Three Americans Awaken To Wartime Responsibilities In Hollywood Recreation Of Title Location.
DIRECTED BY JOHN FARROW/1943
STREET DATE: JANUARY 4TH, 2022/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Alan Ladd, Loretta Young, and William Bendix star alongside a large cast of Asian American performers in Paramount’s 1943 wartime production of China.
Director John Farrow, known both before and after for wide-ranging, movie-travelling interests suggested by such far (and not so far)-flung Hollywood title-recreations as Wake Island (1942), California (1947), Calcutta (Ibid.), and Botany Bay (1953), here brings the battles previously depicted on the Pacific coral atoll to the guerilla warfare then progressing on the Chinese mainland in the rapid lead-up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In a dramatic strategy also employed in contemporary fare such as John Huston’s Across the Pacific (1942), and especially in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (Ibid.), Wake Island, and China after it, show Americans largely unprepared for war, but quickly responding to its challenges when confronted by the scope and ferocity of that threat.
Hollywood had gone to war! In a by-contrast hilarious image appearing towards the end of the Coen Brothers’ darkly humorous 1991 wartime fantasia Barton Fink, bellicose Capitol Pictures studio mogul Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) suddenly steps out from behind his imposing desk – to the marked confusion of the beleaguered title scribe (John Turturro) – in the full costume of an army brigadier general. Lipnick has apparently been outfitted by his studio’s wardrobe department, but the message to poor Fink reads loud and clear: after Pearl Harbor, no more wrestling pictures starring Wallace Beery. If anything, the beefy star will himself have to put on the costumed striped sleeves of a grizzled army sergeant and lead a troop of fresh-faced raw recruits – young actors delaying their actual drafting into the armed services by a few months – into soundstage-recreated battle.
Although played by the Coens for laughs, the situation depicted in that scene is historically accurate: a little more than a month after December 7th, 1941, every Hollywood studio, through agreement with the United States government, had come under direct jurisdiction of the War Office with the formation of the Bureau of Motion Picture Affairs. And, here, where Paramount Studios, producer Richard Blumenthal, and director John Farrow assemble a cast of just about every available Asian American actor to recreate a realistic wartime movie backdrop for stars Alan Ladd, Loretta Young, and William Bendix, this screen China will undoubtedly serve that greater war effort.
Early December 1941 opens on one beefy American named Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix) stumbling through an air attack of a Chinese village on the road to Shanghai. Finding an orphaned child sitting in the ruins of a destroyed blockrow of houses, Sparrow plucks up his courage and rescues the screaming infant, carrying him through the dangerous wreckage to the relative safety of a public house frequented by his dissolute employer, petroleum entrepreneur David Jones (Alan Ladd).
Purely profit-driven and self-interested Jones has much more to contend with than a mewling Chinese baby, though, when he is re-routed far north following an encounter with local school mistress Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young); who, unbeknownst to Jones, and accompanied by her assistant and guerilla-tied university student Lin Wei (Victor Sen Yung), has smuggled aboard Jones’s truck nine female students from Grant’s school,carrying hope past the Japanese blockades to the furthest reaches of the country for a “New China”. Jones eventually joining the fighting and resistance when he experiences the Japanese atrocities of recent Chinese history first-hand, this trio of Americans follow the courage and example of Chinese guerilla leader First Brother (Philip Ahn) past a daring nighttime bridge explosion and a sacrificial encounter with an entire Japanese battalion at a forbidding mountain pass.
While the propagandistic project of the storyline remains clear, with the three American characters individually awakening to their patriotic responsibilities in wartime, what continues to make China in particular so resonant is its greater artistic mission of unsparingly depicting the activities of the enemy invaders alongside the resolute underground battle of the native population, as witnessed by its trio of representative American characters. Alan Ladd as Jones (whose weathered uniform of brown fedora, jacket, and khakis inspired the look of a much later screen adventurer, also named Jones, incidentally) has the furthest to journey in terms of (unwilling) attitude and (eventual) action, with top-billed Loretta Young’s Carolyn Grant noble and inspiring from radiantly key-lit get-go and intermediary figure William Bendix as Johnny Sparrow lovable and caring in his estimable big luggish way throughout.
Their experiences, adventures, encounters, and actions, against the backdrop of the title setting, was familiar – or familiar by proxy – to most American audiences of the time through its polar representations of an undifferentiated Far East; popularly depicted on one end of the spectrum by the stock-villainous screen misdeeds of Sax Rohmer’s evil criminal Fu Manchu and on the extreme other by the wise if wily screen deductions of Earl Derr Biggers’ noble detective Charlie Chan. But here, by stark contrast to those reductive representations, most often by actors of European ancestry in “yellowface” makeup, those previous screen depictions are instead given a heightened screen realism – despite being filmed across an ocean on (mainly) Hollywood soundstages – through direction, scripting, photography, mise en scène, and, especially, casting.
Thus, at the film’s dramatic (and thematic) turning point, it is the most hardened and resistant of our symbolic stand-in Westerners, the proto-antiheroic Jones, who warily advances on a humble Chinese homestead to find the elderly farmers and their recently adopted child — the very infant formerly rescued by Johnny Sparrow from the opening scene’s wreckage — all savagely slain across their doorstep. The camera then tracks to follow through the familiar hearth to the amplifying shrieks and grunts coming from the bedroom as the farmers’ young daughter is being unmistakably assaulted by the invading gang of storm troopers. The camera shifts and pivots to frame machine gun-clutching Jones/Ladd at a low angle – having lined the trio of war criminals against the opposite wall out-of-frame – and the now converted and fully committed warrior definitively ends the shot-sequence with the glowing staccato-burst of smoke-and-flame.
Throwing into artistic relief the moody night-and-rain photography of cinematographer Leo Tover that preceded in an earlier scene, through unbroken camera movements capturing the chaos and destruction of aerial bombing, and past low-lit night maneuvers across watery bridge-bombings and high-lit mount avalanches engineered over relentless shock-squadrons to follow, China similarly and cinematically transports its wartime audience through its star-representatives to an urgent situation then currently unfolding halfway across the globe.
Populating its victims, perpetrators, heroes, and villains from the vast background of those Charlie Chans and Fu Manchus, and pushing veteran performers like Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Victor Sen Yung to the forefront of both the action and the film’s greater moral conscience – given “family” names of First, Second, and Third Brothers; which may be either representative of being merely brothers-in-arms or actual brothers-in-fact – further differentiates the wartime struggle of its setting by honestly and realistically portraying that population and community. Bendix’s Johnny Sparrow naming the eventually-slain war orphan infant “Donald Duck” aside (resulting in the truly cringe-worthy moment of screen-retribution when he shouts “This one’s for Donald Duck!” while hurling a hand-grenade at the enemy), such casual racism is in keeping with the average American moviegoer’s experience of the Far East in 1943, and the dynamic evidence of the native representation in every other aspect of filmmaking – in terms of story and individualized characterizations – would give that same audience a much fuller image of the screen setting, with a greater degree of screen realism previously afforded non-wartime productions.
Kino Lorber brings this previous home video rarity to appropriate sharp focus and high clarity on their January 2022 Blu-ray release, and comes with a much recommended audio commentary from film historian Eddy Von Mueller, covering topics ranging from the film’s historical context to its production background to its stars and all-important secondary performers – particularly those comprising Hollywood’s unofficial Asian American community. In all, China emerges nearly eighty years later, in its depiction precisely eighty years previous, as a still bracing, sometimes shocking, but never less than involving screen portrait of its title setting and population. Far beyond the ludicrous symbolism of Jack Lipnick donning a uniform in Barton Fink, China vividly shows how Hollywood waged a war as it was happening.
Images are used only as a reference to the film or subjects discussed and are not reflective of the Blu-ray. They are credited to Mubi, IMDB, and the blog Hamlette’s Soliloquy.