OPERATION BOTTLENECK – A Hollywood WWII Film with Asian Female Commandos

1 Aug

Friday, July 24th, marked the 95th birthday of Japanese-American actress Miiko Taka, who is, happily, still with us. She is best known for co-starring with Marlon Brando in SAYONARA (1957), in which she plays a Takarazuka performer in Kyoto who has a romance with an American Air Force officer. To celebrate the occasion of her birthday, I found one of her more obscure Hollywood films on Amazon Prime and watched it. OPERATION BOTTLENECK (1961), released by United Artists, is pretty much a standard World War II tale of a small American unit going behind the lines in Burma to blow up a “bottleneck” in a key road the Japanese army needs to advance into India. In the course of it, however, they free five “comfort girls,” local village women who had been forced into serving the Japanese officers at their headquarters, and must train them in combat to assist in their mission. It’s a pretty far-fetched story, done on quite a low budget and has some major problems with sexist dialogue and racial slurs, not to mention profoundly insensitive treatment of the comfort women, but it’s also quite distinct from other Hollywood treatments of the war with Japan. It is, I believe, the only World War II movie made in Hollywood with an actress of Japanese descent given top billing and also the only time Hollywood has shown an American officer leading Asian female guerrillas in a war movie, although when they go into combat they’re not quite dressed as they are in this poster:

[SPOILER WARNING: If you’re intrigued enough by the above description to actually want to seek out the movie on Amazon Prime, you may want to delay reading the rest of the piece until after you’ve seen the movie, since I discuss many plot points, including details of the final action. Many of you may indeed find the spoilers more interesting than the movie itself and either be encouraged by them to see the movie for yourself or decide to avoid it out of hand, so please read on.]

Miiko Taka plays Ari, the informal leader of the comfort girls, whose mother (Jane Chang) continues to work in secret for the Colonial Governor-in-hiding and is very helpful to the Americans when they come seeking help from Manders (Ben Wright), the Governor. When the leader of the American soldiers, Lieutenant Voss (Ron Foster), is captured by the Japanese and questioned by Captain Matsu (Dale Ishimoto), Ari and Manders and the next-in-command, Sergeant Marty Regan (John Clarke) come up with a plan to rescue Voss. Things go bad and the only survivors are Voss, Ari, the four other comfort girls and demolitions expert Corporal “Merc” Davenport (Norman Alden). Voss seems ready to scrap the mission until Ari insists that she and the other girls can be trained to help plant the explosives in the road’s bottleneck and set them off just before the Japanese army reaches it.

With no other choice, and with only 12 minutes left to go in the 76-minute movie, Voss and Merc get the five young women out of their tight-fitting satin cheongsam dresses and into U.S. army uniforms, complete with helmets, and begin their training. Where they got perfectly fitted uniforms for the girls in the middle of the jungle is anybody’s guess. (The whole question of the supply chain of provisions, weapons and equipment is never adequately addressed. We’re told early on that they buried them all when they landed by parachute in the jungle and that the Japanese didn’t find them even though they’d found all the buried parachutes. The landing site is miles from anywhere else they go to in the film and we never see them carrying anything on their trips back and forth through the Japanese-patrolled jungle. The Lieutenant hobbles around on a busted ankle for nearly the whole movie, so he’s in no shape to carry supplies, and the petite young women are not gonna be lugging cases of explosives to the target site. Best not to ask.)

In the final minutes of the movie, Voss, Merc and the five-woman unit go into action against the Japanese on a back road in California, doubling for Burma, with the help of stock footage from the finale of THE MOUNTAIN ROAD (1960), an excellent movie about the war in China starring Lisa Lu, which I’ve written about here. They even take over a Japanese truck and switch into Japanese uniforms for one encounter.

To get to the girls-with-guns finale, however, we have to put up with Merc’s leering and piggish remarks about the women, whom he constantly calls “chicks.” He supplies the film’s running narration, including this choice segment heard over a pretty tasteless scene the morning after they’ve escaped from the Japanese headquarters where Merc is lounging by a jungle pool making out with one of the girls, LoLo (Lemoi Chu), while the others are bathing nude in the water. He treats them like playthings.

“It wasn’t beer, it wasn’t liquor, but man, where else could you get this kind of service and a floor show along with it? The quartermaster should hand out gals like these to every G.I. when they give him his uniform.”

When Lt. Voss returns, Merc looks up at him and says:

“Oh hi, Lieutenant, I’m havin’ a ball. This is great, just two guys alone in a jungle, five beautiful–. You know if the guys back home thought war was anything like this they’d have to fight ‘em to keep ‘em away from the recruiting offices.”

Voss is embarrassed by this and lashes out at Merc’s callous behavior and disrespectful attitude only hours after the battle which cost them the rest of their unit. In a later scene at the same locale, they get into a fist fight until Ari pulls them apart.

Merc also ogles Ari when he first meets her in the attack on the Japanese HQ:

In real life, the women, often young girls, who served for the “comfort” of Japanese officers, were forced into the work and were treated horribly. They weren’t party girls like the ones depicted here, who would laugh in the arms of a rescuing American soldier the next morning. (Something I doubt ever happened in the war.) If any of them had escaped from the places they were stationed, their families and villages would be massacred in retaliation. As far as I know, this is the only Hollywood film to even touch on the subject of comfort women during the war and I’m sorry the script is so thoughtless about it. Granted, the subject didn’t really get a lot of play in the U.S. press until well after the 1970s, so there may not have been much common knowledge or awareness of what these girls went through at the time this movie was made. Also, given that this is an exploitation film, it relied on the image of “four sin-girls” with machine guns in the poster to help sell the movie.

As was standard procedure in films from this era involving an American officer and a beautiful Asian female lead, Voss and Ari fall in love. (One of the great things about THE MOUNTAIN ROAD, made a year earlier, was the way it turned that cliché on its head.) In one later scene in their makeshift jungle camp, Ari is bringing coffee to both Voss and Merc when she overhears Voss insist that he loves Ari, to which Merc responds, “Ari’s just a gook,” and reminds him how his family in Montana would react if he brings her home. They turn and see her at this point and stop the conversation. That left a bad taste, especially since Merc refers to the Asian women more than once, including Ari’s loyal, courageous, tireless mother, as “gook gals.” I was hoping one or both of them would apologize to Ari at some point, but neither does. Ari’s behavior toward Voss changes considerably after this encounter and he doesn’t seem to understand why. (This echoes a plot point in THE MOUNTAIN ROAD.) Yet at the end, she won’t leave the mortally wounded Lieutenant behind on the road that’s about to be blown up and she throws the slur back at Merc in a moment of heroic self-sacrifice with the line, “What’s one ‘gook’ more or less? Merc, light the fuse!”

It should also be added that of the American soldiers in the cast, only one, Sergeant Regan (John Clarke), is portrayed in a remotely positive light. “I liked that young man,” Manders says sadly when he learns of his death. The men make quite a few blunders along the way and it’s a miracle the mission eventually succeeds. Merc is deliberately drawn as the crudest of them, which makes his sole survival most ironic. Voss is somewhat smoother, but can be an arrogant jerk some of the time and he argues with Merc constantly. In one jarring scene, Voss even brands Manders a coward after Manders refuses to flee with him, knowing but not announcing to Voss that the Japanese are going to pinpoint the source of the radio message he’d just sent on Voss’s behalf and will come to kill him and Atsi (Jane Chang), Ari’s mother, soon afterwards. Later, realizing how wrong he was, Voss apologizes to the dead Manders, something he never does to the living Ari.

I wonder if all this wasn’t intended in order to make Taka’s role stronger and more positive. The movie changes when she enters it at about the 25-minute mark. Here’s someone worth rooting for. She’s gentle and soft-spoken, but extremely brave and physically tough when she needs to be. She genuinely cares for the Lieutenant, even if one thinks she could do way better. (She falls for him a little too quickly and takes care of him quite a lot.) She has a moving scene with her mother where they hug each other as if they’re never going to see each other again after Manders urges Voss and Ari to flee after the message is sent. (I’m still not clear why they couldn’t take the mother with them, unless she opted to stay with Manders, to whom she seems devoted.)

I should add that none of the American actors were particularly charismatic or well-known. Ron Foster, who plays Lt. Voss, had leading roles in only a handful of B-movies like this one, and spent most of his career in TV guest shots. Norman Alden, who plays Merc, went on to become a well-respected character actor in movies and TV, but had mostly been playing heavies on TV shows like “The Untouchables” up to this point. The characters they play here are not terribly likeable and they’re not very gentle with the women, so it’s no wonder that one of the women clearly prefers life with the Japanese and almost betrays the rest. But it also serves to make Ari the moral center of the film and the one who establishes the emotional tone.

Taka, to her credit, plays her role with great dignity, although I wonder what she thought of the final result, laden with Merc’s narration. Ari’s obvious good breeding and education are explained with the line that the Governor had sent her to medical school in Rangoon before the Japanese occupied the country. When the Americans come to rescue the captured Lieutenant, it is Ari who insists they take with them the four other comfort girls. She has one of the film’s most stirring moments when she offers the girls’ help to Voss in undertaking the mission and pleads her case to the incredulous and resistant Lieutenant, citing female guerrilla units in China fighting the Japanese. During the training, when one of the girls, LoLo, decides to flee the camp and go back to a comfortable life with the Japanese in exchange for telling them where the Americans are and what their mission is, Ari fights her and stabs her to death, answering the question both Voss and Merc had of whether these girls were capable of killing or not.

One wishes that all this had come much earlier in the film or that they had simply expanded this section by at least ten more minutes to show more drama among the girls and more of the rigors of combat and weapons training, with a proper buildup to the action finale. As it stands, everything seems kind of rushed at the end. To be honest, none of the women seemed terribly believable as soldiers, so maybe it’s better this way. This is nothing like EASTERN CONDORS, Sammo Hung’s 1987 Hong Kong-made Vietnam-set military adventure with its lethal squad of female commandos.

Of the five other Asian actresses in OPERATION BOTTLENECK, only one, Jane Chang (billed as June Chang in the end credits), who played Ari’s mother, had more than a handful of other credits, with 15 TV roles from 1957 to 1965 and three other movie credits during that time, including John Ford’s last film, SEVEN WOMEN (1966), which was set in China.

Of the actresses who play the other four comfort girls, Lemoi Chu and Jin Jin Mai have zero additional credits on IMDB; Tiko Ling has five additional credits, mostly TV, all 1960-64; and June Kawai has two additional movie credits. Their lack of experience might also indicate why only one of the four, LoLo, has any lines. They also rarely get closeups, which annoyed me when I was looking for screen grabs. I’m sure there’s an interesting story in how these parts were cast, although I don’t know how we’ll ever find out.

One can ask why they didn’t hire more high-profile actresses to play these parts and the answer would be that they simply didn’t have the budget for it. I’m guessing that Miiko Taka probably took less than her asking price on the condition that she get top-billing and that her part in the script got fleshed out more. She comes off well in this, so I’d argue that the possible trade-off would have been worth it.

The English-speaking Japanese captain is played by Japanese-American actor Dale Ishimoto, who was, at one time, Miiko Taka’s husband. (According to IMDB, they divorced in 1958, three years before shooting this film together.)

Ishimoto was a fairly busy TV and film actor in Hollywood for the 40-year period from 1956 to 1996 and, for a time, was the go-to guy when a Japanese soldier or officer was needed on a war-themed show or a Japanese war veteran was needed in a contemporary drama like the “Sea Hunt” episode, “Niko,” where his character’s expertise in Japanese torpedoes is necessary to defuse one of them found underwater, angering another member of the team who balks at working with a former enemy. Here is Ishimoto, as Niko, in the episode:

OPERATION BOTTLENECK was directed on quite a low budget by old hand Edward L. Cahn, who directed ten other films the same year. Until the team gets to the road they have to blow up in the last seven minutes of the movie, the whole thing was shot in the studio. They have a very large jungle set captured in many tracking shots, which makes me think they used a standing jungle set at one of the major studios, probably the one used for THE LOST WORLD (1960), Irwin Allen’s production from a year earlier. (Those sets would also be used for his 1964-68 TV series, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.”)

Outside of Hana-ogi in SAYONARA, Ari is, I believe, Miiko Taka’s biggest role and the only time she got top billing. Here are shots of her from SAYONARA:

Taka made intermittent TV appearances from 1959 to 1980 and appeared in 14 other movies besides SAYONARA and OPERATION BOTTLENECK, none of which gave her lead roles. Like Lisa Lu, she came to acting relatively late, in her thirties. The two of them had to compete for roles with much younger Asian actresses in Hollywood at the time, including Nancy Kwan, France Nuyen and Irene Tsu.

Taka also worked frequently as an interpreter for visiting Japanese stars in Los Angeles, including Toshiro Mifune on multiple occasions. Getty Images seems to have the rights to any photos like that, so go to this page to see shots of them:

https://www.gettyimages.com/photos/miiko-taka?mediatype=photography&phrase=miiko%20taka&sort=mostpopular

 

One Response to “OPERATION BOTTLENECK – A Hollywood WWII Film with Asian Female Commandos”

  1. Bill Baldwin August 1, 2020 at 8:01 PM #

    Thanks, Brian. Very nicely done and informative. I think the timing of this film and its subject matter indicate a following in the thematic footsteps of “Five Branded Women”, released the previous year. If it had come out a decade later, it would have been one of those POW women-in-chains exploitation efforts with lots of nudity and violence, shot in the Philippines. I’m sure the choice of the Burma theatre and the mission’s objective were hoping to project themselves as a crossroads on the River Kwai. But there’s only so much you can do on a budget of less than $200,000. Interesting concept though.

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