SOLDIER OF FORTUNE unlimbers as a tailor-made vehicle for Clark Gable, the 1955 Cold War adventure giving ‘The King’ a role in the mold of Rhett Butler; a rogue with a heart, charming ladies, commanding obedience from men and outrunning blockades. This time the clinches, punches and chases are not in the American South of the 1860s, but the Hong Kong left bobbing in the wake another civil war, a century later.
‘Jane Hoyt’ (Susan Hayward) arrives in Hong Kong to find out what happened when her reckless photojournalist husband (Gene Barry) went snooping across the water separating the Crown Colony from mainland Red China. Local ex-pat riffraff either ignore or pester her, and police inspector ‘Merryweather’ (Michael Rennie) is stymied, so she turns to someone everyone respects, for good or ill, shipping kingpin (smuggler) ‘Hank Lee’ (Gable), an American ex-serviceman who’s managed to set up a private empire in the region. Will the two see eye-to-eye, then see into each others eyes, arms and etc.? That’s kind of a duh!, but the measure of this sort of wishful daydream stuff is how well they put it across. In pro hands here, they succeed. Damn the logic, full rule-breaking ahead.
Well-directed by Edward Dmytryk, it moves along a well-oiled 96 minutes, satisfyingly ticking off the ingredients of atmosphere, topicality, intrigue, romance and action. If the plentiful number of colorful secondary characters and Hank Lee’s backstory seem like they came from a novel, it’s because they did: adventurer-author Ernest K. Gann wrote the screenplay from his book, which came from basing himself in Hong Kong for a year to drink it in and collect material. Due to politics, setting and exotica in general, the region was a cinematic target in ’55, with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, The Left Hand Of God (also directed by Dmytryk) and Blood Alley putting movie gods in the line of fire and flings. *
A child custody dispute kept Hayward (37 and on a roll) from going abroad, so her scenes were studio-shot in California and deftly integrated with the five weeks of location filming, much of which included Gable, Rennie and others. Leo Tover’s cinematography takes in the long-gone vistas (no forest of skyscrapers then) around the stunningly set city, in full CinemaScope glory. Much of the fun with overseas opuses from the era was the travelogue aspect, seeing places we’d always dreamed about; beyond their dramatic qualities, many of these oldies hold a strong sentimental pull, as their once-fresh locations have changed drastically since. Sigh…
Nothing stays the same (except for closed minds), and Clark Gable at 53 obviously wasn’t the spry dasher from China Seas (1936), but he still emanated power, confidence and authority to spare, whether blithely sizing up Hayward (“handful” comes to mind), or convincing, ordering around and/or beating up slimeballs in the supporting cast, then manning a 20mm cannon when it comes time to fight a Red gunboat. Don’t be weenie enough to tell me you wouldn’t like to let go with one of these things—somewhere, sometime, on some deserving subject. **
Michael Rennie, 45, was a firm second-tier fixture in the Fox firmament at the time: he has a nice role here, and others getting in their moments of color include the able likes of Tom Tully, Alex D’Arcy, Richard Loo (a swell turn), Anna Sten, Russell Collins, Jack Kruschen and Leo Gordon.
Produced for $2,515,000, it settled comfortably at 35th place that well-stocked year, grossing $7,900,000. With Soo Yong, Frank Tang, Mel Welles (what a character!), Frances Fong, Robert Burton and James Hong.
* Ernest K. Gann—aviator, author, sailor, conservationist—wrote some nifty stuff, mostly about flying (The High And The Mighty, Island In The Sky, Fate Is The Hunter), but fiction allows for flights of fancy. That an American like Hank Lee—however charming, capable or conniving—could in a few years out-play not just Mao’s victorious Commies, but the native-born triads is a bit of a stretch. Read some James Clavell—“Tai-Pan”,”Noble House” and ponder the joss.
** In the words of director Dymtryk, after he and Gable stopped over in Tokyo en route to Hong Kong—“We went to a theater which only had women as performers. After watching the show for a little while, we were taken backstage by the manager to meet the star of the production. She was in a Kabuki outfit, and her face was all made up with rice powder. She looked at Gable, who towered over her. He held out his hand, and she took it, and tears streamed out of her eyes down through her makeup on both cheeks, making little rivers right down to her chin. All she did was look at him and cry. Now obviously a man who has that kind of thing happen to him must know that he affects people, that he affects women. He also affected men, I must say, because he was a man’s man, and I never knew a man’s man like Gable.”