One of the best things to happen in the world of home video in recent days has been Paramount releasing a virtual explosion of classic titles on both Blu-ray and DVD under the Olive Films label. The stellar releases continue with MY SON JOHN, an anti-Communist picture from the early fifties that's part political thriller and part family drama, featuring an outstanding cast that includes Helen Hayes, Dean Jagger, Van Heflin and, in his final screen appearance (he died during the film's production), the great Robert Walker.
The story concerns some proudly patriotic and religious parents (Hayes and Jagger) who begin to have suspicions that their oldest son (Walker) is a Communist. Walker gives a fascinating performance, similar to his role in Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN but this time giving his character a kind of scoffing arrogance to go along with his sinister charm. You get the feeling that this guy is so much smarter than everyone else that he finds their beliefs and traditions rather amusing.
Script-wise, the film has some weaknesses. There seems to be a conscious effort to avoid any specific explanations of what's going on regarding unlawful activities: we never really learn exactly what John has done or get any insight into his political philosophy other than a few vague inferences here and there. One keeps hoping that John and his father will have a meaningful conversation about the relative merits of communism versus democracy, but it doesn't happen. This is one case in which some over-the-top patriotism would have added some punch to the story. Further, the fact that Robert Walker died before the film was completed (the shots of him in the last part of the movie are taken from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN) leads to a somewhat unsatisfying ending.
Script problems aside, MY SON JOHN is one of those movies that can be appreciated both as a drama and as a historical document in the sense that it's very much a product of the time in which it was produced. Admittedly, it's not for the casual viewer - some people would undoubtedly find it too long and overly talky. It's not as entertaining as THE RED MENACE or as well done as I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI. However, if you're someone who enjoys watching fine actors and loves films that reflect a particular period in history, MY SON JOHN is a thought-provoking movie that will stay in your memory long after you've seen it.