15 December 2014 | EdgarST
Now that Panamanian cinema has had its first screen hit with "Historias del canal" (2014), many of us have realized that there is indeed an endless amount of stories to tell about the Panama Canal, not only during the 20th century when the United States helped the Department of Panamá to separate from Colombia in order to build and control the canal, but from the day someone visualized its route, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (I do not know who did, but it probably happened in the 16th century) to the frustrated attempt by the French Canal Company, which was the reason why the word "Panamá" was synonym of "evil eye" among the French, due to the large amounts of money lost by those who invested in the work of the viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps. Consequently different sectors of the American film industry began to film those stories: when the sound era began, while "Marie Galante" (1934) was made by Fox, minor studios as Grand National Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation also released their own products. PRC made the war thriller "South of Panama" (1941), which has a small cult; and from Grand National came two: "White Legion" (1936) and "Panama Patrol", good examples of those curious fabrications. Written and directed by Karl Brown, who was once D.W. Griffith's ex-assistant, "White Legion" is a bad melodrama about the struggle of Americans who were in charge of the construction, to control yellow fever, a disease that had already decimated thousands of workers of the French Canal Company. It was produced with five pennies by Benjamin F. Zeidman (check his biography in Wikipedia), an enterprising businessman who had joined the film industry when he was 14 years old. However Zeidman did not consider that to properly tell Brown's story he needed more economic resources, so the cash limitation became insuperable evidence. The lush humid tropical flora of the zone, the magnitude of the mechanical extraction of soil being done, the consolidation of American military power in the future Canal Zone and the copious documentation of scientific research of yellow fever, were ignored and turned instead into an unfortunate studio-bound production of small, cheap sets. But if the low budget was a handicap, there were other elements against the production. First, Brown's screenplay is loaded with long dialog scenes (one or two with a couple of witty lines) and it is betrayed by the silly purpose of making a propaganda version of the scientific work, in favor of an American middle-age hunk doctor (Ian Keith), with a highly unlikely solution to end the plague. Then, Brown's mise-en- scene mostly consists of fixed, endless, single takes, in spite of cinematographer Harry Jackson's efforts to add shadows and props to decorate the frame. And last and worst of all (especially for a Panamanian audience) Brown turned to tired Mexican stereotypes to represent Panamá, and homogenize everything "Latino" into a single mold, even when they try to add some "local flavor" by using the Panamanian folk tune "El tambor de la alegría" in a fiesta sequence. A year after the release of "White Legion" South African scientist Max Theiler succeeded in developing a vaccine for yellow fever, but Zeidman and Grand National did not give up and re-released their turkey with the sensationalist title, "The Hell- Hole Named Panama".