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April 28, 2020

The General Died at Dawn

general died at dawn.jpg

Lewis Milestone - 1936
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In The General Died at Dawn, Gary Cooper plays an American gunrunner in China known only by his last name, O'Hara. The character was inspired by the real life British born Morris Abraham Cohen, known primarily for his association with Sun Yet-sen and also having been appointed as a major-general in the Chinese National Revolutionary Army. Cohen was 49 at the time of the film's release. I would assume that for Paramount, the idea of a Jewish action hero would be a hard sell for the American public, but I'd like to imagine an alternate version with Paul Muni in the lead.

I also have to wonder if the film, with its setting in war-torn China, was previously considered for Josef von Sternberg. The setting is exotic, if not as baroque as in a von Sternberg film. The production was the year after von Sternberg left Paramount. There is also the connection of Gary Cooper as the star, appearing six years earlier in von Sternberg's Morocco.

The General Died at Dawn is still of interest primarily in terms of some of the visual innovations. A shot of a white door knob dissolves into a shot of a white pool ball. There is use of the split screen with two characters in conversation while each corner of the screen peels back to reveal additional action of other characters. Even the opening credit sequence is imaginative with the credits over the sails of Chinese boats floating across the screen. Meanwhile, the film's corniest line from playwright Clifford Odets, with Gary Cooper informing Madeleine Carroll that they could have made beautiful music together, was first uttered here.

So we have Gary Cooper and his pet monkey trying to smuggle a big belt full of money to a group of rebels fighting the warlord General Yang. The money is to be used to purchase guns. Coop has to not only outwit Yang, the general of the film's title, but also assorted low-lifes including a hoarse voiced William Frawley. Madeleine Carroll is caught between her love for Coop and her loyalty towards her father, a relationship that appears emotionally incestuous.

Contemporary viewers might be put off by having several members of the cast in yellow face, notably Akim Tamiroff as General Yang. While that aspect can be charitably considered as a product of its time, the film is otherwise well cast with Asian, if not specifically Chinese, actors as Chinese characters. Also, none of the Chinese characters speaks pidgin English, and the couple of racist characters have what's coming to them.

Lewis Milestone doesn't have a reputation as a visual stylist, and perhaps credit should go to cinematographer Victor Milner, who received an Oscar nomination for his work. The shot that first introduces the viewer to Madeleine Carroll is of her legs, and a cigarette in hand. There is also Carroll and Cooper's first onscreen meeting, with Cooper seen as the reflection on a full length mirror in a train's compartment. There is also one unusually graphic depiction of murder that I would not have expected in a film made at that time. As is to be expected from Kino Lorber's releases from the Universal vault, this is a nicely rendered blu-ray from new 4K master.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track alternating between film historian Lee Gambin and actress Rutanya Alda. Gambin discusses the visual innovations introduced by Milestone, and how The General Died at Dawn fits in with other films starring Gary Cooper. Alda talks about the first time she saw Gary Cooper on screen and a bit about his personal life. The commentary track seems more aimed towards the casual film fan. While Gambin also discusses how the politics of Milestone and Odets found expression in the film, viewers wanting a deeper dive will have to look elsewhere.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 28, 2020 06:48 AM