CHINA, a fairly brutal WW2 actioner, was a sizable hit in 1943, the $7,100,000 gross ranking it the year’s 26th most attended feature. Though the U.S. entered the war with a shocking bang in December of ’41, this crowd-churner reminded audiences that Japan’s aggression and accompanying atrocities had been going on for a decade in China. It’s not just a ‘Why We Fight’ flick as much as a ‘Who We’re Fighting With and What For’ pitch. Loretta Young had long been a sincere backer of China (once a humanitarian cause for a lot of Americans) and she signed on to star with Paramount’s new sensation Alan Ladd, who was off to the Army as soon as shooting wrapped. While Loretta and Alan didn’t get along well during filming, China‘s public success was a big leap upwards for newly popular Ladd, paired again with good friend William Bendix. The picture, which may have cost as much as $2,000,000, used every nearly Chinese actor available in Hollywood, so reliables like Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong and Sammy Tong are in on it. *
WW2 China, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Cynical American oil profiteer ‘David Jones’ (Ladd) doesn’t care who he sells to, even with ample evidence of the Japanese Army’s ravaging of the country. His genial buddy ‘Johnny Sparrow’ (Bendix) is more affected by what he sees. On a run to Shanghai their truck is commandeered by schoolteacher ‘Carolyn Grant’ (Young) and her Chinese guerrilla fighter associates, who ‘convince’ the guys to take a group of female students to safety. Japanese forces close in. Time for the self-centered Jones to pick a side.
Directed by hardcase John Farrow, who’d helped Bendix breakout with Wake Island, it opens with a flourish, a lengthy tracking shot following Bendix through an elaborate city-set under evacuation and bombardment. Throughout, Leo Tover’s excellent camerawork is a strong component and Victor Young adds flavor with his music score. Farrow doesn’t stint on harshness (such as was allowed at the time) when it comes to depicting the savage nature of the fight. Mercy not big on the menu.
Frank Butler’s script allows devout Catholic and China-booster Young to make a pitch for salvation (whatever), as well as lecture on China’s hopeful future and what a great guy Chiang Kai-shek is (oh, sister!), and gives likable Bendix a few chances to wax homesick over cows back in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and just be a swell pal in general. The smart-ass stuff, then, gets loaded onto anti-hero Ladd: “I forgot how difficult American women could be” (would get a laff back then, today the theater would burn). He also fires off the standard mid-war kill’em bait. After machine-gunning three enemy troops following their rape of a Chinese girl and murder of a baby he reasons “I blew ’em to bits against a wall and I’ve got no more feelings about them if they were flies on a manure heap. As a matter of fact, I…kind of enjoyed it.”
Ladd, Young and Bendix deliver ably, the action is fierce, there’s a war to be won. With Marianne Quon, Iris Wong, Soo Yong. 79 minutes.
* Wobbling and bleeding, U.S. ally China, which actually soaked up most of the Japanese ground forces, didn’t get much movie play during the war. 1942’s programmer Lady From Chungking gets some good fan reviews, mostly for the star, Anna May Wong, who also headlined the C-budget Bombs Over Burma that same year. Other low-tier items were A Yank On The Burma Road, again from ’42 and the following year’s Night Plane From Chungking. The well-known (because of John Wayne) 1942 actioner Flying Tigers managed to be set there and barely show any Chinese. The main entry in the subset would be 1944s expensive, high-profile Dragon Seed, based on a Pearl Buck novel, starring Katherine Hepburn, Walter Huston and their now-criticized makeup.