Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.88.4: CINEMA CHINA, Part 3

The Enduring Revolution

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich ride in separate compartments on the Shanghai Express. ©1932 Paramount Pictures

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich ride in separate compartments on the Shanghai Express. ©1932 Paramount Pictures

The essence of drama is conflict, and China’s conflicted 20th C plays out like a dysfunctional family saga compounded by uninvited foreign guests with bad personal habits: almost irresistible material for novelists and cineastes, although often to the annoyance of historians. A dozen years after the Boxer Rebellion the Manchus were finished and little Pu Yi’s cricket was in for a long hibernation while the hyper-nation set on a meandering course of a shaky republic, regional warlords, incipient communists and nationalists of questionable integrity. Stubborn missionaries and trade legations hung on for the ride that would soon enough be made all the more perilous by those self-anointed “saviors” of the Asian peoples from the Land of the Rising Sun. It was also a dramatis personae that Americans knew little enough about to permit considerable artistic license.

There was also plenty of opportunity for Hollywood to play tantalizingly at the edges of the verboten cross-cultural romance. In Frank Capra’s 1933 Bitter Tea of General Yen the emerging star of Barbara Stanwyck plays American Megan Davis who arrives in Shanghai to marry an American doctor/missionary saving civil war orphans. On a rescue mission of six abandoned children before their wedding there is a riot in Shanghai, Megan gets separated, is knocked unconscious and, when she awakes, is in a train car with a Chinese woman and a mysterious man standing in the shadows. In keeping with Hollywood’s tradition of casting Scandanavian actors in “yellowface,” (and avoiding romantic contact between Asian and Caucasian actors) the Chinese warlord, General Yen is played by Nils Asther, a Dane. Megan is taken to Yen’s palace hideaway, where she rebuffs his romantic advances (but at night dreams of his embraces; permitted in dream sequences?). Although Megan witnesses Yen’s brutality (prisoners are executed by firing squad in the courtyard), she also sees his intelligence and devotion to the traditions and history of his homeland.

Eventually this encounter with the beautiful Western woman he has kidnapped becomes his undoing. He falls in love with someone betrothed to another and his own traditions and customs as well as Hollywood will not allow him to have. A servant leaks information that brings about his downfall, his soldiers leave him, his followers desert, and he is left alone and broken. Megan tries to console the General, even apologizing for the damage that she has caused. But he has no honor left, and in his mind, there is only one way to resolve the situation. In these narratives “somebody’s gotta die.”

Warlords and sultry Western women show up again on director Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express* (1935), a train traveling from Peking to Shanghai as a civil war rages through war-torn China (actually Chatsworth, California, again). Warner Oland (a former Charlie Chan) is one of the passengers, this time as an Eurasian merchant named Henry Chang. One of his lines, as the train is stopped to remove a cow from the tracks, is “You’re in China now, sir, where time and life have no value.” The profession of one of the lady passengers might counter that observation; she is notorious adventuress Shanghai Lily (Marlene Dietrich), and a lady with a reputation of charging for her time, is known as “the White Flower of China.” Years before she had an assignation with British Medical Corps Captain Donald Harvey (Clive Brook), a surgeon, also among the passengers.

Hui Fei (Anna May Wong), a prostitute, as her name confirms, is also along for the ride, so it is almost necessary to morally countervail these wanton women with the Reverend Carmichael (Lawrence Grant) who predictably complains Captain Harvey: “Well, sir, I suppose every train carries its cargo of sin, but this train is burdened with more than its share!” And of Lily in particular: “For the last fortnight, I’ve been attending a man who went out of his mind after spending every penny on her. And that’s not all I know. She’s wrecked a dozen men up and down the China coast.” Harvey, himself still holding a torch for Lily, disapproves of the cleric’s easy judgments.

It turns out that Mr. Chang in actuality is a warlord, who has his rebels ambush and attack the train during the night. One of his top aides has been arrested, so he now takes the passengers as hostages for ransom. When Chang wants Shanghai Lily to join him at his palace as his mistress she rebuffs, claiming she is not doing that sort of thing anymore. Captain Harvey punches Chang in the face to defend her, and is then threatened with being blinded. So apparently it is acceptable then for Chang to rape Hui Fei and keep her imprisoned. But Lily relents and gives herself to Chang to secure Captain Harvey’s release. But things get resolved somewhat when Hui Fei, vengeful over being raped earlier by Chang, stabs him to death in the back, which liberates the Shanghai Express and all the captives to continue their journey to in Shanghai. In the end Captain Harvey and Lily appear reconciled and we can only wonder at the fate of Hui Fei.

By 1958 there was a new impediment to filming Western productions in China, which is why The Inn of the 6th Happiness was filmed in Wales, U.K. and not Wuhan, China. A biopic of British missionary Gladys Aylward (Ingrid Bergman) who finds work helping an older missionary (Athene Seyler) running an inn, she soon begins adopting numerous children, earns the respect of a local community led by an aging mandarin (Robert Donat, in yellowface), and falls in love with a half-Chinese captain (Curd Jurgens, in demi-yellowface), who brings warning of an impending invasion by Japan. Denominational competition between Protestant and Catholic missions in China was mirrored n the screen as well. Several years before The Inn of the 6th Happiness there was The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) with Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm also running an orphanage (before Western adoption became popular). Southern California locations stood in for China.

The production designer achieves a convincing real–life China “look” to film, no doubt helped by the fact that in 1958 few Americans have much of an idea what a Chinese village and countryside really looked like. Nevertheless, most of the authenticity, as far as accuracy to Alyward’s life is concerned ended there. The missionary renounced the film, upset with romantic subplot that Hollywood obviously felt was necessary but had no relationship to her life, and also that she bore no resemblance to Ingrid Bergman (despite help flattering that might have been).

But the final sequence of the film that chronicles the perilous cross – country escape in which Alyward leads over one-hundred children away from the marauding Japanese (with the assistance of Jurgens, who unfortunately never seems to be able to look like anything other than a large Prussian pretending to be Chinese), is a true and gripping account.

The Sand Pebbles (1966), directed by Robert Wise is set back a few years in time, but forward in production features, especially those concerned with casting some real Chinese as Chinese.** But it was made on the eve of the Cultural Revolution in the PRC and, in consequence the Chinese are not “local” since it was shot primarily in Taiwan and Hong Kong. It is 1926 China, when nationalist strong man Chiang-Kai-Shek in power but the Communists threatening it. The U.S. Navy gunboat San Pablo patrols the river to protect the American concession in China, representing American force, but not wanting to provoke an incident where they are vastly outnumbered. Signs greet them at river ports ordering “Yankees Go Home!” One can only wonder how Americans would react if the Chinese engaged in gunboat diplomacy by steaming in the Mississippi or the Hudson and practicing its “repel boarders” drill in its port cities.***

Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) is a new replacement petty officer on board, a somewhat mechanic who tends the engines. Holman’s somewhat free-spirited character not only alienates the Chinese coolies who do all the real work aboard ship (including tending the engine), but also his fellow crewmen, the officers and especially Capt. Collins (Richard Crenna), an old-school Naval Officer seemingly longing for opportunity to play the hero. Holman upsets the routine.

The Communists manufacture an incident (a sailor, Frenchy, impregnated a Chinese girl) to overthrow Chiang, during they kill the girl and torture Holman’s assistant, played by Mako. Holman mercifully shoots Mako to death as he is subjected to the death of a thousand cuts, in mock crucifixion. The Chinese, with a few exceptions, come off as devious, cruel, and politically out of control, but perhaps these characteristics would apply to any country in the throes of decades of revolution.

Eventually the San Pablo is sent up river to rescue American missionaries. Once again the fractious, shifting Chinese politics of the period intervenes. There are well produced battle scenes one the way up, providing Collins opportunity for heroics. But at the mission, where Holman meets up again with missionary daughter Shirley Eckert (Candice Bergen), Holman himself is tragically heroic, shot, and dies wondering, “What the hell happened?” That statement might well stand as an allegorical title for anyone caught in the maelstrom that was Chinese politics from the Boxer rebellion to 1949 (not that it ended on that date either).

Many countries have Civil War in their history but not that many good chance to permute internal revolution, civil war, and foreign invasion. Libraries of books have been written on this period in China’s history, but we will take a small slice of it from and angle that may not have been previously addressed. One of the curiosities of portrayals of this era in Western film contrast somewhat with the cultural practice in traditional China of placing a lesser value on female offspring.

Yet, paradoxically, there is almost a sub-genre in Western films that takes a rather different perspective. We have already addressed above, in the Inn of the 6th Happiness, a story of a Western woman, based on real events, rescuing Chinese orphans from the marauding Japanese army in the 1930s. Since that movie was made in 1958 the Rape of Nanking (1937-38) was public knowledge. But China, starring Alan Ladd, Loretta Young and seemingly every English-speaking Chinese girl in Southern California in addition to male Chinese regulars Richard Loo and Philip Ahn, was shot in Mesa, Arizona in 1943. There is mention of Nanking and other references to Japanese army atrocities in the script, but at one point Young calls Nanking “Nanchow” and it is left in, perhaps because the war was still on and propaganda trumped accuracy.

But some of these film stories, as in the case of Alyward, were based on real persons and events. The heroic exploits of American mistress at Ginling Girls College in Nanking, Minnie Vautrin had also become public. No doubt, stories about innocent young girls being raped and murdered or in imminent danger of such a horrible fate, had both high propaganda and dramatic value.

However, like the Holocaust in Europe in WWII, the grim narrative shows little sign of weakening over the many decades since the actual events, perhaps because of generations unborn at the time, perhaps also because there are more contemporary propaganda motivations.**** Another escape of orphaned Chinese children from the Japanese led by a Westerner is recounted in The Children of Huang Shi (2008) in which, in 1938, young British journalist, George Hogg, who with the assistance of a courageous Australian nurse (played by Radha Mitchell). Filmed in China and Melbourne it stars Jonathan Ryhs Meyers as Hogg, and real Chinese star actors Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. A different take on children orphaned (although temporarily) by the Japanese invasion appears in Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun(1987). This is fundamentally a wartime coming-of-age story in which the central character is a precocious eleven-year-old English boy named Jim (Christian Bale) living with his parents in the suburban British quarter of Shanghai’s International Settlement until the Japanese invasion of Shanghai separates them. Although the subject is epic this movie unfortunately seems like another version of Spielberg’s ET, with Jim in the role of the alien, the extraterrestrial, trying to reach home from a war-torn land.

[To be  continued]

© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.20.2014)

*It was remade as Night Plane from Chungking (1943) and as Peking Express (1951). It was also shot in Chatsworth, CA.
**And one Japanese as a Chinese: Mako (Makoto Iwamatsu) as “Po-Han”
*** Moreover, I don’t think that Americans could even imagine another country demanding concessions of land within our cities, operating by their own laws and even forbidding Americans entry, which is essentially what several Western powers arrogated to themselves in Chinese cities in the 19th Century. 
****Chinese memories of Nanking and other atrocities (Unit 731) remain and flare up, especially when there are official denials, or Chinese schoolbooks omit or misrepresent the history.