THE MOUNTAIN ROAD takes an ethics & ambition challenged U.S. Army Major (James Stewart) and his demolition squad down a refugee-clogged, bandit-plagued exit through a rugged piece of Eastern China in 1944, blowing up airfields, installations, ammo dumps and bridges ahead of the advancing Japanese.
Stewart’s officer lets power affect his judgment as he deals with his lack of comprehension, let alone understanding, of China’s swirl of characters, causes and casualties.
Filming in a spray of rugged Arizona locations, employing a large number of extras, director Daniel Mann stages several well-arranged action sequences, including—since it’s a journey laced with demolition—some spectacular displays of loud and extensive pyrotechnics. A relationship with an American-educated widow (Lisa Lu) complicates things further. Stewart’s fine (it’s one of his less-than-likable characters) while newcomer Glenn Corbett gets a sympathetic role and features in one of the scripts most dramatic and tragic episodes. Frank Silvera plays a Chinese colonel, another in a long string of his ethnicity-hopping assignments.
Cinematography by Burnett Guffey, music score by Jerome Moross. With Harry Morgan (his sixth time with Stewart), Mike Kellin, James Best, Rudy Bond, Frank Maxwell, Eddie Firestone, Alan Baxter, Leo Chen, Peter Cheng and P.C. Lee. Downbeat and lacking the allure of color, it came in a distant 82nd of the years earners. 102 minutes.
* Authentic war hero James Stewart appeared in just two movies in that genre, this the only one in which he portrayed a combat soldier (in 1950’s Malaya he played a reporter). After his harrowing experiences in action as a pilot during WW2, he disdained war films for their lack of realism, but must have felt differently about how the script (written by Alfred Hayes) handled author Theodore H. White’s take on the Far East fiasco/es and how director Mann, with a proven track record, might manage the project.
** Journalist/historian Theodore H. White was most famous for his series of “The Making Of A President” books, but before that he was an old “Asia hand” from the 40s, writing for ‘Time’ and getting front-row disillusion about erstwhile American ally Chiang Kai-shek and the unfathomable corruption of Nationalist China. His 1946 bestseller “Thunder Out Of China” and 1978 memoir “In Search Of History: A Personal Adventure” are well worth reading for their insights into the backstory behind looming catastrophes. He wrote “The Mountain Road” in 1958. His dismay over American meddling in the East grew over the years, and the Vietnam horror further helped prompt his comment that “the reality of the twenty-five-year-long American record in Asia was that of genuine good will exercised in mass killing…..we had no business there.” A-men.