Hollywood did not make a lot of films about the China component of World War II. When they did, they usually focused on Americans, with the Chinese appearing as supporting characters. (There are hardly any Chinese with speaking parts in John Wayne's FLYING TIGERS, for instance.) Anna May Wong made two war films, THE LADY FROM CHUNGKING and BOMBS OVER BURMA, in which she starred as a Chinese patriot leading resistance efforts, both in 1942 and both extremely low-budget. They're worth seeking out, chiefly for her performances, but I've never seen a decent print of either and don't know if one even exists.
John Farrow's CHINA (1943) is different from other films I've seen about the war in China. It foregrounds a trio of Americans, one female and two male, but the rest of the cast is nearly all Chinese and many of them have significant speaking parts. Even more importantly, the Chinese are proactive and drive the resistance efforts, with the two American men forced to go along, first reluctantly and then wholeheartedly. There are extended scenes of the Chinese conferring among themselves. This was extremely rare in Hollywood. Four of the five preeminent Asian-American actors in Hollywood at the time are in this film: Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Victor Sen Yung, and Benson Fong. Only Keye Luke is missing. There are many Chinese actresses in the film as well.
The action takes place in 1941, just before Pearl Harbor, and the plot involves the flight of refugees from a bombed Chinese town in a transport truck driven by an American oil exporter, Davy Jones (Alan Ladd), who's been supplying gasoline to the Japanese and is eager to get to Shanghai to secure another deal. An American teacher, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), has a large group of female students with her and prefers to go to Chengdu where the girls will presumably be safer. Eventually a band of well-armed Chinese guerrillas show up and essentially take over, dictating to Jones and his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), what route they're going to take. After witnessing an atrocity committed by the Japanese, Jones decides to fight alongside the guerrillas and participates in two major confrontations with the Japanese.
The film acknowledges Japanese atrocities committed in China with a reference to Nanking early on and a scene where three Japanese soldiers descend on a farmhouse and kill the occupants, leaving alive only a teenage girl whom they proceed to rape. This is presented as frankly as was possible at the time and it's unmistakable what has happened in the house. If the country wasn't at war, the scene would have been censored, but standards were relaxed during the war to allow for scenes like this that would outrage the audience and pump up their fighting spirit.
From a purely cinematic standpoint, the film is quite remarkable for other reasons. The opening sequence is one long, intricate tracking shot through a Chinese town as it's being bombed, with the camera following William Bendix as he rushes through the town, looking for Ladd, with debris falling around him, and stopping to pick up a baby crying on its mother's corpse. This sequence is filmed on an elaborate backlot set. The shot continues, thanks to an invisible cut, into a building shot on a studio interior, and then out again, thanks to another invisible cut. Director Farrow often employed extensive tracking shots, putting him in the company of such directors as Max Ophuls and, on occasion, Sam Fuller, Orson Welles, and Otto Preminger. Yet, because his work was seen as formula studio fare rather than that of an "auteur," Farrow has never gotten the critical reputation he deserved.
The two big action sequences in the film are masterfully shot. One, filmed entirely on the studio backlot at night, involves a raft trip across a river by Ladd, Bendix, Ahn and the resistance fighters to the Japanese camp to steal dynamite, erupting in a firefight when the Japanese discover them. Later, they set up dynamite charges along a mountain pass and have to climb up and place the charges in time to stop the Japanese advance. This was partly shot on location somewhere in California and is quite a suspenseful and spectacular sequence. Some of the Chinese girls on the trip participate in this mission.
CHINA was Ladd's fourth starring role—after THIS GUN FOR HIRE, THE GLASS KEY and LUCKY JORDAN. There's a touch of the GUN FOR HIRE killer about him, particularly in the early scenes where he's pretty contemptuous of the people he's asked to help. But he softens along the way, particularly in his tender scenes with Loretta Young. He's also a fierce fighter in the two big action scenes. At one point, he overhears the Chinese girls talking about him and they clearly think ill of him. One of the girls notices him and comes over to apologize and then asks him when he's going to kiss Miss Grant. She explains that she's seen numerous American movies and the hero is always kissing someone or shooting someone, sometimes both. It's quite a charming scene and the young actress, Marianne Quon, is quite good. It's a notable sequence for the way it frames the American hero in a third world country as someone who's not respected or admired, but actively distrusted. He has to earn their respect and trust in the course of the film. They're not working for him. He, in essence, is working for them. In Hollywood films like this, that was quite unusual.
Today, September 3, 2013, marks the centennial of Alan Ladd's birth. I've enjoyed the majority of the films of his that I've seen and would argue that CHINA is one of the best. For some reason this film never played on TV when I was growing up and I didn't get the chance to see it until I purchased a used copy on VHS from Amazon.
13 out of 13 found this helpful