Thursday, May 17, 2012

Cult Thursdays: High Road to China (1983)

    It must be Brian G. Hutton week, as we take a look at the very last movie the director ever made... 
     It’s a well-documented fact that originally, Tom Selleck was cast in the role of Indiana Jones for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ultimately the actor had to drop out due to his commitments to Magnum, P.I., and Harrison Ford was given the part three weeks before the start of principal photography. Looking back over the three Indy movies (and you read that correctly: there are only three movies in the series… right?), it’s hard to imagine the role played by anyone else: the mix of heroism, humor and world-weariness was a combination that only an actor like Harrison Ford could pull off successfully. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role; harder still to imagine Selleck with the whip and fedora. Hell, it’s hard to imagine Selleck in anything other than a Hawaiian shirt and Detroit baseball cap.

    But two years after Raiders’ 1981 release, Selleck got a chance to make his mark on the pulpy adventure genre with High Road to China, one of the many period cliffhangers that came out in the wake of the good Dr. Jones’ success. It was directed by Brian G. Hutton - a director whose name is not well-known, but whose work certainly is, giving the world two of Clint Eastwood’s most memorable movies in Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare. Selleck plays O’Malley, a drunken WWI ace pilot hiding out in 1920’s Istanbul. He's hired by the high-spirited Eve Tozer (Bess Armstrong), an heiress seeking to retain her inheritance by finding her father (Wilford Brimley), a brilliant inventor gone missing during his travels in the far east. Traveling by bi-plane, O’Malley and Eve embark on trip through Afghanistan, Nepal and China, fraught with danger and peril along the way. But that’s nothing compared to the bickering duo’s biggest challenge - each other.

    I must confess a weakness for this type of movie, and the period in which it’s set. There was something about the entertainment produced during the 1920’s and 30’s, a sort of freewheeling escapism that acted as a direct counterpoint to the harsh realities of the Depression. It was also a point in history where we were advancing technologically, but not so much as to rob the world of its mystery. We had airplanes, submarines and transistor radios, but no satellites or GPS to tell us what was hiding in the far corners of the world - pure discovery was still possible. Needless to say, if you have a thing for jodhpurs, flight caps and bomber jackets, then you know what I’m talking about.

    So given my own predilections towards this type of film, how does High Road to China hold up?  Unfortunately, it casts a pale shadow standing in the light of the Indy movies it so desperately wants to emulate. There’s a nice sense of fun to the movie, and with nearly twenty years of experience, Hutton stages the battles, dogfights and breathless escapes with aplomb. But there is never any real threat - never any sense of danger or urgency to keep the plot moving. The film’s biggest problem is the lack of a worthy adversary. Robert Morley plays Bentik, the business partner of Eve’s father who’s trying to have him declared legally dead so he can claim the Tozer inheritance. The story is frequently interrupted with scenes of Morley yelling at his bumbling lackey for always being two steps behind our main characters. These scenes look like they were shot in a single day, and add nothing to the movie other than plot development. We never feel that either of these buffoons pose any sort of threat, feeling more like they stumbled out of an early 70’s Disney movie. The filmmakers seem to realize this too, as Morley all but disappears in the third act, his character and motivation resolved in a throwaway line delivered by the elder Tozer once Eve and O’Malley finally catch up with him at a Chinese province.

    Another nearly fatal problem of the movie are the two leads themselves. The story is a throwback to the romantic adventures of classical Hollywood, where the two leads spend much of the movie at each other’s throats, only to fall into each other’s arms in the end. The success of this formula (and really every other formula Hollywood churns out at us) depends entirely upon the chemistry between the two main leads. When cast properly, it can be charming. When not, it usually winds up irritating. Selleck himself feels very out of place in the role of O’Malley. As written in the script, O’Malley is a dignified loser, a once great pilot now past his prime and content to spend the rest of his days soiling in a steady stream of booze. Try as he might with his five o’clock shadow and rugged appearance, Selleck just doesn’t sell the role; not once does he look like he’s ever known the dark side of a hangover, never convincing as a veteran haunted by the men he’s killed or the friends he’s lost. He’s just too damn chipper.

    Bess Armstrong fares slightly better as Eve. She shows a lot of spunk - riding, flying and shooting with the best of them. But again we come to the issue of chemistry, and both Armstrong and Selleck just don‘t have it. Their relationship in the movie feels less like the pairing of two lovers in extreme circumstances and more like the checking off of items on a grocery list. Selleck and Armstrong bring nothing more to the relationship than what’s on the page, and the whole movie suffers for it.

    Much more interesting are the character actors who drop in and out of the film’s storyline. Brian Blessed shows up early on, playing the chief of an Arab tribe that hosts O‘Malley and Eve for a night, and gives one of his patented Brian Blessed “Diiiiive!” performances (if you get that reference, then you have truly come to the right place). Blessed knows exactly what kind of movie he’s in, and his presence is sorely missed once the story churns on past his role. Equally excellent is Wilford Brimley, who appears towards the end once O’Malley and Eve finally catch up with her father. Brimley doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but he exudes a warmth and energy that fits and makes complete the world of the film.

    All in all, the movie’s not completely terrible. Hutton’s direction keeps the action going at a nice pace, especially in the aerial scenes. No amount of CGI can replace the sheer thrill of seeing actual biplanes flying through the air, spinning and dog-fighting across real landscapes. It’s thrilling stuff, and had the main story actually worked, could have made for a fun little movie. 

     I’ll leave you with this: After its completion, director Brian G. Hutton retired from filmmaking altogether and became a plumber. Take from that what you will.

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