Bombs over Burma

by Glenn Erickson Apr 20, 2024

This Poverty Row PRC opus was thrown together in just a few weeks, in the first months of World War II. Cult actress Anna May Wong gets top billing in a pro-China thriller about keeping the Burma Road open, an issue that would later become a real wartime strategy. We’re also drawn to anything by the creative director Joseph H. Lewis. At this time still known as ‘Wagon Wheel Joe,’ Lewis distinguishes himself with almost no production resources. Both Dan Seymour and future Oscar winner Nedrick Young make their screen debuts.

Bombs over Burma
Film Masters
1942 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 65 min. / Street Date March 4, 2024 / Available from Amazon / 14.99
Starring: Anna May Wong, Noel Madison, Leslie Denison, Nedrick Young, Dan Seymour, Frank Lackteen, Judith Gibson, Dennis Moore, Connie Leon, Hayward Soo Hoo.
Cinematography: Robert Cline
Set Decorator: Fred Preble
Makeup: Carson Jawett
Film Editor: Charles Henkel
Original Music: Lee Zahler
Screenplay by Milton Raison, Joseph H. Lewis
In Charge of Production: Leon Fromkess
Produced by Alfred Stern, Arthur Alexander
Directed by
Joseph H. Lewis

When working on the movie 1941, Richard Lingeman’s nonfiction book Don’t You Know There’s A War On? became required reading. The attack on Pearl Harbor sent a shock wave through the whole country, and Hollywood as well.

The studios initially feared that they would be bombed, as if Hollywood were a priority target for invasion. Republican isolationists in Washington had discouraged movies ‘taking sides’ about the wars being fought in Europe and China, but now it was open season on our enemies. Studios rushed to register titles for productions about ‘Beasts of Berlin’ and ‘The Menace of the Rising Sun.’   Numerous ready-to-screen studio pictures were slightly altered to acknowledge the country’s new war footing.

Movie production increased, as the thousands of workers that flooded into the cities for good-paying defense jobs needed to be entertained. Theaters in downtown Los Angeles would soon be running 24 hours a day, to service swing shift workers. Cheap second-feature ‘B pictures’ were needed too, so the companies of Gower Gulch and Poverty Row were kept busy.

The film industry prepared to lose a lot of male talent to the draft. Some top reservists left for signal corps or special ops duty — John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler. New director John Huston had to leave in the middle of a movie. His reported ‘exit prank’ has become a classic Hollywood anecdote.

A lot has been written about 4-F actors that received career boosts in the vacuum left when many of Hollywood’s leading men enlisted or were drafted. But writers and editors with ambitions to direct still faced barriers to advancement. Editors Robert Wise and Mark Robson got early breaks at RKO, but John Sturges had to wait for his directing break. Future top director Anthony Mann was working at places like Republic, also hoping for a boost. The biggest winner may have been the German expatriate director Douglas Sirk. A war-themed ‘Poverty Row’ cheapie he directed became a surprise hit, and he suddenly became an employable talent. Sirk’s story makes for excellent reading.

PRC … not a director’s studio of preference.

Sirk’s breakthrough had come at Producers’ Releasing Corporation (PRC), a ‘B’ movie mill in no way considered a good career stepping stone. It is now remembered for its films by director Edgar G. Ulmer, a workaholic who ground out his own ultra-cheap movies and contributed to many others without credit. His claim to fame at PRC is of course the classic Detour, which was given extra resources.  We’re due to see a restored Ulmer / PRC classic very soon, his Bluebeard with John Carradine.

Stopping by briefly at PRC was ex- editor and director Joseph H. Lewis, looking for a pathway out of the creative ghetto of lower-tier westerns. He’d even made a horror film for Universal. When war broke out Lewis found himself working for PRC’s production boss Leon Fromkess, with a mission to make a war-themed action picture — for next to nothing.


A PRC ’60-Day Wonder’

PRC’s Bombs over Burma is the first of two PRC pictures made in 1942 by the former silent screen beauty Anna May Wong, who had starred with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express. The movie was a real rush job — the announcement of its production came on March 31, and the movie had its first screenings on June 5. With a ‘pickup’ cast of mostly unknowns, the patched-together action thriller was likely filmed in less than a week.

Although PRC announced the purchase of a source story, director Lewis and writer Milton Raison (SOuthside 1-1000) likely threw the script together in record time, nothing unusual for Poverty Row. In Chungking, schoolteacher Lin Ying (Anna May Wong) runs an American-style elementary classroom. A Nationalist Chinese flag hangs on the wall. Lin Ying receives a coded message, and we discover that she’s an espionage agent for the ‘Chinese Army,’ presumably the Nationalists. This first scene is played entirely in Mandarin, even though Lin Ying is teaching a lesson about ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The city is attacked by Japanese planes and one child is killed.

The storyline then forwards Lin Ying to an unmarked bus going South. Her fellow bus travelers include the friendly driver Slim Jenkins (Nedrick Young), the slovernly and nosy Pete Brogranza (Dan Seymour), Burmese priest Me-Hoi (Noel Madison) and an Englishman with a portable electric shaver, Sir Roger Howe (Leslie Denison). A bombed bridge forces the group to take shelter in a monastery.

Lin Ying’s secret mission is to help keep the Burma Road open for war supplies. When the bus’s distributor is stolen. she discovers that a spy among the passengers is using a secret transmitter to tell the Japanese when war convoys are on the road. The spy successfully dodges suspicion, and frames another one of the travellers. The conflict is resolved on the road, with a clever counter-trick by Lin Ying and a confederate — another ‘good’ Chinese spy in disguise — that unmasks the real villain, a German agent.

We’re always ready to see something directed by Joseph H. Lewis. Bombs over Burma isn’t much of a movie, but his positive contribution is easy to see and appreciate. The film’s action scenes are edited around library newsreel footage, inter-cutting Japanese war planes (and some obvious U.S. exhibition planes) with any and every kind of explosion stock shot that could be located. Despite those drawbacks Lewis manages an excellent first two reels. He gets some lively action from his class of Chinese-American tots, even if some of them can’t resist looking at the camera. The little boy chosen to be the victim of a Japanese strafing run behaves as if he were directed to ‘take a nap. ‘  He’s so cute, the scene works anyway.

Bruce Lee said everything he knew about screen fighting came
from PRC’s thrilling, action-packed production stills.

Once on the road, Joseph H. Lewis is stuck with unconvincing bus interiors and shots of vehicles filmed on what looks like the old Santa Susana Pass road to Simi Valley, what we film students knew as ‘Manson Country.’ The shoot may have had the bus and trucks for just a day or two — they aren’t even decorated to look Chinese. Few PRC directors tried to move the camera much, but Lewis found ways to add extra dynamism to his exterior action shots. He refused to shoot dull establishing wide shots. Buses and trucks in motion are filmed from moving vehicles, something a maker of westerns would know something about.

They call me ‘Wagon Wheel Joe.’

Back on those westerns Lewis had been earned the nickname ‘Wagon Wheel Joe.’ He almost always films his establishing wide shots through foreground objects, creating a strong impression of spatial depth. And yes, often the partial obstruction in the foreground was a wagon wheel. Establishing shots here use the same dynamic. One angle is partly masked by a decorative saloon door. Interior scenes are enlivened with foreground blurs of furniture. We feel as if we are ‘somewhere’ with action going on all around us, not on a three-sided proscenium with actors moving from left to right.

The polished camerawork is stymied by a stillborn screenplay, but Bombs over Burma never grinds to a complete halt. Joseph H. Lewis’s contribution was valued, if only because film crews seemed to work extra-hard to please him. His reputation grew and the assignments got better. Lewis’s breakthrough film My Name is Julia Ross was only a couple of years away.

Anna May Wong also holds the show together, keeping her dignity even as she is given only the slightest character to play and little opportunity to project a glamorous image. Lin Ying smiles knowingly at her young students’ antics. In the lengthy monastery section she hasn’t much to do beyond creep around, and eventually get held up by the enemy spy. For film fans the most familiar face is Dan Seymour, whose big unshaven lout Brogranza is clearly a red herring character. This was Seymour’s first movie. He became instantly in demand, and just a few months later made a notable appearance in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.


Less well known but familiar to students of the Blacklist is Nedrick Young, another actor making his first screen appearance.    Ned Young is familiar from the Lewis pictures (Gun Crazy and  A Lady Without Passport. In Lewis’s near-absurd  Terror in a Texas Town), he’s the unlucky gunslinger who loses a fast-draw to a whaler’s harpoon.

Nedrick Young is quite good as ‘the American’ in the picture, who stands up for fairness and gives Anna May Wong’s character his trust when she needs it most. He also had a distinguished career as a writer, that would later be crushed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He was nominated for two writing Oscars, but couldn’t accept his win because it had to be submitted under a pseudonym. Young also has a story credit on the classic Elvis Presley picture Jailhouse Rock.

The other players don’t make much of an impression. Noel Madison goes uncredited in most of his pre-Code gangster pictures, and here takes on a Japanese makeover that fools nobody, especially when he stands next to Ms. Wong. Leslie Denison had an even quieter career as various English spies, authority figures etc.. He shows up in bit in big studio pictures, but is almost always uncredited. We’re not exactly sure who plays the female dispatch officer of the bus line, who in one scene is given a lot of attention. She has no close-ups, so we can’t even get a good look at her makeup.


The ‘nice young couple’ given little to do but take up space on the bus are Dennis Moore and Judith Gibson. Moore had just worked for Lewis on a PRC picture called Criminals Within; Gibson would change her name to Teala Loring for a short career that yielded just a couple of good parts with decent billing. Ms. Loring is now best remembered as the sister of Debra Paget and Lisa Gaye.

With little action to stage, Joseph H. Lewis relies on good editing to fold in all that stock war footage. Those American stunt planes doubling for Japanese fighters don’t earn the show many points, and Lewis is also forced to cut in shots of bombs falling over the open ocean. There is one okay special effects angle through the schoolroom window, showing a plane shooting at the little boy.

Can we praise Joseph H. Lewis, for keeping all those road scenes from becoming tedious?  The climax shows the villain falling for his own trap, and surrounded by Chinese locals (identified as ‘coolies’), who close in on him for some rough justice. Lewis gets the shots he needs for a sustained suspense sequence, but the Chinese-American extras for the scene don’t look particularly vengeful. That, and the farming implements they use as weapons look far too familiar, as if Lewis asked crew members to bring them in from home.

You work with what they give you — Joseph Lewis likely came out of this show in good stead, with PRC commending him for making something out of almost nothing, in record time.



Film Masters’ DVD of Bombs over Burma caught us by surprise when we discovered it was a DVD-only release. It is listed as being restored in HD. What we’re given is a plain-wrap disc on the order of an older Public Domain release, except the Film Masters has put their transfer element — we suspect an intact 16mm print — through a good digital clean-up program.

The image is not at all bad for a movie unavailable in top quality. It has okay contrast and reasonable detail. We see only a few hairline scratches and almost no dirt or speckling. The image is also very stable, with no gate weave or jumping at splices. It is the first even remotely watchable version we have seen.

The painful part is the soundtrack, which is tubby and clogged with noise. The volume is low, and raising it doesn’t make the dialogue any more clear. When people talk under their breath, their words aren’t always intelligible. The problem is surely the source print’s audio track. The fact that no subtitles are present doesn’t help.

We know all too well that many of PRC’s films are just not available in good quality — it’s possible that some 35mm elements were junked when 16mm reduction negatives were made. Some Edgar Ulmer PRCs of this period seem to exist only in splicey, incomplete 16mm prints. The picture for Bombs over Burma is acceptable, but the soundtrack is a problem. Yet we enjoyed watching the film. The story is so uncomplicated that we understand what’s happening even when we can’t hear the dialogue well. And we’re always impressed by the inventive, resourceful directing choices made by Joseph H. Lewis.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Bombs over Burma
DVD rates:
Movie: Good +/-
Video: Good +/-
Sound: Fair –
Supplements: none.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0;
Subtitles: None
Packaging: One DVD in Keep case
April 14, 2024

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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John Knight

To be fair Film Masters must be applauded for rescuing these Poverty Row classics from p.d.hell. BOMBS OVER BURMA is free of all the dreadful neg damage that plagued other versions. I also highly recommend their previous releases CONVICT’s CODE (featuring beautiful talented tragic Anne Nagel) and LIGHTHOUSE. These releases deserve all the support they can get as a PRC Monogram junkie I await further releases with the greatest of anticipation. More Anne Nagel would not go amiss either especially Lambert Hillyer’s SHOULD A GIRL MARRY?

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