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March 01, 2017

Bridge to the Sun

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Etienne Perier - 1961
Warner Archives DVD

Not that there are exact parallels to be found, but it struck me as somewhat timely to see what was a mainstream movie of the time tackling interracial romance and concepts of patriotism and nationalism over fifty years later. The film is based on the autobiography of Gwen Terasaki nee Harold, a young woman from Johnson City, Tennessee, who married Japanese diplomat Hidenari Terasaki, in 1931. Rather than staying in the United States, Gwen chooses to stay with her husband in Japan during World War II. Gwen Terasaki returned to the U.S. with her daughter in 1949, while her husband remained in Japan due to ill health. Gwen Terasaki's book was reportedly a best seller at the time of publication in 1957.

Since Hollywood was still jittery about anything to do with interracial romance, it would appear that MGM got around the still active production code with what is essentially a French production of an English language film. For Hollywood, it would also be radical to have the leading man played by an actor of Asian descent, rather than a white actor in yellow-face. For those who have recently proclaimed the absurdity of an Asian man as a romantic lead in a Hollywood film, Bridge to the Sun is a reminder that it's been done, albeit very briefly, at a time when "Jim Crow" laws were still enforced.

James Shigeta's first screen role was as a detective, partnered with Glenn Corbett, in Sam Fuller's Los Angeles based mystery, The Crimson Kimono. Both men are in love with Victoria Shaw, but it is Shigeta who wins the girl at the end. If you know Sam Fuller, that ending should not be a surprise. Two years later, we have Shigeta winning the heart of Carroll Baker. And it's not that these two are in love with each other, but they are demonstrably in love with each other, getting kissy face several times throughout the film. Maybe no big deal now, but certainly one at the time that the film takes place, and even at the time when Bridge to the Sun was released. I was hoping to find some reviews of the film from 1961, but came up empty handed except for the New York Times, with Bosley Crowther's at his wisest, concluding, "Obviously, this is not a picture to be compared with Hiroshima, Mon Amour".

Director Etienne Perier would never be confused with Alain Resnais. Bridge to the Sun was the first of several English language films helmed by the Belgian born Perier, probably best remembered, if at all, for When Eight Bells Toll, a failed attempt to launch a spy franchise with Anthony Hopkins. Charles Kaufman's script greatly abridges Terasaki's life which included her husband being assigned posts in Cuba and China prior to World War II, as well as acting as a liaison between the Japanese government and U.S. forces after the war. Too often, James Shigeta and the other Japanese actors, including Tetsuro Tamba, have English language dialogue that is more like Hollywood's idea of how Japanese speak. Compared to other films of the time, the orientalism is not as heavy-handed.

The single best moment requires no dialogue with a scene of Baker and her young daughter traveling by train to the countryside to avoid the bombings of Tokyo. The train briefly stops en route while a group of men are working on some tracks. The men are white, possibly American soldiers doing forced labor. Baker shares an extended look outside her rain speckled window at one of the men. There is a sense of mutual helplessness, that both are prisoners of war.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 1, 2017 08:11 AM