Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The Pearl Harbor anniversary passed by a few days ago and put me in the mood to see something from World War II. So I consulted Mill Creek Entertainment's Combat Classics box set and came up with an early effort from director Joseph H. Lewis, who later made such classic noir films as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. It's also a relatively late effort from Anna May Wong, the pioneering Asian star, who in fact gets top billing here. It probably had to be from Producers Releasing Corporation for Wong to get star treatment. PRC was Poverty Row par excellence. It best known products are Edgar Ulmer's cheapie masterpiece Detour and the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. Bombs Over Burma is probably a more typical PRC product than either of those eccentric entries, leaning probably more in the Ulmer direction than the Lugosi because of Lewis's early efforts at artistic composition and dramatic editing.

Our star plays a Chinese schoolteacher. For the first few minutes, she conducts her class in Chinese. A little boy named Ling comes in late and has to stand in the corner, wearing a dunce cap. A peddler strolls into class, shows off his wares -- and a secret message for Wong. Once he's gone, she abruptly lapses into English without benefit of a Judgment at Nuremberg/Hunt For Red October style "Armageddon" transition. She attempts to lead the class in the song "Yankee Doodle" but is interrupted by a Japanese bombing raid. This is conveyed by stock footage, some of which doesn't really fit. The Japs are supposed to be bombing a populous city, but some shots show bombs falling toward the ocean. Teacher has evacuated the class, but Ling has lingered to throw papers around and watch the show overhead. Lewis tries to build suspense by intercutting the stock footage and Ling pathetically pretending to shoot down the planes, but the scene goes on too long before the brat is finally strafed to death, just before Wong can return to retrieve him.

We next see her boarding a bus in Burma, conveying supplies to China. She seems to be the only Chinese passenger. The others are a motley collection of white folks: the cool Brit Sir Roger; Nick, a slovenly fatso of uncertain heritage; Slim, a Bogart-esque driver; a turbaned Hindu called Hallam, and others. Our star has had some unfortunate hair styling. You can sort of make it out on the Alpha Video box cover, and it puts you in mind of Dragon Seed starring Minnie Mouse.

The bus has to stop outside a monastery where the travelers will stay the night. While the monks make the guests comfortable, Wong snoops as the head monk heads downstairs and disappears into a secret chamber. We see that he's receiving a shortwave radio transmission, but we don't know what it's about. At dinner we learn that they'll be stuck there longer because someone stole the bus's distributor. The monastery is shelter enough from a bombing raid, but damage outside threatens to delay them further.

Wong attempts small talk with Slim, the American:

Q. What brings you to China?
A. It ain't what brought me here, it's what keeps me here.
Q. And what keeps you here?
A. I like rice.

But Slim's being facetious. He really admires the perseverance of the Chinese people. He hopes to emulate them. Life's been tough for him, but "I can stand up and take it now, and I can give it back."

"Like China?" Wong suggests. "Yeah, like China," Slim agrees. This is typical learn-to-love-your-ally propaganda from the period, the same treatment the USSR got in more retroactively embarrassing films. But East is still East, West is still West, and the relationship between heroine and hero stays quite chaste.

We see the head monk at his radio again. He transcribes a message, which Lewis translates for us: "Your query about party received. Party is as you suspect. HQ." He goes upstairs and wakens Wong. Nick the slob notices and wakes up Sir Roger, who alerts Hallam. The monk, apparently, is Wong's father, unless this is co-scripter Lewis's idea of how Chinese people address each other politely. In any event, he warns Anna that one of her party is a spy. Meanwhile, Sir Roger and Hallam fake the disappearance of the Brit's dispatch case, which holds a message meant for Chiang Kai-shek himself. Sir Roger accuses Nick the slob of taking it. But he claims to know who stole the distributor and threatens to "spill it, like Niagara." Instead, he's stabbed to death, presumably by Hallam. Murder puts the Hindu in a reflective mood while Sir Roger spies on the head monk. They compare notes.

Hallam: You find out something about monk?
Sir Roger: Yes, he's praying.
H: I pray too, Sahib. After I kill, I feel bad, so I pray, and pray and kill, pray and kill.

All right, then. After that, there's nothing for it but to go downstairs and surprise the monk and make him open his secret chamber. "A shortwave radio," Sir Roger observes, "Interesting hobby for a priest. What do you get on it, heaven?" Hallam has fetched Anna May, to whom Sir Roger accuses the monk of "exchanging love letters with the Japanese." When Slim shows up, Roger shows him the radio. Slim seems convinced that the monk and Anna are bad guys. "Boy, what a chump I am," he muses, "I ought to get a blue ribbon and pin it on myself." Spurning Wong's entreaties, he "wouldn't believe you on a stack of Buddhas" until she explains that an approaching convoy is a decoy meant to draw out saboteurs. Then they hear interference over the monk's radio. The interference is caused by Sir Roger sending messages with his battery-operated electric razor.

Now it's up to Slim to choose sides. Anna challenges him and Sir Roger to share a ride in the lead truck with her. They agree. As planes approach, she urges Slim to bail out, but he says he'll wait and see. Instead, Sir Roger decides to bail out, with some nice stuntwork involved. He's the spy, but how could one of our British allies be such a rat? The answer is simple: Anna explains that he isn't British at all, but a German impostor. Then she rends the air with a piercing whistle that summons a band of farm implement wielding peasants. "Sir Roger" is surrounded. Lewis milks this for more than it's worth, building up what he hopes is a montage of mounting fear as the villain realizes his fate and the peasants close in. But like the bombing of the school, the scene goes on a little too long because the film has to force itself past the 60-minute mark. Once we learn that the planes weren't really Japanese bombers, but more decoys to draw out the spy, the film is done -- and we don't know what's become of Hallam. Is he praying, or killing, or both?

Bombs Over Burma is compromised by its cheapness, and the print Mill Creek used for its DVD is almost literally moth-eaten, but you can see that it's somewhat more ambitious than most PRC films. As I hope you've seen, Lewis adds some quirky touches that catch your attention. The acting is undistinguished -- Wong is pretty wooden -- but some of the cast are stuck with superfluous roles and little to do. That's not a typical problem for a Poverty Row film, but it's a problem just the same. I can't really recommend it for anyone but students of Anna May Wong or Joseph H. Lewis, but the casual viewer who picks up Combat Classics (a typically eclectic 50-movie set from Mill Creek) may find it amusing depending on your interest in the subject matter.

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