Engelhardt, Creating a Spectacle of Slaughter at the Movies
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Call it a summer whim or something about this grim moment of ours, but I had an urge to post at TomDispatch my very first piece of published writing. It appeared 48 years ago in what was, at the time, one of the more obscure journals on the face of the Earth, one I helped found as a then-antiwar-China-scholar-to-be: the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars. As happens in so many lives, however, I became anything but a China scholar. I was instead swept out of my life by opposition to the Vietnam War and ended up elsewhere entirely. The piece I wrote would, more than two decades later, lie at the core of my second book, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Anyway, having been on this planet for three-quarters of a century, I wanted to bring this piece, “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” and its vision of how Americans (particularly white Americans) were once taught to look at the rest of the world back to our twenty-first-century moment. It’s long compared to normal TD posts and I’ve changed nothing in it (except to add section titles). I’d stand by it today. Tom]
In the later 1960s, thanks to the efforts of the antiwar movement, the Vietnamese — the dead, the wounded, the mistreated, as well as “the enemy” — seemed to come ever closer to us until, though I was living in quiet Cambridge, Massachusetts, I sometimes had the eerie feeling that Vietnamese were dying right outside my window. In the present American world, that undoubtedly sounds ludicrous and histrionic. You’ll have to take my word for it that the sensation then was visceral indeed.
Which brings me to the old black-and-white TV I got at some point in 1968 or 1969. What I remember about it is that, in the era before remote controls, the dial you turned by hand to change channels was broken, so I had to use a pair of pliers. Sometimes, I had it on my desk while I worked; sometimes, propped on a chair, an arm’s reach from my bed. And in the off-hours when old movies filled secondary channels, I began to re-watch the westerns, adventure films, and war movies of my childhood.
It became an almost obsessional activity. I watched at least 30 to 40 of them, no small feat in the era before you could find anything you wanted online at a moment’s notice. Those films from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s — grade-B westerns, John Wayne-style World War II movies, and the like — had for me been the definition of entertainment sunny side up. I had only the fondest memories of them. You always knew what to expect: the Indians (or Mexicans, or Japanese) would fall in vast numbers, the cavalry would ride to the rescue in the nick of time, the Marines would advance triumphantly, the West would be won, victory assured. It was how it should be. Imagine my shock, then, to look at those films again years later — with that visceral sense of Vietnamese dying in my neighborhood — and realize that the sunniest part of my childhood had been based on a spectacle of slaughter. The “Vietnamese” had always been the ones to fall in staggering numbers just before the moment of victory or the cowboy got the girl.
This was, of course, my own tiny version of the disillusionment so many experienced with a previously all-American tale in those Vietnam War years. Our country’s triumphs, I suddenly realized, had been built on conquest and on piles of nonwhite bodies. Believe me, looking back on my childhood from that antiwar moment was a shock and it led me to produce “Ambush at Kamikaze Pass,” the first critical essay of my life. It is now up at TomDispatch for the first time almost half a century later. Tom
Ambush at Kamikaze Pass
By Tom Engelhardt
[This essay first appeared in volume 3, number 1, of the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars in 1971.]
“I was visiting an Indian school and a movie was being shown in the auditorium about the cavalry and the Indians. The cavalry was, of course, outnumbered and holding an impossible position where the Indians had chased them into the rocks. The Indians, attempting to sneak up on the cavalry, were being killed, one every shot. When it finally appeared that the Indians were going to overrun the army position the ubiquitous cavalry appeared on the far horizon with their bugle blowing, and charged to save the beleaguered few. The whole auditorium full of Indian students cheered.”
— Our Brother’s Keeper: The Indian in White America
It was a thrilling drama of love and death they saw silently reeled off; the scenes, laid at the court of an oriental despot, galloped past, full of gorgeousness and naked bodies, thirst of power and raving religious self-abnegation, full of cruelty, appetite and deathly lust, and slowing down to give a full view of the muscular development of the executioner’s arms. Constructed, in short, to cater to the innermost desires of an onlooking, international civilization.”
— Thomas Mann, Magic Mountain
“Westerns” may have been America’s most versatile art form. For several generations of Americans, Westerns provided history lessons, entertainment, and a general guide to the world. They created or recreated a flood of American heroes, filled popcorned weekends, and overwhelmed untold imaginations. It’s as difficult today to imagine movies without them as to think of a luncheonette without Coca-Cola. In their folksy way, they intruded on our minds. Unobtrusively they lent us a hand in grinding a lens through which we could view the whole of the non-white world. Their images were powerful; their structure was satisfying; and, at their heart, lay one archetypal scene which went something like this:
White canvas-covered wagons rolled forward in a column. White men, on their horses, ride easily up and down the lines of wagons. Their arms hang loosely near their guns. The walls of the buttes rise high on either side. Cakey streaks of yellow, rusty red, dried brown enclose the sun’s heat boiling up on all sides. The dust settles on their nostrils, they gag and look apprehensively towards the heights, hostile and distant. Who’s there? Sullenly, they ride on.
Beyond the buttes, the wagon train moves centrally into the flatlands, like a spear pointed at the sunset. The wagons circle. Fires are built; guards set. From within this warm and secure circle, at the center of the plains, the white-men (-cameras) stare out. There, in the enveloping darkness, on the peripheries of human existence, at dawn or dusk, hooting and screeching, from nowhere, like maggots, swarming, naked, painted, burning and killing, for no reason, like animals, they would come! The men touch their gun handles and circle the wagons. From this strategically central position, with good cover, and better machines, today or tomorrow, or the morning after, they will simply mow them down. Wipe them out. Nothing human is involved. It’s a matter of self-defense, no more. Extermination can be the only answer.
There are countless variations on this scene. Often the encircled wagon train is replaced by the surrounded fort; yet only the shape of the object has changed. The fort, like the wagon train, is the focus of the film. Its residents are made known to us. Familiarly, we take in the hate/respect struggle between the civilian scout and the garrison commander; the love relations between the commander’s daughter and the young first lieutenant who-has-yet-to-prove-himself; the comic routines of the general soldiery. From this central point in our consciousness, they sally forth to victory against unknown besiegers with inexplicable customs, irrational desires, and an incomprehensible language (a mixture of Pig Latin and pidgin Hollywood).
What does this sort of paradigm do to us? Mostly, it forces us to flip history on its head. It makes the intruder exchange places in our eyes with the intruded upon. (Who ever heard of a movie in which the Indians wake up one morning to find that, at the periphery of their existences, in their own country, there are new and aggressive beings ready to make war on them, incomprehensible, unwilling to share, out to murder and kill, etc.) It is the Indians, in these films, who must invade, intrude, break in upon the circle — a circle which contains all those whom the film has already certified as “human.” No wonder the viewer identifies with those in the circle, not with the Indians left to patrol enigmatically the bluffs overlooking humanity. In essence, the viewer is forced behind the barrel of a repeating rifle and it is from that position, through its gun sights, that he receives a picture history of Western colonialism. And imperialism. Little wonder that he feels no sympathy for the enemy as they fall before his withering fire — within this cinematic structure, the opportunity for such sympathy simply ceases to exist.
The Movies and the Body Count
Such an approach not only transforms invasion into an act of self-defense; it also prepares its audiences for the acceptance of genocide. The theory is simple enough: we may not always be right (there are stupid commanders, etc.), but we are human. By any standards (offered in the film), “they” are not. What, then, are they? They are animate, thus they are, if not human, in some sense animals. And, for animals facing a human onslaught, the options are limited. Certain of the least menacing among them can be retained as pets. As a hunter trains his dog, these can be trained to be scouts, tracking down those of their kind who try to escape or resist, to be porters, to be servants. Those not needed as pets (who are nonetheless domesticable) can be maintained on preserves. The rest, fit neither for house training nor for cages, must be wiped out. 
From the acceptance of such a framework flows the ability to accept as pleasurable, a relief, satisfying, the mass slaughter of the “non-human” — the killing, mowing down of the non-white, hundreds to a film and normally in the scene which barely precedes the positive resolution of the relationships among the whites. Anyone who thinks the body count is a creation of the recent Indochinese war should look at the movies he saw as a kid. It was the implicit rule of those films that no less than 10 Indian (Japanese, Chinese…) warriors should fall for each white, expendable secondary character. 
Just as the style and substance of the Indian wars was a prototype for many later American intrusions into the third world (particularly the campaigns in the Philippines and Indochina), so movies about those wars provided the prototype from which nearly every American movie about the third world derived. That these third world movies are pale reflections of the framework, outlook, and even conventions of the cowboy movie is easy enough to demonstrate. Just a few examples, chosen almost at random from the 30 or 40 films I’ve caught on TV in the last few months. Pick your country: the Mexico of toothy Pancho Villa bandits, the North Africa of encircled Foreign Legionnaires, the India of embattled British Lancers, or even South Africa. One would think the treatment of South Africa might be rather special, have its own unique features.
But Lo! We look up and already the Boers are trekking away, in (strange to say) wagons, and, yep, there’s, no… let’s see… Susan Hayward. Suddenly, from nowhere, the Zulus appear, hooting and howling, to surround the third-rate wagons of this third-rate movie. And here’s that unique touch we’ve all been waiting for. It seems to be the singular quality of the Zulus that they have no horses and so must circle the wagon train on foot, yelling at the tops of their voices and brandishing their spears… but wait… from the distance… it’s the Transvaal cavalry to the rescue. As they swoop down, one of the Boers leaps on a wagon seat, waving his hat with joy, and calls to his friend in the cavalry, “You’ve got ’em running, Paul. Keep ’em running, Paul! Run ’em off the end of the earth! (Untamed, 1955)
Or switch to the Pacific. In any one of a hundred World War II flicks, we see a subtle variation on the same encirclement imagery. From the deck of our flagship, amidst the fleet corralled off the Okinawa coast, we look through our binoculars. The horizon is empty; yet already the radar has picked them up. Somewhere beyond human sight, unidentified flying objects. The sirens are howling, the men pouring out of their bunks and helter-skelter into battle gear. At their guns, they look grimly towards the empty sky: the young ensign too eager for his first command, the swabby who got a date with that pretty Wave, the medic whose wife just sent him a “Dear John” letter (he’s slated to die heroically). A speck on the horizon, faces tense, jokes fall away, it’s the Kamikaze! Half-man, half-machine, an incomprehensible human torpedo bearing down from the peripheries of fanatical animate existence to pierce the armored defenses of the forces of Western democracy. The result? Serious damage to several ships, close calls on more, several secondary characters dead, and an incredible number of Japanese planes obliterated from the sky. 
That there is no feeling of loss at the obliteration of human torpedoes is hardly surprising. Even in those brief moments when you “meet” the enemy, movies like this make it immaculately clear that he is not only strange, barbarous, hostile, and dangerous, but has little regard for his own life. Throwing himself on the Gatling guns of the British with only spear in hand or on the ack-ack guns of the Americans with only bomb in portal, he is not acting out of any human emotion. It is not a desire to defend his home, his friends, or his freedom. It has no rational (i.e. “human”) explanation. It is not even “bravery” as we in the West know it (though similar acts by whites are portrayed heroically). Rather, it is something innate, fanatical, perverse — an inexplicable desire for death, disorder, and destruction.
When the enemy speaks a little English, he often explains this himself. Take, for instance, the captured Japanese officer in Halls of Montezuma (1950). The plot is already far advanced. On an island in the Pacific, hours before the big attack, Marines are pinned down by Japanese mortars whose position they cannot locate. Yet if they do not locate them, the attack will fail. The Japanese officer obstinately refuses to help them. Richard Widmark pleads with him, appealing to his life force. “You have a future — to rebuild Japan — to live for…”
But the officer replies: “Captain, you seem to have forgotten, my people for centuries have thought not of living well but dying well. Have you not studied our judo, our science… We always take the obvious and reverse it. Death is the basis of our strength.” Suddenly, a mortar shell explodes above the bunker. Everybody ducks. Rafters fall; dust billows; slowly the air clears; a shocked voice yells out: “My God, the Jap’s committed Hari Kari!”
Fortunately, the idiot gave it all away. He reminded the Americans of the quirks in the non-white mind. As any schoolboy should have known, Orientals think backwards. The “Japs” put their rockets on the front slope of the mountain, not the protected rear slopes as an American would have done. The attack, to the tune of the Marine Hymn, moves forward, preparing to wipe the “Japs” off the face of the island.
If, in print, such simple idiocy makes you laugh, it probably didn’t when you saw the film; nor is it in any way atypical of four decades of action films about Asia. The overwhelmingly present theme of the non-human-ness of the non-white prepares us to accept, without flinching, the extermination of our “enemies” (as John Wayne commented in The Searchers, 1956, there’s “humans” and then there’s “Comanches.”) and just as surely it helped prepare the ideological way for the leveling and near-obliteration of three Asian areas in the course of three decades.
It is useful, in this light, to compare the cinematic treatment of the European front in World Wars I and II with that of the Pacific front. From The Big Parade (a silent film) on, a common and often moving convention of movies about the wars against Germany went something like this: The allied soldier finds himself caught in a foxhole (trench, farmhouse, etc.) with a wounded German soldier. He is about to shoot when the young, begrimed soldier holds up his hand in what is now the peace symbol, but at the time meant: “Do you have a cigarette?” Though speaking different languages, they exchange family pictures and common memories. 
The scene is meant to attest to man’s sense of humanity and brotherhood over and above war and national hatred. Until very recently, such a scene simply did not appear in movies about the Japanese front. Between the American and his non-white enemy, a bond transcending enmity was hardly even considered. Instead, an analogous scene went something like this: a group of Japanese, shot down in a withering crossfire, lie on the ground either dead or severely wounded. The American soldiers approach, less from humanitarian motives than because they hope to get prisoners and information. 
One of the Japanese, however, is just playing possum. As the American reaches down to give him water (first aid, a helping hand), he suddenly pulls out a hand grenade (pistol, knife) and, with the look of a fanatic, tries to blow them all to smithereens. He is quickly dispatched. (See, for instance, In Love and War, 1956.)
Making Much of the World Invisible
The theme of alien intruders descending on embattled humans and being obliterated from an earth they clearly are not entitled to is most straightforwardly put in science fiction movies; for monsters turn out to be little more than the metaphysical wing of the third world. These movies represent, historically, events which have taken place only in the Western imagination. Thus, in this sort of a movie, the technical problems involved in presenting the extinction of a race for the enjoyment of an audience are simplified. 
Who would even think about saving the Pod People? (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) The themes of the cowboy (third world) movie come through in a more primeval way. An overlay of fear replaces the suspense. Metaphorically, the world is the wagon train; the universe, the horizon (or, alternately, the earth space-ship is the wagon train; an alien planet, the horizon). From that horizon, somewhere at the peripheries of human existence, from the Arctic icecap (The Thing, 1951), the desert (Them, 1954), the distant past (The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, 1954), the sky (War of the Worlds, 1953), at dawn or dusk, hooting and beeping come the invaders. Enveloping whole armies, they smash through human defenses, forcing the white representatives of the human race to fall back on their inner defense line (perhaps New York or Los Angeles).
Imperiling the very heartland of civilized life, they provide only one option — destroy THEM before THEM can destroy us.
Ordinarily, the question of alternatives to elimination barely comes to mind. If it does, as in that prototype “modern” sci-fi film The Thing (James Arness of Matt Dillon fame played the monster), usually the man who wants to save Them, “talk to Them,” is the bad, mad scientist as opposed to the good, absent-minded scientist (who probably has the pretty daughter being wooed by the cub reporter). 
Unfortunately for American moviemakers, Asians and others could not simply be photographed with three heads, tentacles, and gelatinous bodies. Consequently, other conventions had to be developed (or appropriated) that would clearly differentiate them from “humanity” at large. The first of these was invisibility. In most movies about the third world, the non-whites provide nothing more than a backdrop for all-white drama — an element of exotic and unifying dread against which to play out the tensions and problems of the white world. Sometimes, even the locales seem none-too-distinguishable, not to speak of their black, brown, or yellow inhabitants. It is not surprising, for instance, that the Gable-Harlow movie Red Dust (1932), set on an Indochinese rubber plantation (Gable is the foreman), could be transported to Africa without loss two decades later as the Gable-Kelly Mogambo. It could as well have been set in Brazil on a coffee plantation or in Nevada with Gable a rancher.
As George Orwell commented of North Africa in 1939,
“All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are. Still, a white skin is always fairly conspicuous. In northern Europe, when you see a labourer ploughing a field, you probably give him a second glance. In a hot country, anywhere south of Gibraltar or east of Suez, the chances are that you don’t even see him.
“I have noticed this again and again. In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at. It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa are accepted as tourist resorts.” 
Theoretically, it should have been somewhat more difficult since the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions and other uprisings of the oppressed and non-white around the world to ignore the people for the scenery. Yet we can’t fault Hollywood for its valiant attempt. Generally, American films have hewed with unsurpassed tenacity to this framework — reproducing the white world whole in the Orient, with Asians skittering at the edges of sets as servants or scenic menace (as in the recent horrific extravaganza, Krakatoa, East [sic] of Java, 1969, where a volcano takes over the Lassie role and the Asian female pearl divers go under in the final explosions). This is even truer in films on Africa, where for generations whites have fought off natives and lions, not necessarily in that order.
A second convention of these films concerns the pecking order of white and non-white societies when they come into conflict. It is a “united front” among whites. Often the whites portrayed are the highly romanticized third-rate flotsam and jetsam of a mythologized American society — adventurers, prostitutes, opportunists, thieves (just as the films themselves, particularly when about Asia, tend to represent the brackish backwater of the American film industry). Yet no matter how low, no matter what their internal squabbles, no matter what their hostilities towards each other, in relation to the third world the whites stand as one: missionary’s daughter and drunken ferryboat captain (“I hate the Reds,” he says to her, “because they closed a lot of Chinese ports where they have dames. Chinese, Eurasian, and White Russian… Somebody pinned the bleeding heart of China on your sleeve but they never got around to me.”/Blood Alley, 1955); soldier of fortune and adventurer-journalist, natural enemies over The-Woman-They-Both-Love (They escape Canton together, avoiding the clutches of the Reds in a stolen boat/Soldier of Fortune, 1955); sheriff, deputies, and captured outlaws (They are surrounded by Mexican bandits/Bandalero, 1961); or, on a national level, the British, Americans, and Russians (They must deal with “the chief enemy of the Western World,” Mao Tse-tung /The Chairman, 1970).
This theme is, of course, simply a variation on a more home-grown variety — the Confederates and Yankees who bury their sectional hatreds to unite against the Indians; the convicts on their way to prison who help the wagon train fight off the Sioux, bringing the women and children to safety, etc. (See, for example, Ambush at Cimarron Pass, 1958, which combines everything in one laughable mess — a Yankee patrol and its prisoner team up with a Confederate rancher to fight off an Apache attack.)
The audience is expected to carry two racial lessons away from this sort of thing. The first is that the presence of the incomprehensible and non-human brings out what is “human” in every man. Individual dignity, equality, fraternity, all that on which the West theoretically places premium value, are brought sharply into focus at the expense of “alien” beings. The second is the implicit statement that, in a pinch, any white is a step up from the rest of the world.
They may be murderers, rapists, and mother-snatchers, but they’re ours. When the inhabitants of these countries emerge from the ferns or mottled huts and try to climb to the edges of the spotlight, they find the possibilities limited indeed. In this cinematic pick-up-sides, the whites already have two hands on the bat handle before the contest begins. The set hierarchy of roles is structured something like this: All roles of positive authority are reserved for white characters. Among the whites, the men stand triumphantly at the top; their women cringe, sigh, and faint below; and the Asians are left to scramble for what’s left, like beggars at a refuse heap.
Evil, Helpless, or Dependent
There is only one category in which a non-white is likely to come out top dog — villain. With their stock of fanatical speeches and their propensity for odd tortures, third-world villains provided the American filmmaker with a handy receptacle for his audience’s inchoate fears of the unknown and inhuman. Only as the repository for Evil could the non-white “triumph” in films.
However, this is no small thing; for wherever there is a third-world country, American scriptwriters have created villain slots to be filled by otherwise unemployable actors (though often even these roles are monopolized by whites in yellowface). From area to area, like spirits, their forms change: the Mexican bandit chief with his toothy smile, hearty false laugh, sombrero and bushy eyebrows (see, for instance, the excellent Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948, or the awful Bandalero); the Oriental warlord with his droopy mustache and shaven head (see The Left Hand of God, 1955, The General Died at Dawn, 1936, Shanghai Express, 1932, Seven Women, 1965, etc., ad nauseam); the Indian “Khan” or prince with his little goatee and urbane manner (Khyber Pass, 1954, Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936). Yet their essence remains the same.
Set against their shiny pates or silken voices, their hard eyes and twitching mouths, no white could look anything but good. In Left Hand of God, Humphrey Bogart, the pilot-turned-opportunist-warlord-advisor-turned-fraudulent-priest becomes a literal saint under the leer of Lee J. Cobb’s General Yang. Gregory Peck, an “uninvolved” scientist-CIA spy, becomes a boy wonder and living representative of humanity when faced with a ping-pong playing Mao Tse-tung in The Chairman.
How can you lose when the guy you want to double-deal represents a nation which has discovered an enzyme allowing pineapples to grow in Tibet and winter wheat in Mongolia, yet (as one of the Russian agents puts it) is holding it so that the rest of the “underdeveloped” world, “90% poor, 90% peasant… Will crawl on their hands and knees to Peking to get it.” All in all, these non-white representatives of evil provide a backboard off which white Western values can bounce in, registering one more cinematic Score for Civilization.
The other group of roles open to non-whites are roles of helplessness and dependence. At the dingy bottom of the scale of dependence crouch children. Non-white children have traditionally been a favorite for screenwriters and directors. Ingrid Bergman helped them across the mountains to safety (The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, 1958); Deborah Kerr taught them geography (The King and I, 1956); Humphrey Bogart helped them to memorize “My Old Kentucky Home” (Left Hand of God); Carroll Baker went with them on a great trek back to their homelands (Cheyenne Autumn, 1964); Richard Widmark took one (a little half-breed orphan girl — sort of the black, one-eyed Jew of the tiny tot’s universe) back to the States with him (55 Days at Peking). And so on.
Essentially, non-white children fulfill the same function and have the same effect as non-white villains. They reflect to the white audience just another facet of their own humanity. Of course, if you ignore W.C. Fields, children have had a traditionally cloying place in American films; but in the third-world movie they provide a particularly strong dose of knee-jerk sentiment, allowing the white leads to show the other side of Western civilization. It is their duty not just to exterminate the world’s evil forces, but to give to those less capable (and more needy) than themselves. And who more closely fits such a description than the native child who may someday grow up to emulate us.
While it is children who demonstrate the natural impulses of the white authorities towards those who do not resist them, but are helpless before them or dependent upon them, it is women who prove the point. Even within the cinematic reflection of the white world, women have seldom held exalted positions. Normally they are daughters of missionaries, sweethearts of adventurers, daughters, nurses, wives on safari, schoolmarms, or prostitutes. (The exceptions usually being when women come under a “united front” ruling — that is, they confront Asian men, not white men. Then, as with Anna in The King and I, while their occupations may not change they face society on a somewhat different footing.) Several rungs down the social ladder, non-white women are left mainly with roles as bargirls, geishas, belly dancers, nurse’s aides, missionary converts, harem girls, prostitutes. In such positions, their significance and status depends totally on the generosity (or lack of generosity) of those white men around whom the movies revolve.
However “well-intentioned” the moviemaker, the basic effect of this debased dependency is not changeable. Take that classic schmaltz of the 1950s, The World of Suzie Wong. William Holden, a dissatisfied architect-businessman, has taken a year’s sabbatical in Hong Kong to find out if he can “make it” as an artist. (It could have been Los Angeles, but then the movie would have been a total zilch.) He meets ***Susie Wong***, a bargirl who is cute as a Walt Disney button and speaks English with an endearing “Chinese” accent. (“Fo’ goo’niss sakes,” she says over and over at inappropriate moments.) He wants her to be his model. She wants to be his “permanent girlfriend.” Many traumas later, the moviemakers trundle out their good intentions towards the world’s illtreated masses. They allow Holden to choose Susie over Kay, the proper, American, “upper” class woman who is also chasing him.
This attempt to put down the upper classes for their prejudices towards Chinese and bargirls, however, barely covers over the basic lesson of the movie: a helpless, charming Chinese bargirl can be saved by the right white man, purified by association with him, and elevated to dependency on him. (Her bastard child, conveniently brought out for his pity quotient, is also conveniently bumped off by a flash flood, avoiding further knotty problems for the already overtaxed sensibilities of the scriptwriters.) It all comes across as part act of God, part act of white America.
Moving upwards towards a peak of third-world success and white condescension, we discover the role of “sidekick.” Indispensable to the sidekick is his uncanny ability to sacrifice his life for his white companion at just the right moment. In this, he must leave the audience feeling that he has repaid the white man something intangible that was owed to him. And, in this, we find the last major characteristic of third world roles — expendability.
Several classic scenes come to mind. In this skill, the otherwise pitiful Gunga Din excelled (Gunga Din, 1939). Up there on a craggy ledge, already dying, yet blowing that bugle like crazy to save the British troops from ambush by the fanatic Kali-worshippers. Or, just to bring up another third-world group, the death of the black trainer in Body and Soul (1947), preventing his white World Heavyweight Champion (John Garfield) from throwing the big fight. Or even, if I remember rightly, Sidney Poitier, Mau Mau initiate, falling off the Punji sticks to save the white child of his boyhood friend Rock Hudson (Something of Value, 1957).
The parts blend into each other: the Filipino guide to the American guerillas, the Indian pal of the white scout, that Mexican guy with the big gut and sly sense of humor. In the end, third-world characters are considered expendable by both moviemakers and their audiences because they are no more a source of “light” than the moon at night. All are there but to reflect in differing mirrors aspects of white humanity.
The Coming of the “Adult Western”
While extermination, dependency, and expendability have been the steady diet of these movies over the decades, American moviemakers have not remained totally stagnant in their treatment of the third world and its inhabitants. They have over the last 40 years emerged ponderously from a colonial world into a neo-colonial one. In the 1930s, the only decade when anything other than second-rate films were made about Asia, moviemakers had no hesitation about expressing an outright contempt for subjugated and/or powerless Asians; nor did they feel self-conscious about proudly portraying the colonial style in which most Westerners in Asia lived. The train in Shanghai Express (1932) is shown in all its “colonial” glory: the Chinese passengers crammed into crude compartments; the Westerners eating dinner in their spacious and elegant dining room. Here was the striking contrast between the rulers and the ruled and nobody saw any reason to hide it.
During this period, with the European imperial structure in Asia still unbroken, colonial paternalism abounded. No one blinked an eye when Shirley Temple asked her Grandfather, the British Colonel (Wee Willie Winkie, 1937), why he was mad at “Khoda Khan,” leader of the warlike tribes on India’s northeast border, and he replied, “We’re not mad at Khoda Khan. England wants to be friends with all her peoples. But if we don’t shoot him, he’ll shoot us… They’ve been plundering for so many years, they don’t realize they’d be better off planting crops.” (A few poppy seeds maybe?) Nor were audiences taken aback when Cary Grant called his Indian sidekick a “beastie” (or alternately the “regimental beastie”) in Gunga Din; nor when Clark Gable kicked his Indochinese workers out of a ditch (to save them from a storm, of course), calling them similar names (Red Dust). A decade later such scenes and lines would have been gaffes. 
In the wake of the World War and its flock of anti-Japanese propaganda flicks (whose progeny were still alive in the early 1960s), the destruction of the British, French, and Dutch empires, the success of the Communist revolution in China, the birth and death of dreaded “neutralism,” and the rise of the United States to a position of preeminence in the world, new cinematic surfaces were developed to fit over old frames. In their new suits, during the decade of the fifties, cowboy-third-world movies flourished as never before. A vast quantity of these low-budget (and not-so-low-budget) films burst from Hollywood to flood the country’s theatres. In the more “progressive” of them, an India in chains was replaced by a struggling, almost “independent” country; the “regimental beastie” by a Nehru (Ghandi) type “rebel” leader; the Kali-worshipping, loinclothed fanatic by Darvee, the Maoist revolutionary. (“You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs.”)
Yet this sort of exercise was no more than sleight of hand. The Nehru character looked just as ridiculously pompous and imitative as did Gunga Din when he practiced his bugle; nor did the whites any less monopolize center stage (holding, naturally, the key military and police positions); nor could the half-breed woman (Ava Gardner) any less choose light (the British officer) over darkness (Darvee and his minions). Soon, all this comes to seem about as basic a change in older forms as was the “independence” granted to many former colonies in the real world (Bhowani Junction, 1956).
If any new elements were to enter these movies in the 1950s (and early 60s), it was in the form of changes in relations within the white world, not between the white and non-white worlds. These changes, heralded by the “adult westerns” of the late fifties, have yet to be fully felt in films on Asia; yet a certain early (and somewhat aborted) move in this direction could be seen in some of the films that appeared about the Korean war (not a particularly popular subject, as might be imagined) — a certain tiredness (“Three world wars in one lifetime”/Battle Circus, 1953) and some doubts.
The World War lI flick’s faith in the war against the “Japs,” in a “civilian” army, and in “democracy” comes across tarnished and tired. The “professional” soldier (or flyer) takes center stage. (“We’ve gotta do a clean, professional job on those [North Korean] bridges.”/The Bridges at Toko-ri, 1954.) There is, for instance, no analogue in your WWII movies to the following conversation in The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Mickey Rooney (a helicopter rescue pilot) and William Holden (a flyer) are trapped (shot down) behind the North Korean lines. Surrounded, they wait in a ditch for help to arrive. During a lull in the shooting, they begin to talk:
Ambush at Kamikaze Pass
Holden: “I’m a lawyer from Denver, Colorado, Mike. I probably couldn’t hit a thing [with this gun)…”
Rooney: “Judas, how’d you ever get out here in a smelly ditch in Korea?”
Holden: “That’s just what I’ve been asking myself… the wrong war in the wrong place and that’s the one you’re stuck with… You fight simply because you are here.”