RogerBW's Blog

High Road to China 26 September 2023

1983 adventure, dir. Brian G. Hutton, Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong: IMDb / AllMovie. It's the 1920s. Eve Tozer's father will be declared dead, and his crooked business partner will take over the company, unless she can find him and get him to a British court. What this needs is a drunken war hero!

This film was originally going to be directed by John Huston, starring Roger Moore and Jacqueline Bisset. (Which now I kind of want to see.) Tom Selleck famously turned down the role of Indiana Jones (because he wanted to keep his contract for Magnum PI), so this was his first big film role; meanwhile this was probably one of the high points of Bess Armstrong's career, which seems a real shame, since she's extremely watchable here.

While it's not entirely fair to call the film a Raiders of the Lost Ark ripoff – it's (loosely) based on a book and was being developed before Raiders came out – I think the success of that film is likely to have been an influence both on its getting made and on some of the details. I haven't read the book, but in the film… while on the one hand we get the original Charleston, on the other we get BRIAN BLESSED pretty much reprising his role from Flash Gordon only now he's blacked-up and meant to be a Waziri tribal chief. The aerial work is gorgeous, with some fine technical aerobatics, but the planes are Stampe et Vertongen SV.4s that historically didn't fly until 1933 and weren't available until after the War. (I'm inclined to let that one slide, because they look like the sort of rattly biplane that one might reasonably find in the back of behind in the 1920s. In the book they were apparently Bristol F.2Bs, entirely plausible aircraft to be sold off to barnstormers, but the replicas built for the film weren't stable enough at altitude.)

I think what really hurts the film is that there's no single villain – unless you count Robert Morley as the business partner, in a few scenes clearly shot in a single day of filming, but all he ever does is send more minions. So in practice the opposition is the British Army, then the Waziris, then a German flyer, then a Chinese warlord… it makes the thing bitty, with looking for Missing Dad a fairly slender reed to carry things forward. On the other hand the leads are charming and enjoyable to watch, even if their great romance is more informed than observed, and the flying is excellent. It's a much less polished production than Raiders and as a result for me it has both higher highs and lower lows.

I talk about this film further on Ribbon of Memes.

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