Two-fisted Hong Kong racketeer Clark Gable goes out on a limb to recover Susan Hayward’s husband, held prisoner in Red China. In a literal pirate vessel armed with a stolen cannon, Gable literally goes to war, risking his smuggling empire by half-kidnapping Michael Rennie’s Hong Kong cop. This lush CinemaScope action-travelogue-romance now comes off as comfort food movie viewing: familiar stars doing what they do best. It’s a German import from a Hollywood Studio whose library titles may no longer be licensed to hard media home video.
Soldier of Fortune
Explosive Media GmbH
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 96 min. / Street Date September 26, 2019 / Treffpunkt Hongkong / Available at Amazon.de
15.99 Euros Starring: Clark Gable, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Gene Barry, Alexander D’Arcy, Tom Tully, Anna Sten, Russell Collins, Richard Loo, Frank Tang, Jack Kruschen, Leo Gordon, Mel Welles, Robert Quarry.
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editor: Dorothy Spencer
Original Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Ernest K. Gann from his novel
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
The extras on The High and the Mighty distort the bestselling author/screenwriter Ernest K. Gann into a giant of literature, but he could spin a good tale or two. Fox’s Buddy Adler jumped on Gann’s ‘mercenary at the door to Red China’ non-flying yarn Soldier of Fortune as an action vehicle for Clark Gable, who reportedly requested the role. As part of Darryl Zanuck’s New Wave of CinemaScope quasi-travelogue features, Soldier stands on the political crossroads in other ways as well. The recent HUAC recant-name names-retread Edward Dmytryk, one of the Hollywood Ten, is the competent director of record. By this time Fox was finding clever ways to cut corners on adventures set in foreign lands. Good planning obscures the fact that star Susan Hayward never went to Hong Kong.
Soldier of Fortune isn’t out on Blu-ray in Region A, but this German disc is Region-Free, at least as far as U.S. standards are concerned. What with Disney purchasing 20th-Fox, we’re concerned that the Fox library may be put off limits to hard media. The foreign distributor behind this disc has already been told that no more titles will be licensed. In this case, waiting for a homegrown release may not be a good idea.
Ernest Gann adapted his own book, so any changes may have been the work of Darryl Zanuck. Susan Hayward had recently finished a Fox movie about a feisty lady rescuing her husband from a forbidden land, Garden of Evil. The difference here is that the missing hubby is a swell guy, not a craven malcontent like the one played by Hugh Marlowe.
Jane Hoyt (Susan Hawyard) arrives in the Hong Kong Crown Colony to find out why the locals haven’t been able to retrieve her husband Louis (Gene Barry), who is missing and presumed (by some) dead in mainland China. Police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) offers help in good faith, but nobody on the waterfront cooperates, except to say what a nice fellow Louis is, or was. Gigolo Rene Dupont Chevalier (Alex D’Arcy) and a creepy businessman (Jack Kruschen) try to pick up Jane, and she finds herself evicted from Tweedie’s Bar because only ‘bad dames’ come in unescorted. Tweedie (Tom Tully) lives off shady deals, along with his partner Icky (Russell Collins) and henchman Big Matt (Leo Gordon); Icky is in love with a freeloading Russian expatriate, Madame Dupree (Anna Sten). Jane eventually finds her way to the hilltop villa of the mysterious Hank Lee (Clark Gable), an ex-soldier who appears to be the king of a number of rackets, mainly smuggling on his converted Chinese junk.
Although Hank has adopted a pair of adorable orphans, he at first downplays Jane’s husband problem — and tries to kiss her. He then formulates a plan to find out where Louis Hoyt is and sneak him out in a daring raid into Red territory. Before he can act, Jane falls for the lies of Fernand Rocha (Mel Welles). To meet him, she secretly takes the ferry to Macao with Po Lin, an honest guide and former Nationalist general. Hank puts his plan into action, enlisting Rene as his aide, as well as all of his friends on the waterfront. When he’s forced to kidnap Inspector Merryweather, it looks like Hank will lose everything he’s gained in Hong Kong. Considering Jane’s unwavering fidelity to her husband Louis, it’s unlikely that he’ll get her, either.
Soldier of Fortune is a handsomely mounted, halfway fresh addition to the genre of escapist romantic intrigues set in exotic backgrounds. Early in his career Clark Gable made one of these every other year, including a few with Jean Harlow. By now he’s definitely showing his age, but the role of Hank Lee is still a good fit. Hank sits out the first reel while his legend is being established among the Casablanca – like refugees, expatriates and grifters encountered by Jane Hoyt in Hong Kong. Hank is a admix of Pépé le Moko, Father Flanagan, and a crude masher.
Susan Hayward’s record for slapping leading men was bettered only by Joan ‘one round’ Crawford. As with Jean Gabin’s homesickness for Paris in Pépé le Moko, Hank yearns to return to New York but is apparently a wanted man there. He even has a phonograph record of Big Apple traffic noise. He’s one of those special criminals admired by the cops. Michael Rennie’s Merryweather knows damn well that everything Hank does is illegal, but there’s just no (sigh) evidence. I guess it’s too much work to look up how Hank purchased his hilltop kingdom, and then follow the money.
Susan Hayward gets to do her popular ladylike tough broad act, strong-arming her way through various goons. Jane Hoyt is indeed romantically attracted to Hank, and the movie plays the game wherein we don’t know which way she’ll turn. A solution frequently condoned by the Production Code is for the third-wheel guy to get conveniently dead, by fair means or foul.
We have to admire the way the filmmakers give the impression that Hayward was in Hong Kong for the shoot. Gable and some of the supporting players can be seen on real locations but Hayward is integrated through the use of a double in long shots, and in some very good rear projection. Note that we see Gable on the platform for a funicular railway, but when a recognizable Susan shows up, the views switch to the process stage. The matching is rather good. The effects department also experiments with some quality traveling matte work, especially on Hank Lee’s junk. The optical process had yielded some terrific shots in Garden of Evil.
The sniffy nose of the Production Code is all over this show, and not just for the illicit sex angle. Was there some kind of quota for anti-Commie movies at this time? Edward Dmytryk did his patriotic penance with The Caine Mutiny, Broken Lance, and The Left Hand of God, which also fronts an overt anti-Red Chinese theme. Soldier stays much more action-oriented than political, which makes it feel less forced than John Wayne’s Blood Alley, of the same year. Jane and Louis are in more danger from local thieves and cutthroats than they are from the Chinese Reds, even though Louis is being held as a political pawn. The captive is seen being advised to play along with the Red fantasy that evil Capitalist Dogs have sent him to obtain military secrets. Louis was just taking innocent pictures showing how people live, so gee whiz, what are those Commies all upset about? Gann swipes a verbal motif from Billy Wilder, when Louis tells his interrogator to ‘turn the record to the other side’ because he’s getting bored.
Since the Reds pulled much worse crimes whether their victim was guilty or innocent, Gann’s politics get a big pass. He also rates extra points for another atypical scene, in which Richard Loo’s Nationalist general, reduced to begging in Hong Kong, is targeted for arrest by sailors from a Red patrol boat. We can assume that Po Lin will disappear into some kind of camp, if he’s not summarily executed as an enemy of the state.
Dmytryk stages this quite well, considering how thoroughly the blacklist took the fight out of him. In most of his films to follow there will be nothing as forceful as the social outrage expressed in his exile feature Give Us This Day aka Christ in Concrete. These were not good years to put forward pro-Union anti-Capitalist messages.
An entire set of sidebar subplots in Tom Tully’s bar are a wash — the setting is used for low comedy, a couple of brawls and a lame attempt to revive the career of actress Anna Sten. She sings a song, but the movie could have used something else for padding… even the remarkable Leo Gordon only gets to mark time. It’s good that the rest of the film is so tightly organized.
Gable and Hayward do well making the standard romantic pair seem fresh. Neither dominates, and each handles the snappy dialogue in their own way. Is much physical chemistry generated? Well, Gable still has it, that’s for sure. Hayward’s a little iffy. I’m sure she was a head-turner, but Dmytryk overplays the moment, with a half-dozen weasels in the hotel lobby all but fall out of their chairs to get an eyeful of the new arrival.
Michael Rennie’s part is much better than usual. Fox stuck him in a string of weak roles, but his Crown Colony Inspector here is so neatly sketched, he can pull off the corny old gag where the cop and crook join forces in the spirit of good deeds and lost causes. The other actors were likely just as thrilled to perform opposite Gable, the much- venerated King of Hollywood. Alex D’Arcy had already spent twenty years playing Euro lounge lizards, and he’d eventually show up in groaners like Horrors of Spider Island. But his is also a surprisingly good role — when Hank Lee goes into action, Rene Chevalier’s unscrupulous rogue becomes a dependable sidekick.
Screenwriter Gann confects a mini-commando raid that makes up in style and spirit what it lacks in credibility. That Red hoosegow might as well have guards made of Jell-O. The gunboat chase on the flight back to Hong Kong works better, what with the aforementioned effects work, and the way Gann keeps things simple. Hank Lee thinks of everything — below decks on his smuggling junk is a patented ‘Thunderbolt & Lightfoot’ 20mm cannon. The movie doesn’t pretend that such a gag would hold off a trained gunboat crew — Gann invents another gimmick to allow Hank Lee’s junk to escape. It’s basically bribery on a big scale: Mad Magazine’s ‘Flesh Gordon’ was right to exclaim, “I tell you that great old U.S. dollar is good EVERYWHERE!”
Hank can rely on the golden luck that has for ten years saved him from the British lawmen. Soldier of Fortune isn’t Rambo, which is a main reason it’s so enjoyable. It also has the brains NOT to bring Hayward’s Jane along on the raid, which for 1955 is a commendable bit of realism.
Explosive Media’s Region- B Blu-ray of Soldier of Fortune is so far not available on domestic Blu-ray. Unfortunately, the disc I was sent to review was left all-region, resulting in an inaccurate review.
The original English audio and subtitles are present, and one need only choose them in the menu. The disc normally defaults to Deutsch. ‘Treffpunkt Hongkong’ appears to translate as ‘Rendezvous in Hong Kong.’
After years of awful TV prints and the generally lackluster Fox DVD from 13 years ago, this new HD remaster looks great. Colors show no sign of fading, and most dissolves match well. The filmmakers were smart — when Jane Hoyt is seen riding around Hong Kong, she’s just small enough in the frame for her double to pass muster.
Explosive offers the extras provided by Fox: a trailer (featuring Ernest K. Gann in person) and a still gallery. This release is a fine way to discover this low-stress adventure-romance from the early years of CinemaScope.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Soldier of Fortune
Region- B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (English, German)
Supplements: trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, German
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 14, 2019
Text Â© Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson