Friday, February 03, 2012

Tonight's Movie: China (1943)

CHINA, released by Paramount early in 1943, is a WWII film which was designed to encourage American patriotism and inspire support for our Chinese allies. While lacking the dramatic depth and scope of a film such as Paramount's SO PROUDLY WE HAIL!, which was released the same year, CHINA is an interesting and fairly brutal exemplar of its type.

Set prior to the U.S. entering the war, CHINA tells the story of David Jones (Alan Ladd), who's been selling oil in China with his partner, Johnny (perennial Ladd sidekick William Bendix). Jones is in it strictly for himself and the profits and is even willing to sell gas to the Japanese.

David and Johnny are struggling to make it to Shanghai in their truck when David reluctantly agrees to assist American teacher Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young) and her charges, a bunch of Chinese schoolgirls.

As the group travels, they are exposed to terrible Japanese atrocities which completely change David's attitude toward the war. He joins Carolyn's Chinese friends (Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, and Victor Sen Yung) fighting the Japanese, leading to a fateful confrontation with the enemy.

The film is surprisingly tough at times, not sparing the youngest and most innocent, but the storyline clearly served a dual purpose; beyond the dramatic needs of the film itself, the events depicted were clearly designed to motivate American audiences. Most war films of the early '40s were meant to do this to a greater or lesser extent, but it's particularly obvious here, rather along the lines of a movie like MGM's SONG OF RUSSIA (1944), which was made to drum up support for our Soviet allies.

Ladd and Young are attractive and charismatic leads, but the development of their relationship is fairly sketchy, taking a back seat to their characters coping with the dangers of war, and their romance near the film's closing seems perfunctory.

Perhaps it's just as well that while the film is interesting, it's not especially emotionally involving, or the movie would be too difficult to watch, given the body count.

Aside from the war storyline, I was particularly struck by a scene in which Loretta Young's character reads The Lord's Prayer to a mortally wounded Chinese girl and then explicitly discusses belief in Jesus as Savior leading to life after death. That's just not something one sees in modern films. (2020 Update: A reader points out I misremembered this scene and it was actually the 23rd Psalm.  Thank you!)

In fact, rather than simply accepting the moment at face value, I suspect that these days there are those who would fret that the brief sharing of a Christian message was culturally insensitive. Sometimes it seems we've become a nation of P.C. worrywarts -- the very opposite of this movie's blunt attitude. The film certainly got me thinking about various subjects in that regard, especially as its entire point was to sell American audiences on a necessary but imperfect ally.

CHINA was directed by John Farrow, with black and white cinematography by Leo Tover. According to IMDb, Mesa, Arizona, stood in for rural China.

The Frank Butler screenplay was based on the play FOURTH BROTHER by Archibald Forbes. Loretta Young's subdued, road-worn costumes were designed by Edith Head.

The movie run 79 minutes.

CHINA was released on VHS. It has never had a DVD release.

I'm very grateful to my friend Carrie for enabling me to see this movie, which has been on my "viewing wish list" for years.

September 2013 Update: CHINA has just been released on DVD-R in the excellent Universal Vault Series. To date the prints I've seen in this series have been excellent, so this is good news indeed.


Blogger Colin said...

Never seen this one Laura, but since I've recently acquired less than stellar copies of Calcutta and Saigon, it occurred to me that Alan Ladd had something of a mini-career making movies with one word Asian titles.

3:39 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

What you have just done with China is incredibly valuable, putting an ordinary picture into an extraordinary context. I think this is more valuable tha parsing Song of Russia because the specifics, Christianity and American foriegn policy are all clearly in play. Oh, and I agree with every word you've written on this.

4:19 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Colin, that's funny about the one-word Asian titles! I was able to see CALCUTTA last year and enjoyed it. I'll be on the lookout for SAIGON!

Barrylane, thank you so much for your kind feedback, I appreciate it very much. I really enjoy trying to understand films in their historical context, especially films of the '40s. It adds an extra dimension to enjoying a movie!

Best wishes,

6:55 PM  
Blogger redcon1 said...

Laura, just wanted to echo your update about it's DVD release and add it's available for rental now at Classic Flix. I've just added it to my queue. Thanks for the review and recommendation.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Redcon! It's a tough movie, though of course worth seeing -- would be interested to know what you think once you are able to see it. I'm so glad it's now available.

Best wishes,

4:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Comment from Anonymous which was accidentally deleted:

It wasn't "The Lord's Prayer", it was the 23rd Psalm. I totally agree with you, otherwise.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you very much! This is my day for corrections, as I've received a couple today, but I'm always happy to be able to update posts for accuracy. Appreciate it.

Best wishes,

1:46 PM  

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