I’ve been on a World War II kick lately, seeing lots of movies and documentaries, with an emphasis on the war in the Pacific and the war in China. I watched “The Battle of China” (1944), the sixth film in the Why We Fight series, and followed up with FLYING TIGERS (1942), the John Wayne film about the famed unit of volunteer American pilots who fought the Japanese in defense of China well before the U.S. entered the war. This led to two films in my collection that were among the very few postwar Hollywood films to focus on the war in China–CHINA DOLL (1958) and THE MOUNTAIN ROAD (1960). The two films offer contrasting portrayals of Chinese women. I’ll deal with MOUNTAIN ROAD first, because it took great pains to avoid the usual formulaic approach of Hollywood war films. It’s about an American demolition crew working to blow up roads and bridges that the Japanese might use in their advance through China. There are eight men in it, driving four trucks and led by Major Baldwin, an engineer who had requested this assignment because he wanted to have at least one command on his belt before the war ended. He’s played by James Stewart as an ordinary American, a builder who’s put in with other American working joes in the interior of a country they know nothing about. He’s not used to having the power that comes with leading such a crew and making decisions that impact so many lives—there are hundreds of Chinese refugees seen constantly flowing by as they flee the Japanese—and he comes to relish that power. He picks up a Chinese officer, Colonel Kwan (Frank Silvera), to act as interpreter and liaison with local Chinese units they encounter, along with a Chinese woman, Madame Sue-Mei Hung (Lisa Lu), an officer’s widow seeking transport to the same destination as the Americans. Madame Hung was educated in America and speaks fluent English.
Major Baldwin has a series of conversations with Madame Hung, in which they discuss China and the difficulties faced in trying to unite the country. He begins to develop romantic feelings for her, expressed chiefly when he holds her tightly to him under a truck to avoid falling debris from one of his demolition jobs. She seems open to the idea but never appears to actually reciprocate. As their journey progresses, it becomes clear that the biggest threat to them comes from the Chinese themselves. One of the Americans is killed by a hungry mob when he tries, out of pure altruism, to distribute extra food from one of their trucks to the villagers. Later, another driver is sent ahead in one of the trucks to deliver a sick crewman to the nearest town, along with the body of the dead crewman. Soon the rest of the team find all three bodies in a ditch off the road and the truck stolen by Chinese soldiers-turned-bandits. Major Baldwin leads an attack on the bandits that includes blowing up the inn where they’re quartered, despite Madame Hung’s fervent pleas not to do so. This ends any hope of a relationship between the two.
At no point does Madame Hung’s character revert to “China doll” cliché. Nor does her relationship with Major Baldwin ever fall into the pattern of the usual East-west romantic dalliance. She’s a strong, independent woman who thinks for herself and tries to mediate between the Americans and the Chinese they encounter. Stewart plays Baldwin as a man trying to cope the best he can with the situations he confronts. He makes choices based on who he is as a man with a mission and in command. This is what American fighting men in the war were like. They had to put personal feelings aside and tend to the job at hand. Loyalty to their men and their unit took precedence. The one man who lets his heart get the best of him—the one who wants to feed the hungry—dies for his trouble. As they say, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Despite their interest in each other, the cultural divide between the two lead characters is too deep to overcome. It’s a rare Hollywood film that treats this theme in such an honest and original way.
The film was adapted from a novel by Theodore H. White, based on his own experience as a correspondent in China during the war. White was quite critical of Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang, although such critiques are well veiled in the film, with no explicit references to any particular person or faction, although I think I saw a picture of Chiang on a wall in one Chinese officer’s outpost. This is understandable, since Chiang was ensconced as a ruler of Taiwan by the time this movie was made and was still a U.S. ally, while Chiang’s wartime rival, Mao Tse Tung, was now the enemy of the U.S. and ruler of Communist China. We never see any Japanese in the film.
Most of the film was shot outdoors on locations in Arizona that offer a reasonable substitute for China, with hundreds of Asian extras. The only false note in the film is the casting of a non-Chinese actor, Frank Silvera, as Colonel Kwan. I don’t understand why the part didn’t go to one of Hollywood’s venerable Asian actors who were active at the time–Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong or James Hong. Silvera (1914-1970) was a light-skinned black actor (born in the British West Indies) who was active in Hollywood from 1952 until his death. He played Latinos, Indians, and Italians but only rarely played blacks. In fact, I know of only two films in which he played black men: THE CIMARRON KID (1952) and UP TIGHT (1968).
I don’t have MOUNTAIN ROAD on DVD, so I’m unable to provide screen grabs. I just have the one still above. But I do have CHINA DOLL on DVD.
I had high hopes for CHINA DOLL (1958), since it starred Li Li Hua, a bonafide Hong Kong star at the time it was made, which makes this film the first Hollywood film to feature a Hong Kong star in its cast, fully 40 years before RUSH HOUR with Jackie Chan, THE REPLACEMENT KILLERS with Chow Yun-Fat, and LETHAL WEAPON 4 with Jet Li. CHINA DOLL is not a combat film per se, but more of a romantic drama taking place among transport pilots in China during their off-hours between assignments. Victor Mature stars as Captain Cliff Brandon, a pilot who finds himself saddled with a female bondservant (Li Li Hua) after he drunkenly places a wad of money in the hands of an old Chinese man trying to sell him something. The local Catholic priest, Father Cairns (Ward Bond), explains the contract to Brandon and urges him to use her services for the contracted period of three months or she’ll lose face with her family. He reluctantly agrees and is initially quite abrupt with her, but gradually warms up to her, especially after an American Red Cross girl attached to the base gives the girl, Shu Jen, a full Hollywood makeover.
Eventually, after some rocky build-up, Captain Brandon and Shu Jen marry and she gives birth to a baby girl while the Captain is off on a mission. The war eventually intrudes, leading to a few combat scenes in the last ten or so minutes, incorporating actual combat footage of Japanese pilots, and culminating in a tragic denouement and a tearjerker ending.
Ms. Li’s character speaks Mandarin for the most part throughout the film, although she does say a few English words and phrases (“Americans—what eat?”) and is said to be learning English late in the film. There’s only one other major Chinese character in the film, a boy nicknamed Ellington who helps out around the base and he’s played by Danny Chang. He’s called on to speak Mandarin at times, but the actor seems to be doing it phonetically. (The actor was born in China in 1947, making him ten or eleven when he filmed this, but was in Hollywood as early as 1952, meaning he left China when he was very young.) A couple of the American characters speak Mandarin, but not the Captain.
The trouble here for me here is that the character of Shu Jen represents a common fantasy figure of the western male—the beautiful, subservient, loyal Asian girl who smiles and bows and is eager to please. In the film, she cleans Brandon’s house, cooks his food, waits up late for him, and even sleeps with him. He mistreats her and she never complains. She’s always thinking of him and not of herself. It’s a nice fantasy, to be sure, but one that depends on a certain amount of exploitation on the part of the man and subjugation on the part of the woman. It also has little basis in any reality that I know of.
Granted, Li Li Hua was a fine actress and is able to really sell the character and make us respect her and sympathize with her throughout, especially given the Captain’s erratic treatment of her. Frankly, in contrast to Major Baldwin’s thoughtful attempts to communicate with Madame Hung and understand her in THE MOUNTAIN ROAD, Captain Brandon is a real jerk at times. At one point, after their one night together, the Captain seems to reject Shu Jen and tries to avoid her, coming back home only when he finds out she’s pregnant, and only then does he offer to marry her. (His explanation for his behavior is that he’d fallen in love with her and was afraid of his feelings. Something like that.) At first she says no because she insists that having a Chinese wife would cause him problems. She eventually relents, but only if they have a traditional Chinese wedding. They do, but it’s presided over by Father Cairns, with two American couples (pilots and Red Cross girls) acting as surrogate parents, and there are hardly any Chinese present. Because of the direction the story takes, we never get to find out what kind of husband Brandon would have made. (Sam Fuller’s CHINA GATE, 1957, offers an interesting variation on this situation and a pessimistic take on how it might have turned out.)
All this is in stark contrast with the Li Li Hua I’ve seen in Hong Kong films. I’ve seen six of her HK films so far, all produced by Shaw Bros., including EMPRESS WU, THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE and RAPE OF THE SWORD, and she plays strong, imposing, proactive figures in each. In EMPRESS WU, she plays the title role of the first Chinese Empress, described on Wikipedia as “the only woman in the history of China to assume the title of Empress Regnant.” The “China doll” she plays here is quite uncharacteristic of her. She worked in Hong Kong films regularly from 1949 to 1978, while Lisa Lu, from MOUNTAIN ROAD, has gone back and forth between Hollywood and Hong Kong at different times over the years from 1969 to the present day. The two were even at Shaw Bros. at the same time for a couple of years and even played the same character in the same year. Ms. Lu made two costume dramas there in 1975-76: THE EMPRESS DOWAGER and THE LAST TEMPEST, in both of which she played the Empress Dowager. Li Li Hua also played that character–in THE BOXER REBELLION (1976), which played on local television in New York as BLOODY AVENGERS back in the mid-1980s and was the first film with Li Li Hua I ever saw.
I have several of Miss Li’s Shaw Bros. films on DVD, but the only one I had easy access to in order to get screen grabs is VERMILION DOOR (1965), a Peking Opera-themed melodrama set in the early 20th century. This is just so you can see the contrast between CHINA DOLL and her Hong Kong films:
Lisa Lu worked on American television regularly in the 1950s and 1960s. She’s in an episode of the western series “Cheyenne,” entitled “Pocketful of Stars,” which has a plot similar to that of CHINA DOLL. In it, Ms. Lu plays a Chinese woman, Mei Ling, who becomes Cheyenne’s “bride” after he wins her in a lottery. She’s more like the character from CHINA DOLL than like the character she played in MOUNTAIN ROAD. Even so, she tones down the stereotype and plays the character with some dignity, as described in this excerpt from my IMDB review of the episode:
Actress Lisa Lu, however, manages to undercut the stereotype by carrying herself with quiet dignity. Helping her in this effort is Clint Walker, whose Cheyenne character is gentle and compassionate, treating Mei Ling with respect and care. The two of them invest their scenes together with a level of humanity that transcends the hackneyed script. For that reason alone, the episode is worth tracking down.
Here’s a link to the whole review: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0540134/reviews
Ms. Lu also had a regular role as “Hey Girl” for one season of the western series, “Have Gun Will Travel.” She was one of a number of Asian and Asian-American actresses working in Hollywood, mostly in series television, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Others include France Nuyen, Nancy Kwan, Miiko Taka, Irene Tsu, Nobu McCarthy, and SAYONARA Oscar-winner Miyoshi Umeki.
Getting back to CHINA DOLL, there’s another beautiful Asian actress in the film playing a bar girl at the saloon known as Sadie’s Place, where the pilots congregate when off duty. I didn’t catch her character’s name, but she’s clearly enamored of Captain Brandon, and obviously has some history with him, yet he keeps rudely brushing her off. It’s a speaking role and she has two scenes, yet her name is not included in the credits, nor is the character/cast member listed on IMDB. Here are shots of her:
Well, guess what? It’s Lisa Lu! I thought it looked like her, but this film isn’t listed in her credits on IMDB. However, I did a Google search and it’s mentioned in an interview with her that I found elsewhere on the web.
Li Li Hua never made another appearance in Hollywood. She went back to Shaw Bros. and made such great films as EMPRESS WU and THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, both of which I’ve reviewed on IMDB:
After CHINA DOLL, it would be another 15 years before Hong Kong film companies experimented again with putting their stars into western productions and it would be Bruce Lee who made it happen with ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).
Both Lisa Lu and Li Li Hua are in their 80s and still with us, as of this writing. Ms. Lu is 85 and still working.