Friday, April 5, 2013

Fantasies of Restoring Order: On China Gate and The Ugly American

In the context of Hollywood Vietnam War films, Samuel Fuller’s China Gate (1957) and George Englund’s The Ugly American (1963) represent two distinct poles: the former is a B-movie less concerned with social and political statements than with melodrama and spectacle while the latter purports to be an important, liberal-minded Big Statement movie about the political involvement of the United States in Southeast Asian affairs. Unsurprisingly, given Hollywood’s historical patterns for representing foreign Others, both films, though superficially dissimilar, spring from the same mindset and ultimately function in nearly identical ways. Erecting simple-minded dichotomies of good vs. evil (literalized as Not Communist vs. Communist) and moral behavior vs. barbaric indifference (diplomacy vs. War), they effectively trivialize the realities of the American involvement in Vietnam, reducing the particular experiences of Vietnamese people to broad melodramatic strokes while opportunistically distorting American political and militaristic action. By virtue of their different stylistic and narrative approaches, however, they take different paths to produce this problematic effect.


China Gate opens with a quasi-documentary montage parroting an American newsreel that hastily summarizes the French involvement in Indochina around the time US troops began infiltrating the region. Strikingly contradictory in tone to the rest of the film (though the movie as a whole is no stranger to tonal inconsistency, as the musical interludes will attest), this expository prologue is ostensibly designed to lay a foundation of verisimilitude to the forthcoming narrative, as if to indicate that the ensuing events will be located within a very real historical milieu. Of course, this quickly reveals itself as a patently absurd concept. As the montage settles into staged footage of a young Vietnamese boy and his dog being pursued by a bloodthirsty Communist and the narrator remarks upon the dangerous divide among the Vietnamese people, the speed with which the gulf between the supposedly authentic and the melodramatic is leaped is extraordinary. Fuller’s attempt to inject pathos atop journalistic authenticity is clumsy to say the least, and it momentarily, if not permanently, derails the film’s contrived sense of authority on its subject matter.

Shortly thereafter, China Gate attempts to extinguish the ludicrousness of its opening minutes by applying a sense of “grittiness that is generally absent from polished Hollywood high-budget films [of the 50’s]” and introducing its subject: Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry), an American mercenary in a multinational group recruited to destroy a Communist arms depot near the Chinese border (Gordon 3). Having abandoned the Asian son he had with a Eurasian ally named Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson), Brock is identified as a racist early on and thus the spectator’s alignment with him is challenged. This raises the central narrative question of the film: will Brock overcome his racism or will he be defined by it? It goes without saying that, because Brock is an American and because the film is “less about Cold War politics per se than about the American culture of which they were a reflex,” either outcome will be reflective of national identity (Berg and James). Therefore, in order to stabilize the spectator’s moral alignment with the subject, the film will have to present Brock righting his wrongs.

Because racism is raised as a narrative problem, tolerance is formulated as a virtuous quality, making Lucky Legs the film’s core embodiment of the good and moral. Communism, meanwhile, is presented as a kind of accepted evil; its sympathizers are either barbaric (eating dogs, or, worse, little children), scheming (luring the soldiers into deadly traps), or prone to base impulses. In this light, although Lucky Legs lives up to her name as a woman capable of using her sexuality as a tool for manipulation (one prurient image that scans the length of her body is presumably designed to illustrate the visceral effect she has on those she manipulates), the fact that she is doing so in the service of tolerance and anti-Communism allows her to retain an essential goodness. Such a characterization is what leads to an impression of China Gate as “violent anti-communist propaganda" (Rev. of China Gate).

It becomes clear that in order to stabilize the spectator’s alignment with the subject in the context of this starkly delineated moral universe, Brock must assume the positive qualities of Lucky Legs. As is typical of Hollywood melodrama, the film’s narrative problem is coded into a heterosexual romance. As such, Brock and Lucky Legs’ near-constant bickering about vaguely outlined romantic woes and their controversial offspring through the first two acts of the film clarifies that the narrative problem is unresolved; conversely, when Brock climactically apologizes to Lucky Legs for his behavior – a move that kick starts the spectacular action of the film’s final act – all order is restored. As Marsha Gordon puts it, “interrogation and violence almost inevitably climax in an acting out of desire between men and women” (Gordon 6). No matter that Brock’s apology seems fueled as much by erotic lust as by self-realization; the lasting impression, in a narrative sense, is that he has accepted the errors of his ways in the first two acts of the movie. Through the convenient wonders of plot contrivance, he is now tolerant of his Asian son. He has successfully moved “between the spheres of the hyper-masculine and the heterosexual/domestic,” a trait that defines Fuller’s combat films of the 1950's (Gordon 1).

Despite this seemingly uplifting reversal, however, the resolution of China Gate also must offer a casualty. The death of Lucky Legs at the Communist arms depot where the film spends its final half-hour is a way of cementing the evils of Communism and punishing the subject for his wrongdoings while simultaneously reaffirming a sense of American patriarchal virtue, and by extension stabilizing the spectator’s moral alignment with the protagonist. Brock’s escape from the Communists in an airplane is a literalization of the higher realm of understanding to which he has ascended, and the concluding shot of him walking away from the Vietnamese rubble clutching the hand of his Asian son is – notwithstanding the decrepit scenery and the somber Nat King Cole score – an emblem of victory against Communist evil, racism, and wrongheaded attitudes in general, as well as the culmination of “the making of a ‘real’ man and a ‘real’ father from the scraps of a war-torn soldier“ (Gordon 13).


Like China Gate, The Ugly American – based loosely off of a novel by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer – also immediately compromises its bid to be taken seriously, this time by cloaking South Vietnam as the fictional “Sarkhan.” The presence of Marlon Brando, the proliferation of political dialogue, the integration of drawn-out, “frighteningly realistic” Vietnamese riot scenes, and the very fact that the film is adapted from a distinguished novel are all indicative of director George Englund’s aspirations to seriousness. However, this odd re-titling of a geographical region comes across as a critical red flag in assessing the film’s mark of authenticity (Rev. of The Ugly American). Looked at another way, this slight dodging of reality may in fact be an even more elevated stab by Englund to assign sociopolitical importance to his movie, as if subscribing to the idea that by sidestepping specificity the material gains additional, universal relevance.

Driving the film's talky, didactic drama is Ambassador Harrison Carter MacWhite (Brando), a mustachioed scholar whose smartly articulated stance of racial and political tolerance in an early courtroom scene suggests a liberal compassion that is complicated once he is sent to Southeast Asia as a diplomat to assist in the building of a “Freedom Road” to Sarkhan’s northern border. There, he is confronted with a complexity amongst the Sarkhanese citizenry that not even he expected, and it is this profusion of viewpoints and allegiances that ultimately forces him to fall back on knee-jerk hostility and ignorance. In a more daring move than the A-B character trajectory in China Gate, The Ugly American begins by presenting a protagonist who appears sophisticated, morally exceptional, and kindhearted only to show him descending into unflattering qualities when his intellectual authority is challenged in new surroundings.

J. Hoberman summarizes the film’s title as an American who, upon entering a foreign country, either “exaggerate[s] the mindless conformism and conspicuous consumption that presumably characterized life at home—or else they ‘isolate themselves,’ take refuge, as a turtle retreats into a shell.” MacWhite falls into the first category of this definition. As his “sublime ignorance of local realities” reveals itself, he dons increasingly prim and well-tailored suits, gets escorted in limos around Sarkhan, and returns to his hotel to spit objectifying one-liners at his wife. When a rioting Vietnamese populace storms MacWhite’s limo at the airport in the latter half of the film, it acts as the most crushing blow to the character at this low point in his progression. It’s also, given the scene’s documentary veneer (hand-held cameras, diegetic sound), a moment of recognition of such an obvious manifestation of mounting local anger that it steers MacWhite towards a desire to uncover the truth, to more comprehensively understand the Vietnamese political situation.

Of course, the film assumes that this desire alone is enough for the spectator to begin feeling sympathetic again towards the protagonist. MacWhite uses a far less hostile and more inquisitive tone in his second extended conversation with Deong (Eiji Okada), an old Sarkhanese friend who is now fighting for national independence from Imperialist efforts (a position that MacWhite conflates with Communist sympathies). He also spends the final act of the film marked by an expression of puppy-dog innocence, a face that screams apologetic compassion. These surface characteristics simplistically pry the audience’s sympathy back towards MacWhite even as his founding dramatic question (is Deong a Communist or not?) and his defining narrative goal (to build a “freedom road”) crystallize his narrow-minded approach to diplomacy throughout the film.

Eugene Burdick and William Lederer, the progressive authors of the novel, sought out George Englund according to the understanding that he was a director who was “dedicated, skilled and who knew something of the world outside of Southern California,” but The Ugly American’s final stab at a critique of American ignorance is only a small gesture towards the hope for a deeper domestic understanding of foreign affairs, not exactly the parting gift of an educated, critical activist. The authors also briefly describe the finished product as “a colorful and very forceful movie,” and their euphemistic one-line review gets at the core of The Ugly American’s offenses: it forces a statement upon the viewer about global awareness and tolerance (which MacWhite ultimately embodies by the film’s conclusion) without sufficiently thinking these positions through (Burdick and Lederer).


-Berg, Rick and James, David E. “College course file: Representing the Vietnam War.” Journal of Film and Video. Volume 41. Issue 4 (Winter 1989): 60-74. Print.
-Burdick, Eugene and Lederer, William. “The Ugly American Revisited.” Saturday Evening Post 4 May 1963: Vol. 236. Issue 17. P. 78-81. Print.
-Gordon, Marsha. ““What Makes a Girl Who Looks Like That Get Mixed Up in Science?” Gender in Sam Fuller’s Films of the 1950s.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 17. Issue 1 (2000): 1-17. Print.
-Hoberman, J. “Believe It or Not: J. Hoberman on the Ugly American.” Artforum April 1991: 27-28. Print.
-Horton, Robert. “Sam’s Place.” Film Comment. Volume 32. Issue 3 (May-June 1996): 4, 7-9. Print.
-Rev. of China Gate, by Samuel Fuller. Monthly Film Bulletin. Volume 24. Issue 276 (1957): p. 87. Print.
-Rev. of The Ugly American, by George Englund. Variety Movie Reviews. Issue 1 (1963): p. 101. Print.

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