Monday, November 11, 2013

From the Rental Vault: Western and Eastern

In today's Hollywood, someone would look at a movie filmed 16 or so years ago and see a remake candidate. But when in 1952 Charles Marquis Warden and Andrew V. McLagen looked at 1936's fictionalized tale of Dr. Samuel Mudd, The Prisoner of Shark Island, they decided instead to make a movie based on it but using entirely different characters and setting to tell a story of their own. And so we have the western Hellgate, the story of an innocent man sent to a brutal prison out west in the years following the Civil War.

Circumstantial evidence and a lying terrorist get Gilman Hanley (Sterling Hayden) locked up on charges of aiding guerrilla fighters in Kansas after the Civil War is over. Since Hanley fought for the Confederacy, he is already suspect and is singled out for harsh treatment by the military prison commander, Lt. Voorhees (Ward Bond). Since he is innocent, Hanley wants no part of the escape plan of his fellow prisoners, led by the villainous Redfield (James Arness). He reasons that any problems could only harm the legal efforts being made to free him. But Redfield's gang threatens him if he does not cooperate, so he does. Hanley might survive the brutal desert conditions, Voorhees' cruelty or Redfield's risky schemes. But all three together may rob him forever of his freedom...or his life.

The looming Hayden does good work as the stalwart Hanley, a good man who is pushed beyond the breaking point by both the larger injustice of his conviction and the immediate injustices visited on him by the sadistic Voorhees. And his height makes him a good match for Arness, as it makes believable his unwillingness to be cowed by Redfield's threats until they're supplemented by his gang's. The story, by Warden and John C. Champion, is straightforward enough and doesn't ask more of its journeyman cast than they are able to deliver, even if it sets up its final act in a disjointed and puzzling way.
Western movie audiences probably know Michelle Yeoh best from her work in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, the international hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and her highly touted portrayal of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. But before she was seen as an international star and top actress, she was one of the first women to break out in Hong Kong action movies as the equal in butt-kicking adventuring of any male actor. Like the genre's best-known face, Jackie Chan, Yeoh insisted on doing her own stunts and fighting, and gained admiration for her physical skills and prowess as well as her acting.

1987's Magnificent Warriors, originally entitled Dynamite Fighters, was one of Yeoh's last roles before a five-year retirement following her marriage. She plays Fok Ming-Ming, a pilot and adventurer in 1930s China who also helps her people as a spy. Directed to rendezvous with another agent to stop the Japanese army from building a poison gas factory, she falls victim to a somewhat comical case of mistaken identity and finds herself not only trying to thwart the Japanese but protect a spoiled local princeling into the bargain.

Yeoh is completely in her element as the competent and spunky Ming-Ming, a tomboy-type who can disarm with a flashing smile almost as quickly as a lightning strike with her fists. The rest of the cast keeps up, but the story lurches around more than it should. Warriors would have been better served by abandoning its attempts at serious commentary and embracing the Saturday-serial feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark, to which it owes its atmosphere, and letting Yeoh get her full-out Indy on. But she still outshines the uninspired story enough that neither it nor her upcoming five-year screen hiatus could hold her back when she decided to return re-take her box office honors.

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