High Road to China


Some time back in the mid-1800s, I attended college. It was there that, while otherwise ensconced deep within the confines of the school of journalism (believe it or not) — where we all smelled of acrid ink, Dektol, stale coffee, and cigarettes — that I also began to refine my taste in the cinema. As part of that pursuit, on the rare days when we were allowed to leave the confines of Weimer Hall (which, if nothing else, had a lovely indoor courtyard and terrarium), I enrolled in a few film classes. Nothing too advanced that semester. An intro to film theories thing, and something about film noir with a professor who used to hop up onto his desk and do suggestive interpretive dances to the music of In a Lonely Place.

For the first day of class in the intro to film theories course, we were all asked to name our favorite movie then explain why we liked it — an exercise I’ve always disliked. I don’t like the “what’s your favorite” question for anything and don’t understand the desire to take something as vast and diverse as film (or food, or a band) and force yourself to limit yourself to just one favorite. I suppose as a way to get things started, it wasn’t a bad ice breaker for the class. Many in the class visibly toiled to come up with something profound and important, naming the various “artistic” films that are so predictable and appear on everyone’s re-fab favorites list. The instructor, a wild-eyed misanthrope, must have smelled the bullshit on a number of responses, because he would ask follow-up questions designed more or less to expose the fact that the person who named Citizen Kane as their all-time favorite movie had not actually seen Citizen Kane. It was brutal, but a lesson well learned about either telling the truth or making sure you can back up your lie (there’s not actually a difference, right?).

As my turn was fast approaching, and having seen relatively few of the important films (since my entire background was in cult films and bizarre things from Japan), I was doing my best to determine what I would, at least at that particular moment in time, count as my favorite film. Luckily, the question never came to me, because the guy next to me, when asked what his favorite film was, confidently and proudly said, “My favorite film? Of all time? The Money Pit.” There was no moment’s hesitation, no doubt in his tone of voice. The Money Pit was the greatest film of all time, and all other opinions and opinions of his opinion be damned. The instructor was stunned into a rare moment of silence, so prepared was he to attack the next person who lied and said their favorite movie was The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeois. This cocky young man who cited instead a movie starring Tom Hanks and Shelly Long completely threw the teacher off his game, until with some considerable meekness, the old man simply said, “I appreciate that someone is honest about liking a shitty movie.” We then launched into a debate about the purpose of film, of art versus entertainment, and whether we felt the two had to be mutually exclusive.

Although I didn’t have to answer the question that day, I have been asked the same question roughly fifty million times since then — about half the number of times I’ve been asked to name the worst movie I’ve ever seen. To say that I’ve given either question much thought would be as big a lie as to say that my favorite movie of all time is Citizen Kane. I’ve never even finished Citizen Kane, though I have seen Hell of the Living Dead like thirty times. Anyone who asks me to name my favorite or most hated film generally gets the stock tirade about the idiocy of the question. But every time I finish that tirade, the nagging query remains floating around in the back of my brain. No, seriously, what is your favorite movie? Only a steady diet of self-flagellation, expensive single malt whiskies, and the attentions of half a dozen upscale call girls can soothe my soul and pull me back from the brink.

So while I will never be able to answer that question, I can ask the version of the question that has one simple modification: what are some of your favorite movies? Now that one, I can expound on at great length and in great detail with only a minimum of mental fatigue — though the relatively safe and stable nature of the revised question by no means precludes the need for the attentions of half a dozen upscale call girls. Perhaps they would like to watch some of my favorite films with me. Ahh, madam. You look exquisite. Perhaps you would like to lie back with me on my piles of lush Turkish-made throw pillows, take a puff from the the hookah, and join me in a viewing of Krull.

Anyway, one of my all-time favorite movies is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Back in 1981, my mom took me and my friend Robbie to see a double feature of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans. Our nine-year-old minds were blown. In the span of four hours and for a few bucks, we saw giant scorpions, Medusa, melting Nazi faces, guys covered with tarantulas, a cool mechanical owl that everyone pretends like they hated now that they are grown up, Judy Bowker’s naked butt, and a big bald dude who gets chopped up by an airplane propeller. I doubt that I’ve ever had a finer day at the theater, and I doubt that I ever will.

Raiders of the Lost Ark captured our imagination like no other film, including Star Wars. We both decided the next day that we were going to become archaeologists, and that we would have to start working out since the job required a lot of running from headhunters and fighting Nazis (as some may have noticed from collective past reviews and tales, Nazis played a vital role as the go-to bad guys among my friends and family long after the rest of America had moved on to the Russians). Since that heady Saturday afternoon at Louisville’s Village 8 Theater (at which I would later have a summer job, after they’d converted to being a second-run dollar theater), I’ve watched Raiders of the Lost Ark countless times, and it has never gotten boring or shown any flaws to me the way so many other of my favorite movies did over time. Watch Raiders, and there is no sense of the fact that you are watching a movie from 1981. I really do think it’s a perfect movie.

Robbie and I, and the collective youth of America, were not the only ones impressed by Raiders of the Lost Ark. As is often the case, in the wake of the movie’s success, dozens of “me too!” movies were released. Most of the them were cheap and embarrassing. Few of them were considered respectable. Most of them, I liked. If there was one among the legion of Treasure of the Four Crowns and Ark of the Sun God knock-off type movies of the world that could claim some air of legitimacy, it was High Road to China, starring hot property Tom Selleck — who had reportedly been the original choice to play Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. When his schedule prohibited him from taking the role, Spielberg gave it to Harrison Ford, equally hot thanks to his role as Han Solo in those Star Wars films everyone was talking about. Selleck, as a consolation prize after Raiders became one of the biggest and coolest movies of all time, got to star in High Road to China.

As far as consolation prizes go, High Road to China is definitely a consolation prize, but not an altogether bad one. Though it looks relatively low budget when compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark, it still manages to have just enough budget to keep from looking totally cheap. Things would have been a lot better looking if the director hadn’t opted for that dainty sort of washed-out brown-and-cream color palette that looks more at home in a ponderous Merchant-Ivory production about people struggling to come to grips with their mild dislike of tea. It’s a style of filming that seems to have been particularly common for films in the 1980s that were set in the 1920s. Instead of cheering as the hero punches out bad guys and swings over pits full of snakes and hyraxes, you spend most of your time worrying that tough-but-lovable Tom Selleck is going to get crumpet crumbs on the doilies (crumpets have crumbs, right?), making Aunt Martha slightly disappointed, though she would never show such bold emotion in the company of others. But that said, as far as Raiders rip-offs go, this is one of the better ones. It helps that, though the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark is obviously why the movie got made, the movie itself doesn’t feel the need to copy the plot other than being about a lovable rogue adventurin’ around in some past time period.

Said past time period is the 1920s, and said lovable rogue is Patrick O’Malley (Selleck), a veteran pilot of WWI who now ekes out some sort of living giving flying lessons in a time and place where it seems like no one could possibly afford or be interested in flying lessons. But I guess he makes enough to keep himself in the requisite whiskey all these guys love so much. His path crosses with “plucky” (which is the polite way to say obnoxious, inconsiderate, and whiny) socialite Evie Tozer (Beth Armstrong), who needs to track down her father so he can appear in court and prove he’s still alive, lest his slimy business partner have him declared legally dead and seize all the family’s considerable assets. Evie only has a vague idea of where her father may be, but after engaging in some shenanigans that any sane human would be enraged by, she convinces O’Malley and his partner to mount a two-plane expedition. Luckily Evie knows how to fly an airplane.

Hot on their tails are a string of ineffectual assassins, and standing between them and success are assorted warlords, killers, a lack of any clear idea where they are going, and Brian Blessed in a turban, all bellowin’ about how women oughta know their place and shut the hell up (much like the real-life Brian Blessed does). After flying around Turkey, Afghanistan, and Tibet, they finally find Evie’s father (Wilford Brimley!) in China, where he turns out to be fortifying a mountaintop village against the greedy troops of a Chinese warlord. When O’Malley learns that the court threat is empty, and that if Bradley is declared dead are assets go to Evie, he decides it’s high time to haul ass back to Turkey before the all-out assault on the village comes. Evie, of course, wants him to stay and help her father. As every rogue in the history of movies has done, he refuses, only to have a last minute change of heart — possibly because Tom Selleck is like any other man, and given the chance to watch Wilford Brimley set off like fifty tons of TNT, he’s gonna take it.

High Road to China is a mixed back, with a lot of good and, unfortunately, a lot of bad. Well, no. Make that one really bad thing: Evie Tozer. Evie is one of those “strong” female characters written by someone who didn’t know how to write strong female characters. So the best he can come up with to convey strength is to make the woman a smug jerk. Similarly, the movie is full of “witty” banter written by a guy who couldn’t (or at least didn’t) write any witty banter, and so what’s supposed to be the playful tete-a-tete joshing that will eventually make Evie and O’Malley fall in love is nothing but shrill screaming and brainless shouting. It’s like being trapped in a room with two spoiled, petulant people who just yell, “No! You shut up!” back and forth at each other until the script demands that, for no reason at all and despite all evidence on screen that it shouldn’t happen, they fall in love. They express this moment by doing that thing where they’re about to be killed or have just escaped being killed, and the guy enthusiastically kisses the woman, apologizes for his bravado, and then the music swells just in time for them to stare at each other and kiss again (optional: the woman can slap him after the first kiss), longer and more passionately. The adventure story of High Road to China is fine. Quite enjoyable. But the back-and-forth between the characters that consumes so much of the film’s running time is like fingernails on a chalkboard.

And that is a shame. Because like I said, there’s a lot to love about this scrappy little adventure film. The cast, when they aren’t just snipping at each other, are good. Selleck doesn’t necessarily show that he could have been a great Indiana Jones, but given how iconic Harrison Ford’s performance became, that’s not really a criticism. He does show that he could have been an excellent adventure movie star. He’s charismatic, good looking, and when he has something to do other than bug his eyes out and whine to or about Evie, he’s a solid actor. Given what a heartthrob superstar he was in the 80s, and given the fact that he’s proven he could actually act pretty well, it’s shame that he didn’t get to prove himself and become something more than the pop culture punchline Magnum PI. But I reckon his TV schedule made him difficult to book, and his TV persona made him hard to take seriously. Sure, he worked pretty regularly in movies. He even had some hits (High Road to China was not among them, but Three Men and a Baby sure was). But it always feels like if you’re getting Tom Selleck in a movie, you’re getting a dependable backup quarterback; not the guy you came to see. Or I could be totally full of it, and the only reason Selleck seems that way to me is because the only two movies he ever made that were of a genre I’d watch are High Road to China and Runaway, where he shoots robot bugs.

Similarly, Bess Armstrong is a fine actress undermined by a horribly written character. Any attempt to make Evie Tozer seem remotely like Karen Allen’s Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark, or to make her any sort of character other than one you either want to kill or jam spikes into your own ears to avoid having to listen to, fails miserably. I don’t know who exactly to blame this on. The movie is based on a book by a guy named Jon Cleary. Not a writer lacking success, but as I’ve never read the original novel or any novel he’s written, I can’t comment on how much of Evie Tozer comes from the books. A name with which I am more familiar is Weintraub. Specifically Fred Weintraub, who happens to be the producer of the film. Fred should be a pretty familiar name to many readers of Teleport City. He was the producer on, among other things, Enter the Dragon and at times seems to be the sole reason crappy director Robert Clouse gets any work. For High Road to China, he spares us Clouse’s ability to make potentially awesome things suck (directorial duties for High Road to China were filled by Brian G. Hutton, who directed two of my other favorite films — 1968’s Where Eagles Dare and 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes), but does manage to crowbar Sandra Weintraub in as co-screenwriter.

This was Sandra’s first cinematic writing gig, and while it’s difficult to say who made the bulk of the contributions to the screenplay, the characterization of Evie and the irksome interplay between her and O’Malley certainly has the stink of a first-time writer. Weintraub went on to write several more pretty terrible movies, including the story for China O’Brien — which was supposed to be the movie that would show America how awesome Cynthia Rothrock was, but instead ended up being the movie that continued to show us how lame Robert Clouse and Sandra Weintraub were. She’s even credited with writing the novel on which the movie China O’Brien 2 is based, to which all I can say is, “what the fuck are you talking about?” I have a feeling that “novel” was self-published and distributed around the Weintraub office, and nowhere else. eventually, Sandra found her calling, though, and settled into a career writing episodes of The Young and the Restless — which leads me to believe she had considerable input on the script for High Road to China, because the kind of irritating crap that Evie and O’Malley make us suffer through seems tailor made for some shitty soap opera.

The other half of the screenwriting duo for High Road to China was S. Lee Pogostin, and most of his credits are for television shows, except for Golden Needles, which was another crappy Robert Clouse directed movie. Given Sandra’s inexperience and obvious taste for shouty melodrama, and Pogostin’s background in television, I think I’m beginning to come to the main reason that High Road to China fails to be as cool as it should be: despite a game cast, despite great aerial stunts, despite trotting the globe — or at least the parts of the globe co-producer Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Studio was willing to pay for — High Road to China feels small scale and old-fashioned. I know — given that the movie was, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, supposed to be a throwback to the old serials and adventure films, it should feel old-fashioned. But Raiders didn’t feel old-fashioned. It payed homage to the old serials, but it didn’t actually play like one of them. It played like a big budget, modern action film made by very talented, energetic young people. High Road to China, by comparison, feels stuffy, reserved, and, well, like a movie a bunch of older people would have made. I say that as someone who is an older person these days, mind you. It’s sort of like reading one of those really dryly written Victorian era accounts of an expedition to India or something. You know the events being recounted were thrilling and dangerous, but the style in which they are being relayed is dreadfully dull.

The made-for-TV feel of the movie ultimately makes it seem like we’re not watching a knock-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark as much as we are watching a knock-off of the Raiders knock-off Tales of the Golden Monkey television series — which was a fine series, mind you (I mean, Roddy McDowell as a character named Bonne Chance Louis gets three stars alone), but it’s never a good sign when a supposedly sweeping, romantic adventure movie feels like an adequate episode of a television show. The funny thing is that a few years later, co-producer Raymond Chow basically remade High Road to China (with a dash of Seven Samurai) as a full-on Hong Kong action film, replacing grumpy ol’ Tom Selleck with Michelle Yeoh at her ass-kickin’ prime. Unfortunately, Chow also seemed to think that what High Road really lacked was a lot of awful slapstick comedy juxtaposed with lots of tragic death scenes, so he threw some of that as well.

Wow. You know, when I sat down and wrote the first couple of sentences for this article, I was intending to write a modestly positive review of the film. I guess the bickering thing really got under my skin. It is a pet peeve of mine after all, in real life and in movies, and too much of High Road to China was like being stuck on a subway with a couple having some loud, obnoxious argument about something completely inane. Some people call it chemistry, and the duo of Selleck and Armstrong certainly seem natural enough. I don’t want my severe allergic reaction to people screaming and pouting like a bunch of spoiled babies to totally color the perception of this film. It does have its fun moments, enough of them so that I did ultimately enjoy it.

Like I said, when they aren’t squabbling, Selleck and Armstrong are good actors. The supporting cast is…well, it’s got Brian Blessed in it. If you need more than that, you’re no friend of mine. Blessed is the barrel-shaped monster of a man best known for playing Voltan the Hawkman in the 1980 production of Flash Gordon (also known as the greatest production of Flash Gordon). Jack Weston and Wilford Brimley (he’s more than just the diabetes guy, you know) both turn in likable performances as O’Malley’s sidekick and Evie’s dad respectively. No one’s character is deep, but no one half-asses it just because they’re in an adventure movie partially financed by a bunch of Chinese guys. They take the movie seriously, but not so seriously that they forget to have fun. There’s an earnestness about the movie that makes it charming despite what I dislike about it.

And there are stunts. Real ones! The aerial stuff is great. In an era before CGI and laziness, High Road to China had to just buy a couple actual bi-planes and hire a couple actual stunt pilots to do crazy things in them. Similarly, the climactic battle between Wilford Brimley’s Fightin’ Peasants and the Evil Warlord is pretty exciting — once again because there’s actual aerobatics and explosions and stuntmen falling off buildings. I’ve made my peace with CGI intruding into places it does not belong (which means, supplanting actual stunts and stunt people in movies otherwise free of CGI, like in all those recent car chase movies where all the cars are CGI — you know what I call CGI car stunts? Pole Position). I can deal with it, even if it gets me a little cranky to see yet another CGI motorcycle or kungfu guy when a real one would have been better (on the flip side, why has no one replaced fat, wheezing 2009 Steven Seagal with a CGI version of Steven Seagal from 1990).

That said, it never ceases to be refreshing to see a movie where there is no CGI. Made today, High Road to China would be a TNT or Sci-Fi Channel production with chintzy looking computer-generated explosions and airplanes. Luckily, that wasn’t an option in 1983, so they just built actual sets and then blew them all to hell with real explosives. This sequence, like the ones dealing with the airplanes, represents the points at which High Road to China actually lives up to its aspiration to seem big and exciting. The whole movie should have looked as big budget as those isolated sequences.

This is a great example of a movie I really wish I liked more, or that I really wish had been better. It had all the right pieces, even with the Weintraubs involved. It’s just that there were a few wrong pieces they tried to cram in as well. Being a cross-over with Golden Harvest — then the undisputed kings of Hong Kong action cinema, with everyone from Jackie Chan to Michelle Yeoh under contract — should have lent the film some of the energy of the Hong Kong action films of the mid-80s. Unfortunately, Golden Harvest seems to have contributed little to the production beyond money, location shooting, and a bunch of extras to do that thing where you jump forward with arms flailing whenever an explosion goes off within fifty feet of you.

Granted, from a technical standpoint, that’s a lot of resources, but if you were hoping to see familiar Golden Harvest faces — even supporting players like Mars or Yuen Wah — you will be disappointed. Raymond Chow seems to have saved the familiar faces for his loose remake (Magnificent Warriors, by the way — like this movie, also worth seeing despite some huge flaws) a year later. In the end, the coolness of what Golden Harvest was doing in the mid-80s doesn’t manifest itself here. But that said, it’s not the small scale of the film that bugs me. I appreciate that it pulls off a pretty lavish feel on a small budget, even if it’s TV lavish rather than movie lavish. It’s the arguing. Just can’t stand the incessant arguing!

So yeah, High Road to China is worth seeing if you find yourself with the chance to see it (actually surprises me that this is still MIA on domestic DVD — mine is a Hong Kong release). That everyone remembers Raiders of the Lost Ark and almost no one remembers High Road is no great crime against art. Those who do remember High Road remember it fondly, for the most part. I can’t say I adore it the way many do, but I certainly understand its charms even if its occasional shrill voice renders the charms less effective for me. I still say Raiders is one of the greatest movies of all time, and High Road to China is not. It’s a fair movie with a lot of flaws and some spirited fun that makes it worth suffering the flaws.