wish fulfillment of frustrated Hawks. Brannigan distills the rhetoric of Wayne’s propagandist No Substitute For Victory (1971) into the gestures of the crime thriller with Wayne as cultural signifier as marionette.
Of course John Wayne was not the only movie star making these kinds of cop movies at the time. The difference is that unlike the Bronson and Eastwood vehicles Wayne’s films featured very little gore and almost no sex at all. Therefore a film Brannigan could and would be shown far more frequently on television, reaching a wider demographic more consistently and impressing upon people too young for Death Wish (1974) the same value system.
Compared to the conservative politics of today Brannigan almost seems like an innocent fantasy. John Wayne entering a room and declaring aloud “Knock, knock” just doesn’t work. Watching Brannigan today the film feels more like an aging movie star grasping onto his youth and refusing to “act” his age. Wayne’s status as a cultural legend and his popularity lessens with every generation. As the right becomes more extreme and the cinema more self-aware, figures like John Wayne become increasingly problematic and as a result less essential than they once were.