Ghosts of Movies Past: Wannabes Of The Lost Ark

Wannabes

In the latest installment of this series I hope someone is reading, I depart from my usual practice of revisiting one beloved film from my childhood and instead look back at multiple films from an era. Specifically, that time from 1981 to about 1984 when Hollywood moved on from crassly trying to cash in on the success of Star Wars with inferior imitations to doing the same thing with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Of course the Lucas and Spielberg classic is still one of the most influential blockbusters of all time, and I defy anyone to find me an adventure film from the past 35+ years that doesn’t owe something to the adventures of Indiana Jones. But this was an era when it was  particularly transparent. I was and still am as voracious a consumer of these homages and rip-offs as you’ll ever find, always hoping they’ll give me even a shadow of the thrills Indy did.  Here we’ll be covering two films from that era. 

HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983)

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This is actually not a film I truly loved as a child. I only saw it once and remember having mixed feeling about it. This was enhanced by the fact that I watched it at my Grandma’s house, and watching anything made after 1970 at Grandma’s house was always a little bit of a nerve-wracking experience for me. I was very close with my Grandma, and loved her to the point of near hero-worship. But while she in many ways progressive in her thinking for a Utah Mormon Grandma in the early 1980s, she was positively puritanical on the issue of swearing in movies, and reacted with shock and outrage if anyone on screen had the moral turpitude to talk the way Grandpa did in real life. Now, when I say that I don’t mean to imply that Grandpa talked like a character from a Tarrantino film or anything, just that he threw around PG profanities like “Damn” and “Hell” with near reckless abandon. Because of Grandma’s sensitivity on this issue watching something as innocuous as Short Circuit with her often made me feel like we were watching Raging Bull, and consequently I tend to remember anything I watched there having much harsher language contetnt than it really did. To this day if anyone asks me if I’ve ever viewed hardcore ponography, I’ll lower my eyes and say “The scene in Superman II where the cops swear.”

Anyway, High Road to China was perhaps the first blatantly obvious Indiana Jones Crashed Planeimitator to hit the big screen, and it drew particular attention because it was also the first star vehicle for Tom Selleck, who was arguably the biggest star on TV at the time. Of course Selleck was orginally cast as Indiana Jones before being forced to drop the role due to his Magnum, PI commitment, and this always seemed like something of an attempt to make up for it.  Selleck plays Patrick O’Malley (usually refered to as just “O’Malley”, which has the effect of causing me to spend most of the film with Phil Harris’ singing alley cat from The Aristocats stuck in my head), alcoholic former WWI pilot in the 1920s. O’Malley is hired by heiress/flapper Evie Tozier (Bess Armstrong) to fly her to Afghanistan to find her missing father (Wilford Brimley) before he is legally declared dead of diabetus and his fortune goes to his business partner instead of her. O’Malley is accompanied by his mechanic/sidekick “Struts” (Jack Weston or possibly Jack Warden, as they were the tubby old guy versions of Dylan McDermott and Dermot Mulrooney and I can never remember which.). Struts seems intended to be the lovable comic relief sidekick, but since he’s never given anything funny to say or do it’s hard to be sure. 

High Road to China is an enjoyable enough if completely uninspired adventure film which actually likely plays better now without the pressure to live up to Raiders and just enjoyed in its own right. This is the kind of adventure movie where the heroes travel a long distance, stop for a little while, get caught up in a misadventure, then take off again to repeat the process. Compared to Raiders it’s surprisingly light on action, with far more time spent on O’Malley and Evie’s “they’re obviously going to do it at some point” bickering and O’Malley’s drinking and PTSD than on stunts or fight scenes. The most memorable set piece comes when they land in the camp of Afghan Warlord Sulieman Khan (Brian Blessed, about as believable a “Khan” as John Wayne or Benedict Cumberbatch), who forces O’Malley to join him in his war with the British army by flying overhead and dropping bombs on them. While the portrayal of the Afghan people as ignorant savages is painfully stereotyped and insensitive, O’Malley’s escape plan is a genuinely fun sequence. The climactic battle with a Chinese warlord (O’Malley and Eve just find warlords wherever they land and whenever the plot needs a jolt) is pretty generic stuff, although it has the distinction of featuring every single actor who ever played a Korean soldier in all 11 seasons of M*A*S*H.

The film is badly hurt by the lack of a central antagonist. The closest we have is occasional cuts to Bentik, the business partner, who is played by British character actor Robert Morley, who all good-hearted people remember best as the guy who tells Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo that they’ve landed in England and can park their carcasses at The Happiness Hotel. The character is played as comical rather than evil, which is okay to an extent but clashes with the actual attempts by his henchmen to murder Evie and O’Malley, and frankly, a movie like this just needs more of a bad guy. It also doesn’t help that the good guys aren’t really compelling or likable enough to make us truly invested in their fates. 

Selleck does have the prescence and charisma to carry a movie, and he shows us he’d be high_road_to_china_what_no_punchingexactly what we all thought he would be as Indiana Jones: Pretty good, but no Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, O’Malley is underwriten and I didn’t feel like I really got to know the character. Armstrong is alternately charming and vaguely irritating, and it’s admirable that Evie is actually quite capable and resourceful in many respects rather than being just a damsel in distress. She seems to be just as good a pilot as O’Malley is, and she handles herself perfectly well in a gunfight. But the fact that through most of the film her quest seems to be all about protecting her source of money so she can can live a life of luxury and partying hardly gives us the reason to root for her we need. I can’t say that I ever found myself really caring whether Evie or Bentik ended up with the money.   Director Brian G. Hutton (Kelly’s Heroes, Where Eagles Dare) does competent work, making good use of exotic locations and the general feel of the 1920s setting, and while it’s far from action-packed, the film moves at a pace that keeps the viewer from getting too bored. But as cheesy as this is to say about an airplance centered movie, the film never truly takes off. All in all, it’s a pleasant enough way to spend just under two hours but nothing special. On a side note, the wikipedia entry on this film includes a note that the source material actually pre-dates Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is true but irrelevant. Heavy changes have been made, including making O’Malley an American and more of an Indiana Jones tough guy. There’s no room for doubt that this movie was trying to capitalize on Indy’s success.

NATE AND HAYES (1983)

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This pirate adventure from director Ferdinand Fairfax (nothing you’ve ever seen except maybe a few episodes of Jeeves and Wooster) is legendary in the Gibbs family, and hardly anyone else I’ve ever met has even seen it. It’s the film I always to jump to when I want to explain how badly we misuse the term “classic” these days:  My siblings and I watched this over and over again when we were kids and quote it almost verbatim, and it’s as seared in my memory as the most popular and acclaimed films of its time. But it’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, and neither is U.H.F. or Battle Beyond The Stars or Heartbeeps or whatever movie you thought was great when you were a kid. But this movie made Tommy Lee Jones’ Bully Hayes one of the great action icons to my twin brother and me growing up, to the point where when Jones and Harrison Ford were cast together in the genuine classic The Fugitive, the pairing of Indiana Jones and Bully Hayes was to us a major moment in cinematic history. Where High Road to China was a respectable big-budget production, Nate and Hayes is a B-movie through and through, and its modest budget is obvious to me now in a way it never was as a kid.

Another thing unknown to me when I was wearing out the VHS tape was that it’s loosely based on historical figures, Bully Hayes and Ben Pease. Where Hayes is made the Han Solo-like rogue with a heart of gold and Pease is portrayed as a vile and wild-eyed slimeball, in reality there seems to have been little to no difference between them on the good guy/bad guy scale.  Here, Pease attacks an island village, kills an old missionary couple, and kidnaps a beautiful young woman named Sophie (Jenny Seagrove) in the middle of her wedding to young missionary Nathaniel Williamson (Michael O’Keefe, you definitely saw on some sitcom or other at some point.). Of course Nathaniel becomes “Nate” as he and Bully (who took quite a liking to Sophie) join up to rescue the girl and kill Pease. While Nate and Hayes certainly isn’t the great adventure movie I thought it was when I was 11 to 14 year old, my nostalgic fondness for it makes it enjoyable, and I maintain that it has some genuine entertainment value and is better than its 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating (based on a mere 5 reviews, most of which come from its mid-2000s DVD release) implies. This is schlock, but it’s fun schlock. And it doesn’t take itself too seriously, thanks to the infusion of humor provided by co-writer John Hughes. Yes, that John Hughes, who was then still mostly known as a former National Lampoon writer who gave us movies like Vacation rather than as the creator of sensitive yet vaguely rapey teen angst dramadies.

While High Road to China is a more respectable film, Nate and Hayes at least has its own Bully and crewpersonality, and I’ve often wondered if this pirate tale that’s as much comedy as adventure had an influence on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, which is remarkably similar in its dynamic of a irascible rogue pirate (why aren’t there any rascible rogues?) captain, a good boy straight man, and a prim and proper young lady with a independent side and a taste for adventure. Jones is a lot of fun as Hayes, pulling off  the action and the wisecracks with flair, and it’s a star making performance that just wasn’t seen by anywhere near enough people to make him a star yet. And he has good comic chemistry with O’Keefe, who does well with the thankless role of the good guy who is no fun. Seagrove doesn’t have a lot to do besides be beautiful, but again it’s nice that the character is feistier than we’re used to in this kind of film. Fairfax keep the action coming and stages it well enough for the film’s budgetary limitations.

But now for the bad: the plot is pretty thin, the humor often feels a bit forced, and the film is about as culturally sensitive as Jeff Sessions. Those of us with a taste for old fashioned adventure movies and novels know that we have to be prepared to cringe through some seriously jaw-dropping attitudes about women, Jewish people and anyone whose skin is a shade darker than Donny Osmond’s, but Nate and Hayes takes it a bit far for the late 20th century. The European release went under the title Savage Islands, and every islander in the films is a backward doofus, an evil witch doctor or a vicious cannibal/rapist. Seriously, the most positive portrayal of a native is the wide eyed Gilligan’s Island reject who calls Nate’s missionary uncle and aunt “Big Man God and Mama Jesus Christ” (if you’re LDS, try calling the service missionary couple in your ward that. They’ll love it.)

It’s also worth noting that a case could be made that Bully Hayes is a terrible captain.  He’s constantly placing his crew in danger or costing them their livelihood to suit his whims, and in the wraparound segment he leaves them behind to escape from some of the aforementioned savages, and never seems to have any feelings about it whatsoever. This also can be a bit distracting as we realize throughout the film that most of the supporting cast is eventually going to die horribly, which kind of undercuts the lighthearted fun of the proceedings. The good news is that these characters are fairly one-dimensional, from the loyal old first mate to the cool Asian warrior, so we don’t get especially attached  to them.

On the whole, High Road to China is a generally respectable movie that kind of falls flat. Nate and Hayes is a schlocky B-movie that entertains.  These are popcorn movies, and neither is the kind of gourmet popcorn that Raiders of the Lost Ark was. High Road is fresh popcorn with no seasoning. It’s perfectly acceptable and technically qualifies as the good stuff, but it’s awfully bland; Hayes is microwave popcorn covered with tasty artificial butter flavoring and quite a bit of salt. You know you’re eating garbage but darned if it doesn’t just kind of hit the spot. Neither is a great piece of  filmmaking or even of popular entertainment, but I could watch the former again and I’ll always maintain a huge fondness for the latter.

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