Thursday, September 13, 2012

China Venture (Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was China Venture, a 1953 Columbia “B” (though fairly long — 83 minutes) war movie directed by Don Siegel, who said in his book-length interview with Stuart Kaminsky that it was his first time working at Columbia and everyone he knew warned him about Columbia’s notoriously tyrannical studio head, Harry Cohn. As things turned out, Siegel found Cohn far less tyrannical than his reputation — “To me, he was a pussycat compared to Jack Warner,” he told Kaminsky (reflecting Siegel’s long years in the Warners’ salt mines as their montage specialist and ultimately director first of shorts and then of two features before he was let go in Warners’ great purge of 1949, during which Jack Warner also fired John Huston and Jean Negulesco and decided the future of his studio lay with Doris Day and her big, splashy Technicolor musicals) — and his big problem with this film was with its star, Edmond O’Brien. Siegel liked to get his casts together just before shooting for a start-to-finish out-loud read-through of the entire script — it was his way of getting the actors comfortable with their characters and the overall arc of the story, and also it gave the actors the opportunity to ask for dialogue changes without having to use up valuable (and expensive) shooting time — and he was angry with O’Brien when O’Brien refused to participate. Later Siegel found out why: O’Brien was nearly blind from cataracts and he couldn’t actually read a script himself. Instead, every night during a shoot, he would have his wife read him the scenes he was supposed to film the next day and he would learn his lines from her reading them to him. O’Brien was scared shitless that word of his disability would leak out and he’d lose parts because of it.

 China Venture is a pretty standard-issue war movie, set in 1944 during World War II — when the Chinese were still our allies instead of our bitter, mysterious “Red Chinese” enemies (San Francisco Chronicle satirical columnist Art Hoppe once did a marvelous column about a Rip Van Winkle going to sleep in 1948 and waking up in 1968 and finding out that China was now our enemy, Japan our friend, and that two men named Wallace and McCarthy were running for president but it was Wallace who was the Right-winger and McCarthy the progressive) but China was not only facing Japanese occupation but still in the middle of a three-way civil war between the Nationalists (Kuomintang), the Communists and a large number of free-lance warlords who controlled a large part of the country. The plot deals with a Japanese plane that crash-lands in the territory of warlord Wu King (Leon Askin), whose forces kill the rest of its crew but keep alive its highest-value passenger, Japanese Admiral Amara (Philip Ahn, who probably resented the fact that though he was actually Chinese he was still being cast as a Japanese military official eight years after World War II had ended!), in the hope that he can start a bidding war between the Americans (who want to fly Amara to Washington and debrief him on what U.S. forces might be up against in an invasion of Japan) and the Japanese and get the highest ransom he can for the admiral. An American Marine unit headed by Captain Matt Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) finds out about this when a runner from Wu King’s forces arrives at his camp and tells him; Reardon reports this to his commanders and they decide to send out a team to capture Amara, bring him back to health and move him out — only they decide that since he’s ill they’re going to send out a doctor, Dr. Masterson (Dayton Lummis), and a supply of surgical gear, and they’re going to put a Navy commander, Bert Thompson (Barry Sullivan), in charge of the mission. They head for the coast and pick up the extra personnel from a submarine, then are strafed by Japanese Zero fighters as they try to row the boats from the sub to land.

The doctor turns out to have brought along his assistant, and there’s the usual “You’re a woman!” gag when she turns out to be a double-X’er, Lieutenant Ellen Wilkins (Jocelyn Brando, Marlon’s sister — who for my money totally out-acts her brother: she delivers her lines in a clean, crisp voice that renders every one of them understandable and proves that Marlon’s infamous mumbling was not a family trait, and her performance is dignified, assertive and blessedly free of the “Method” quirks that usually sunk Marlon’s work, even in such well-regarded projects as A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront), something we’d just seen in the first Jungle Jim movie and could have done without seeing again. The intrepid little commando band sets out into the jungle (actually all-too-familiar “B” movie locations, including some we recognized from Republic Westerns and serials) and they get it from all sides; not only have the Japanese struck their base camp while they were at the sub, killing the guide who was supposed to lead them to Amara and booby-trapping the compound (including one explosion triggered when a radio, blasting Tokyo Rose’s swing-music program full-blast, is turned off), but it seems like they even have the weather booby-trapped: when Rearden encounters a spider web with a tarantula inside (a mistake because tarantulas don’t spin webs), he hacks at it with a machete and immediately a lightning storm starts that ends up with the crew being totally drenched with rain. They finally make it to the site of the plane crash with the $10,000 in cash Wu King’s lieutenant, Chang Sung (Richard Loo, who at least got to play his real-life Chinese ethnicity but was still being cast as a villain!), negotiated as the price for Amara, only Wu King himself shows up, heralded by a drum corps that makes it seem as if he’d seen a Nelson Eddy movie and thought it would be a really cool idea to be a musical warlord — especially when he holds the unit hostage and makes them drink and sing, telling them in the meantime that he’s decided to up the price and ask for $50,000 more before he’ll allow the Americans to take Amara … otherwise he’ll sell him to the waiting Japanese instead.

This leaves the crew with the difficult task of actually getting Wu King the money; today a warlord would have a numbered Swiss bank account and could be paid off with a wire transfer, but either that technology didn’t exist during World War II (actually the Internet may not have existed but wire transfers of money were actually pretty routine) or Wu King doesn’t have it. Instead he insists that the U.S. servicemembers must stay with him as his “guests” until he actually gets the cash on hand — only Reardon talks him into sending some of his own men to the beach with the unit and the disabled Amara and leaving one of their soldiers as a hostage. At first Wu King wants Ellen Wilkins to be the hostage — and there’s the expected sinister glint in his eye that lets us know why he wants it to be the woman — but later on he’s willing to settle for Commander Thompson, who’s given a bottle of mineral oil by Dr. Masterson in the hope it will allow him to survive Wu King’s drinking bouts without becoming drunk or incapacitated. In the end the Japanese arrive and kill Thompson, who manages to shoot Wu King for his treachery just before the Japanese off him, but the rest of the unit gets to shore safely and there’s a weird postlude containing stock footage of the atomic bomb tests and O’Brien as narrator explaining that thanks to Amara’s information, the U.S. knew that the Japanese would fight an invasion of their home islands to the death and therefore the only way we could end the war without an invasion was to use the atomic bomb. (The script even quotes former President Truman to that effect, offering his well-known justifications for O.K.’ing the bomb; in the last two decades of his life, between his leaving the presidency and his death, Truman said that was one decision of his administration he’d never had any doubts about — discomfiting a lot of progressive Democrats who otherwise admired him.)

 China Venture is a workmanlike “B” made by people who went on to biggers and betters — not only director Siegel but cinematographer Sam Leavitt, who shortly would be given the assignment to shoot the George Cukor/Judy Garland/James Mason version of A Star Is Born — it’s not as obsessive as it might have been with John Huston or Sam Fuller directing (though set in the Korean War, Fuller’s The Steel Helmet is a similarly plotted but much more intense movie) but there’s an air of professional competence about it, a movie made by people who were doing a job as efficiently as possible about people who were doing a job as efficiently as possible. The producer was Anson Bond (I couldn’t resist the obvious joke, “Bond … Anson Bond”), who also wrote the story, though two other writers, George Worthing Yates and Richard Collins, did the script — and aside from a love scene between Edmond O’Brien and Jocelyn Brando which I could have done without, it’s a well-constructed story even though it’s a bit surprising that after all the trouble the unit had getting to the plane crash site, they don’t seem to experience any difficulties getting back again (but then the film was getting long and Columbia no doubt had set a strict limit on its allowable running time, so it had to end in a hurry) — and overall China Venture is a good but unmemorable movie that gives O’Brien a good showcase (and knowing that he was virtually blind it’s amazing how well he maneuvers through the “jungle” locations!) and provides reliable entertainment even though on the quality list of war movies it’s pretty much in the middle.