Saturday, March 10, 2018

American Guerrilla in the Philippines (20th Century-Fox, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to run a movie at 9 p.m. and I picked an download (one that didn’t last too long on their site because of copyright restrictions) of a 1950 film called American Guerrilla in the Philippines — though our download was missing the last five minutes and cut off in the middle of a fight to the death between our band of courageous American and Filipino resisters and the Japanese occupiers in a church. I was interested in this movie mainly because of its director, Fritz Lang — though an “Trivia” poster said that Lang took the job merely to pay off his debts and in later years denied having made the film. It’s certainly far from what we think of as a Lang film, both his masterworks in Weimar-era Germany (Dr. Mabuse, Die Nibelungen, Metropolis, Spies, Woman in the Moon, M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse) and the great noirs and proto-noirs he did in the U.S. (Fury, You Only Live Once, the underrated You and Me, Man Hunt, Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Clash by Night, The Blue Gardenia and The Big Heat) along with such outliers on his credit list as Liliom (the film he made in France between fleeing Nazi Germany and ending up here), the marvelous Western Rancho Notorious (of which Lang diplomatically said he and star Marlene Dietrich didn’t get along because “I tried to create a new screen image for her” — translation: she was 50 and he wanted her to look her age instead of using all the camera, lighting and makeup tricks Josef von Sternberg had taught her to look younger) and the film in his oeuvre most directly comparable to this one, the 1943 occupation drama Hangmen Also Die about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s deputy and the man he’d chosen to oversee the Holocaust, by Czech partisans. 

American Guerrilla in the Philippines began life as a novel by Ira Wolfert — whose only other film credit I can recall is as author of Tucker’s People, a novel about the numbers racket in New York City that got filmed in 1948 as Force of Evil — which attempted to make readers aware of one of the most little-known parts of World War II. After General Douglas MacArthur’s hasty retreat from the Philippines in 1942 after the Japanese had kicked his and the U.S. Army’s collective asses, a handful of American servicemembers got stranded on the island, unable to escape to Australia the way MacArthur and the bulk of the American forces had, and instead of surrendering — which they knew meant torture and death — they hid out in the mountains, lived off the land the best they could, hid out and joined whatever Filipino forces were resisting the occupation. The fiction Wolfert and the screenwriter, Lamar Trotti (who also produced), created out of these facts centers around a Navy ensign named Chuck Palmer (Tyrone Power during the period when he was trying to shed his pretty-boy image and butch up; as one reviewer pointed out, he had actually served in combat in World War II and this performance may have had an air of verisimilitude from that) who at first just wants to get out of the Philippines and flee to Australia. Only he soon learns that the Japanese have occupied the port he was hoping to get to — the one MacArthur had sailed from — so he begs an Army colonel for money to buy an outrigger boat and sail it the 1,300 miles to Australia. Palmer and his motley assortment of men get eight miles in three days before a monsoon storm sinks their boat and all their provisions, and force them to swim for shore. They are about to lose all energy and drown when they’re rescued by another, similar boat sailed by Filipinos, and they hear there’s a resistance movement going on and get the assignment to go from Leyte to Mindanao to communicate a message to the rebel leader there — if nothing else, this film does a good job depicting how difficult it was to sustain a resistance movement in a nation that’s essentially a bunch of islands, especially without modern remote communications technology.

The two leads, Palmer and Jim Mitchell (Tom Ewell, also considerably more butch than the nerdy guy we’re used to seeing opposite big-breasted blondes in movies like The Seven-Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe and The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield), make the trip in a captured Japanese motor boat (which led one poster to wonder why they didn’t just take that to Australia — but that, too, would have been a risky trip without provisions and especially without extra fuel) and then get sent back to Leyte to work with the local resistance. The young man who heads it, Miguel (Tommy Cook), is the most interesting character in the movie and Cook turns in its strongest performance, off-handedly blowing away an older man whom he’s realized is a Fifth Columnist who if allowed to live was going to turn them in to the Japanese. Palmer and Mitchell also get summoned to meet with a mysterious Juan Martinez (Juan Torena), an older Filipino who’s secretly aiding the Resistance while maintaining his above-ground identity as a planter. He’s also married to Jeanne Martinez, played by French actress Micheline Presle (though her last name was re-spelled “Prelle” on the credits, perhaps because 20th Century-Fox wanted something easier on American eyes; little did they know that just six years later they’d make the first film of an enormous star named Elvis Presley!), whom Palmer had already met and fallen in love with when she showed up at the colonel’s office the same time he did and he interceded with the colonel to get her cousin to a hospital because she was about to give birth to a son (how on earth, in the Philippines in 1942 way before ultrasound technology, did she know what gender the child would be?) and would need a Cesarean section. He’s predictably miffed to find out she has a husband, but screenwriter Trotti takes care of him by having the Japanese catch on that he’s aiding the resistance and torture him to death, thereby providing Tyrone Power a chance to do the heavy-breathing love scenes his audiences still expected from him even in a war movie. Indeed, Trotti’s writing of the scene is so redolent of Casablanca I joked that the only way they could have made the parallel closer is to have the husband turn up, not dead after all! 

American Guerrilla in the Philippines is a piece of hack work and it’s obvious why its director disowned it later, but it’s also a quite good movie within the limits of the genre — and it has some good aspects. For one thing, though it’s shot in three-strip Technicolor and the opening credits occur over a backdrop of the brightest and most vivid blue the Technicolor people could create, the actual movie is darker, grungier, looking more like a color film of today than one from 1950. It probably helped that the Technicolor color consultant was Leonard Doss, not the fearsome Natalie Kalmus — who picked a lot of fights with directors because she always wanted the colors neon-bright no matter what the story called for or what artistic uses of color the directors and cinematographers wanted — but American Guerrilla in the Philippines looks dark enough to be a suitable portrait of a war even though, given their druthers, I suspect Lang and his cinematographer, Harry Jackson, would rather have shot it in black-and-white and got the rich, dark, chiaroscuro effects Lang was known for. One annoyance is the musical score by Cyril J. Mockridge, the film composer buffs of classic-era film scores love to hate because he always slapped on the most banal tunes he could think of and did even more “quoting” of familiar songs from the era than most film composers did. But overall American Guerrilla in the Philippines (even in the truncated form we were watching, in which we missed the ending of the battle of the church and the triumphant return of Douglas MacArthur, played by actor Robert Barrat) is an impressive movie, maybe not what it could have been if Lang had had more control over the project and could have turned it into another Hangmen Also Die, but not a mindless glorification of war either and a welcome telling of one of the less well-known stories of World War II.