Monday, April 6, 2009

Review – Blood on the Sun

April 7, 2009

Blood on the Sun – U.S., 1945

Hollywood is a terrible place to look for historical truth. Over the years, Hollywood films have developed certain annoying habits when it comes to presenting non-fiction. In some Hollywood products such as The Last King of Scotland, Hoffa, and JFK, fictitious characters are inserted into real events as if they are somehow needed to explain events better. However, what Blood on the Sun does with history in the name of entertainment is truly astonishing, and not always in a good way. Here are a few undisputed facts about the events and characters in the film: Giichi Tanaka served as both the Foreign Affairs Minister and the Prime Minister of Japan from 1927 to 1929. During his tenure, he continued policies that were aggressive towards China, Manchuria, and Mongolia and even prevented Chiang Kai-shek’s from unifying China at least three times. Tanaka eventually fell out of the Emperor’s favor after advocating that Japanese officers that had assassinated a Manchurian warlord and attempted to invade Manchuria be court-martialed. Tanaka eventually resigned from his posts and a few months later died. What is unclear, however, is Tanaka’s role in a document that became known as the Tanaka Memorial Imperialist Conquest Plan, a detailed plan for the subjugation of Manchuria, Mongolia, and eventually all of China. While Japanese historians have presented the document as a forgery, Chinese history books contain references to it and treat it as if its authenticity has been proven.

In Director Frank Lloyd’s 1945 film Blood on the Sun, the document and the plans outlined on it are indeed real, only the scope of the plans has been expanded. Tanaka’s plan, like the plans of one of James Bond’s many nemeses, is for world domination, and despite the fact that the film takes place in the 1930s, Tanaka (played by John Emery), referred to in the film’s prelude as the “Oriental Hitler,” is very much alive. In fact, joining him on his mad quest are other important figures from history, the ruthless but very direct Col. Hideki Tojo (Robert Armstrong) and Secret Police Captain Yamamoto (Philip Ahn), who by his own admission is looking forward to accepting America’s surrender at the White House. Japan, as presented in the film, is a country under tight control. Newspaper content must be approved, and spies seem to be everywhere. How do we know this? Because they’re lousy at hiding. Japan’s future, we’re told, lies in rescuing Japanese women from the chains that Japan’s male-dominated society forces them to wear, a common stereotype that the film mentions once and then forgets about. In addition, it appears that every foreigner in Japan just can’t wait to leave. One character goes so far as to say, “[Nick], you’re all we’re going to miss of this place.”

The Nick that the character refers to is Nick Condon (James Cagney), a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense reporter for the Tokyo Chronicle. As the film opens, an article that Nick wrote leaking Tanaka’s plans for Asia has raised the ire of government and police officials. They want him to write a retraction, claiming the rumors are simply a diversion from China. How he gets out of doing so is clever to say the least. At the same time, Nick’s long-time, cash-strapped friend Oliver Miller (Wallace Ford) suddenly announces he is leaving Japan and that he has money to burn. However, someone has other plans, and soon Oliver and his wife Edith (Rosemary DeCamp) are murdered. Before Oliver dies though, he hands Nick a document that proves that Tanaka’s plan is real. Nick must now somehow get the document out of Japan and into the hands of the proper government officials.

What follows in an odd mix of silly Hollywood romance, tense escape attempts, and an interesting game of cat-and-mouse. I enjoyed seeing Condon trying to stay one step ahead of the Japanese secret police. It’s not easy to do when they have the power to make crime scenes completely disappear or have Condon arrested on trumped-up charges with relative ease. The film is less successful when it introduces Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Disney), a character who is supposedly half-Chinese, as Condon’s love interest. Although he initially suspects her of being a spy, it’s obvious from the moment we see her that she’s not. While it seemed to me that Condon would be too intelligent to get emotionally involved with someone while his life is in danger, he’s soon trying to woo Iris by using tried-and-true flirtatious lines on her. Of course, she falls for him, and because of her strong attachment, which it apparently only takes two days to form, she informs Condon of her role in the mystery. However, it seems to me that someone is her rather delicate, vulnerable position would have chosen a more secure place to do so.

Despite its tense first half, Blood on the Sun ends somewhat poorly. Characters are shot but don’t die, imprisoned but somehow allowed to escape, outmatched physically but victorious one way or another. It’s nothing we haven’t seen time and time again. It should also be said that the film is a product of its time, and that might hurt some people’s ability to enjoy it. The film was released on April 26, 1945, three and a half months before Japan surrendered to end the Second World War. I imagine that the film would have been a bit different had it been made a few years later. In addition, most of the Japanese characters are played by Caucasian actors, a common occurrence at the time but one that can evoke strong resentment nowadays. In addition, only one of these characters can truly be considered sympathetic. Still, in spite of these criticisms and the questionable casting of Sylvia Sidney as Iris, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy Blood on the Sun. It remains exciting throughout, and Cagney is excellent as always. However, despite the presence of historical figures, the film should not be taken as anything resembling fact. After all, if it were, wouldn’t the attack of Pearl Harbor have been prevented? (on DVD)

3 stars

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