Friday, September 01, 2017

"China" (1943)

Alan Ladd's character in China, David Jones, was a direct inspiration for some guy you may have heard of named Indiana Jones.  I kid you not.  David Jones doesn't carry a whip, but he wears the same dark fedora, leather jacket, open-at-the-collar shirt, and khaki trousers as Indy.  And he has a similar character arc as Indy's in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), going from an opportunistic loner to someone willing to risk his life to help others and stop the villains.  Also, of course, they share a last name.  I'm a pretty big Indiana Jones fan, and Alan Ladd and Harrison Ford are two of my absolute favorite actors, so I love this fact :-)

(Alan Ladd as David Jones; Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones)
But China is no swashbuckling treasure hunt.  It's a wartime drama, one of those meant to bolster American morale and encourage audiences to support their allies.  Today, parts of it come off as hokey propaganda, but I find it no more rah-rah than, say, Casablanca (1942).

David Jones (Alan Ladd) and his pal Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix) are profiteers who sell American oil to the Japanese in mid-1941.  World War II is on, but America hasn't entered the war yet, so Americans can come and go in China as they please, and sell their goods to whomever they wish.

David Jones is one of those characters Ladd excelled at.  He's sour and cynical and doesn't give a hoot about anyone except himself and his sidekick.  And he delights in telling people as much.  Ladd played just such a character in This Gun for Hire (1942) and it catapulted him to stardom, so it makes sense that he'd go on to play similar guys in many films during his career.  From Lucky Jordan (1942) to O.S.S. (1946) to Branded (1950), Ladd repeatedly convinced audiences to root for an unlikable character by showing how those characters were actually good, caring, nice people under their snarling exteriors.

David and Johnny are trying to reach Shanghai to pick up their next load of gasoline when they encounter Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), a Chinese-born American teacher trying to shepherd a dozen of her female college students to safety.  She wants to use his truck to get them to a safe zone where they can continue studying and become the kinds of leaders China needs to become thoroughly modernized.

David, as I said, is one of those tough guys sticks his neck out for nobody.  But his buddy Johnny is completely different -- he picks up orphaned Chinese babies off the street and wants to adopt them, tries to rescue David from his own selfishness, and is generally the sweetest guy imaginable.  Plus, he knows how to milk a cow.

David agrees to let the girls ride in his truck as far as a monastery where they can take refuge.  Along the way, they stop at the home of Tan Ying (Marianne Quon), one of the students.  It's a simple farm where they can rest and get milk for the baby Johnny rescued.  The girls take a bath in the river and, while shampooing each others hair, have a jolly time insulting David for being so greedy and selfish and annoying.  They don't know he's shaving nearby and can hear them.

David's conscience starts to bother him, but nope, he's a tough guy.  He's not going to be roped into helping these strangers, not even though he's been very attracted to Carolyn Grant since they first met in a downpour.

But then Tan Ying jumps off the truck and runs home.  When her absence is discovered, David and Carolyn go back for her alone, leaving Johnny and the other girls at the monastery for safety.  They hope against hope that they'll reach the farm before the advancing Japanese army does.  When the movie was made, the Nanking Massacre was fairly recent history, and everyone watching the movie when it first came out would know why Carolyn is so anxious to keep her female students out of Japanese hands.  (They even name-check Nanking at one point to drive this home for us.)

Alas, when they arrive at the farm, everyone but Tan Ying are dead.  She's inside the house screaming, and when David barges in, he finds three Japanese soldiers with her.  The word 'rape' is never mentioned, but it doesn't need to be -- we all know what's happening.  David's got a machine gun, and he orders the soldiers into a different room, leaving Carolyn to comfort Tan Ying, who is still screaming.  Then he guns down those soldiers with grim, implacable determination.

David and Carolyn bring Tan Ying back to the monastery, where Carolyn and the other girls comfort her with tender care and words from the Bible.  I was really impressed that, when Tan Ying asks Carolyn if heaven exists, Carolyn answers that yes, God promises that everyone who believes in his son as their savior will live eternally.  It's possibly the most theologically correct moment I've seen in any movie that doesn't revolve around religious themes.

Meanwhile, David and Johnny stand around outside smoking cigarettes and trying not to show how deeply bothered they are by what happened to Tan Ying.  It's a quiet, nuanced moment, one of my favorites in the whole film.  Neither of them says much aloud, but their thoughts are easy to follow.  Lovely acting going on there from both of them.

David's now fully committed to helping the Chinese guerrilla fighters stop the Japanese advance.  He and Johnny help steal a bunch of dynamite, which necessitates Alan Ladd running around shirtless AND barefoot AND getting soaking wet.  Um, yeah, not really hard to figure out why this is one of my favorite Ladd movies.

Alan Ladd was a swimming and diving champion in high school, and missed making the 1932 Olympic swim team when an injury forced him to drop out of competition.  So he tends to end up swimming and diving in a lot of his movies.  It's easy to see why directors would want to make the most out of his physique -- he was in top shape and proud of it.  I'm always happy, though, when the story line provides a legitimate reason for him to wander around shirtless for a while, like this one does.  Sometimes it feels like they shoehorned in a shirtless scene just because they thought it would make the movie more popular.

ANYWAY!!!  After returning to the monastery with the dynamite, David and Carolyn have a serious conversation about how they're starting to fall in love, and how when you're in a love, a few minutes of bliss can be enough to last you the rest of your life.

The camera fades to black, then pans in on the two of them cuddling in the back of David's truck.  Although they're fully clothed and the side panels are rolled up a bit, exposing them to the view of anyone walking past, I think we're supposed to assume they've made love.  And then we get treated to absolutely my favorite scene in the whole movie.  I call it The Flirting Scene.

I've watched Alan Ladd in twenty different movies over the past eighteen months.  I've seen him play guys falling in love over and over and over.  I've even say him play a guy falling in love with a girl played by Loretta Young before, in And Now Tomorrow (1944).  But I have never seen him flirt this cutely.  He's just nineteen kinds of adorable here.  (I know -- I counted.)

I've read that Ladd and Young weren't exactly pals on either of the two films they made together, and if that's true, then holy cow, are they both great actors.  Because they pull off one of the cutest flirtation scenes I've ever seen, in any movie.  This first time I watched this, I had to rewind and rewatch it three times, it was just so astonishingly enjoyable.

And then there's a bunch of excitement at the end.  I've done a lot of spoiling things already here, but if you don't want to know how it ends, skip to below the screencap that says "The End."

The Chinese guerrillas want to use the dynamite to stop a Japanese convoy from getting through the mountains.  David volunteers to set the charges.  Carolyn comes along to provide moral support or drive the truck or something.  Really it's just so they can say a touching farewell.

And one more kiss -- that's a good reason for her to come along too.

So um, yeah, this is the part of the movie where we all start to have a really bad feeling about David's chances of making it to the end credits alive.  Because the Japanese convoy arrives before they've got the charges set.  So he leaves one of the Chinese guerrillas to finish up and heads down to stop the convoy by himself.

He assumes that, because he's got an American passport and the correct papers for traipsing around China undeterred, he'll have no problem stalling these Japanese soldiers.  He might even manage to get away from them before the dynamite goes off.  But they have news for him -- their planes just bombed the American navy to smithereens at Pearl Harbor.  All Americans are now their enemies, and will be until Japan succeeds in conquering the US the way they're conquering China.

David is not amused.

But he knows he'll get the last laugh, at least on this particular Japanese general.

David gives a stirring speech about how little guys like him are all going to stand up together and fight against the forces of tyranny and save the world, etc.

He knows by looking at his watch that he should have skedaddled long ago, but he keeps that staff car there anyway.

And then the whole mountainside blows up, right after David gets himself shot for mouthing off to that Japanese general, and a zillion tons of rocks slide down and bury them all.  Johnny and Carolyn drive away in David's truck, looking dazed and making bland remarks about what a nice guy he was.  I would prefer if they just rode off in silence, but it's a minor quibble about a movie that I thoroughly enjoy otherwise.

Is this movie family friendly?  Honestly, I wouldn't show it to kids.  There's a lot of serious stuff going on, and even though the rape is never shown or called by its name, the girl screaming is unsettling.  There's also quite a bit of violence.

You can listen to the Lux Radio Theater version of China here on YouTube if you're into classic radio like I am.

This is my first entry for the Alan Ladd Blogathon I am hosting all this weekend!  Visit the blogathon roster here to find links to the other participants' posts as well.  If you don't, Alan and I will glare at you in a disappointed way, like this:


  1. Yeah, no idea why you would put this in your favorites list. I've seen parts of this movie, including the ending, but not the whole thing. One of these days! I'm very fond of William Bendix too.

    This was a fun post with which to start out the day, and I particularly like that last screenshot.

    1. DKoren, yeah, it's totally mysterious.

      (You'll laugh -- Cowboy came home and told me I'd gone too far this time. He was reading this on his lunch break at work and had to quick scroll down past the beefcake pics so no one would walk past his desk and wonder what he was reading. I busted up!)

      William Bendix is just awesome in everything. And thanks to him and Alan being best buddies for years, I've seen him in quite a bit lately. He's very good at pulling off very different characters, too. I mean, he's sweet and gentle in this (oh man, I just realized I bet he's an ISFJ here), and then he's just SOOOOOOOO horrible and creepy in Glass Key, and then he's completely different again in Blue Dahlia, and... yeah, Bendix is awesome.

  2. Hi Rachel. Excellent post. You've no idea how much your review has made me want to see this one. I love Indiana Jones too and from that photo it is not hard to see the similarities between Alan's character and Indy. Shirtless Alan is even more reason to check this one out. ;-) William Bendix is awesome, one of the all time great character actors. Maddy

    1. Thanks, Maddy! I hope you get a chance to see this, because it's quite good.

      And yeah, Alan's shirtless for like fifteen minutes...

      The more I see of William Bendix, the more I'm impressed by him!

  3. It fascinates me, that Alan Ladd got such a big kick out of playing cynical, world-weary characters in this way--because he doesn't LOOK (just at first glance) like the right type for those roles at all?? He has such an innocent, "boyish" face, I wouldn't have pegged him for that kind . . . But I suppose the contrast (between his looks and his character) probably made him all the more appealing.

    1. Jessica, I'm not sure he got a big kick out of playing these characters, per se. He certainly was good at them because, as you say, his innocent face and sweet, boyish air contrasted so sharply with the cynical attitude of these characters, which made them very intriguing. But I'm not sure he pursued these characters particularly -- the Studio System was in full swing still in the 1940s, and so once you had a contract, a lot of times they just told you, "You're going to be in this movie" and you did it. Once he hit it big with This Gun for Hire, Paramount wanted him to do more of the same thing to keep bringing in the box office returns.

      But I do know that Alan's Ladd's agent, Sue Carol (whom he married in 1942) worked hard to get him cast in This Gun for Hire because she felt it would be a perfect role for him and would be his big break. And she was right on both counts, obviously.

      Once Alan was no longer under contract to a studio in the 1950s and could choose his own roles, he proved to be about as bad as most actors and judging what movies would be good for him (or any good at all). He played quite a few more blatantly heroic characters later in his career, so I'm guessing he didn't really dig being type-cast in these roles. In real life, he reportedly was quiet, somewhat shy, and mild-mannered. He just played tough an surly really well.

      (And that was a lot more answer than you were expecting...)

    2. Hm. I gotcha . . . so it wasn't that HE specifically enjoyed these rules, just that SOMEBODY thought (correctly) that he'd be very good at them. I guess they noticed the contrast and realized how particularly effective it would be.

      (Haha! That's okay--I love long answers! I'm a historian, after all :) )

  4. Sounds like an interesting movie. I keep thinking I need to join netflix and if they have this one I might finally break down and subscribe... Good review.

    1. Quiggy, I could see you liking this one a lot. It's got lots of nice action and a solid enough plot line.

      I don't have Netflix either -- I've thought of joining so often, but instead I got Amazon Prime and watch stuff on their Instant Video service.

  5. Hi Hamlette!

    This is the post of yours that first got my attention - I was researching "China" to write my own review, and found yours - and was delighted to learn about the Indy connection. (Should that be written The Indy Connection?)

    I ultimately concluded, after watching China through three times,(with maybe some extra re-watching of some key scenes, like the shirtless diving scene, I dunno why that kept happening...) it's a pretty good movie, with some interesting 'stuff' attached to it, for example off the top of my head, how there are so many Asian-American actors, how it might have had the greatest number of explosions in a Hollywood movie filmed during American participation in it probably passes the Bechdel test, too, if that's something you're interested it...

    I distinctly remember worrying during my first watch-through about William Bendix's character's lifespan, thinking he was so nice that the only way Loretta Young wouldn't 'pick' him was if he was bumped off! (I wasn't sold on Jones-Grant chemistry, but these things do depend to an extent on the viewpoint of the viewer, and I agree absolutely that if it's true Ladd and Young did not care for each other overmuch then their scenes together are a great example of professionalism and talent overcoming personal feelings.)

    We seem to differ in enjoyment of a few scenes - I found the biblical discussion a bit jarring, because it seemed to me to come out of nowhere, until I did a little research which leads me to believe that Loretta Young refused to participate in a scene that was initially in the script on religious grounds, and I suspect this one was substituted instead - I'm not saying there's anything 'wrong' with it, I'm just saying that for me it was a bit of a surprise.

    About surprises - even though I went into it aware that this was a war propaganda movie and the Japanese were not going to be nice or treated nicely, the gunning down of the three Japanese soldiers really does have an impact, doesn't it?

    It did bother me a bit towards the end when the Chinese characters, despite being competent guerrillas up until then, are suddenly 'incapable' of setting off dynamite (or even just driving a truck) themselves. I know that it's "because plot requires all of our main characters to be there at the end" but it would have been nice if the scriptwriters had come up with something else to get everyone together there on the mountainside. Why couldn't Grant just want to come along? Anyway.

    For the record, I also re-watched the end speech from Jones a coupla'extra times. It's a bit corny, sure, but who cares, it's good, too!

    I thank you for this post! I have since suggested watching a China - Indy double bill to a few people. No joy yet, but I remain hopeful that I, or others, can at some time arrange it to be so!

    -VT Dorchester

    1. VT, how fun that it was this post that brought you over here :-)

      You know, I never thought about it before, but you're right! They really didn't cast white actors for the Asian roles. And that was not very typical of the 1940s. Interesting! And yeah, it definitely passes the Bechdel test. Not something I tend to care hugely about, as my movie tastes run strongly to more male-oriented films, but it's nice to be able to point that out to those who do care :-)

      I also worried about Bendix's character the whole time, my first viewing! He was much too nice and was obviously going to die off heroically, giving Ladd's character the final boost over into good-guy territory. I'm so glad they didn't take that route!

      It's been months since I saw this, so I don't remember for sure, but was the reason Jones drove the truck and set the fuses that he was the only one who could? Or did he volunteer because he was bent on making up for his past apathy? Anyway, minor quibble, as you say.

      A China-Raiders double bill would be a splendid idea!


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