Escapist Entertainment: Hollywood Movies of Burma
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Escapist Entertainment: Hollywood Movies of Burma

By Edith Mirante MARCH, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.3


Hollywood representations of Burma paint the country as an exotic, cruel land that serves as a backdrop for daring occidental adventurers and patriots.

The earliest Hollywood imaginings of Burma were romantic melodramas about white women in jeopardy, using the Southeast Asian landscape as an exotic backdrop. These and subsequent films about Burma have relegated Burmese characters to the sidelines.

A lurid, silent thriller about prostitution and murder, Road to Mandalay (1926), set the tone. Eight years later saw the release of Mandalay, in which the Sacramento Delta in California plays the part of the Irrawaddy River. It is a sordid tale of revenge, murder, a Rangoon nightclub hostess, and a drunken doctor on his way to a "black fever" outbreak. The Girl from Mandalay (1936) featured another nightclub entertainer, another epidemic, and a tiger attack.

Moon Over Burma (1940) is Dorothy Lamour’s turn as the nightclub chanteuse, with Burma depicted as a jungle paradise, the usual setting for her popular "sarong movies"—romances in which she sang, swathed in form-fitting batik. The central character in these early pictures was always the victimized, yet plucky, Western—or part-Asian—woman adrift in the mysterious Orient.

In Like Flynn

Throughout the decade, World War II themes dominated Burma and Hollywood. A cluster of Burma Road movies appeared—Burma Convoy (1941), Bombs Over Burma (1942) and A Yank on the Burma Road (1942)—but they were set mostly on the China-end of the 1,000-mile long Burma Road, which once linked China to India. The only Hollywood Burma comedy, Rookies in Burma (1943), combines the thirties and forties themes as a pair of comical soldiers who break out of a Japanese prison camp and hook up with a pair of glamorous nightclub entertainers for an escape across Burma.

Burma as a place from which to escape is the main theme of subsequent Hollywood Burma movies, from the forties and in recent times alike. Directed by Raoul Walsh, Objective Burma (1945) opens with documentary footage, although the rest of the film looks like a California landscape bedecked with extra tropical plants. An American platoon, led by a low-key Errol Flynn, penetrates the "Jap-infested jungle" on an extended mission. Black-and-white cinematography by James Wong Howe and a haunting musical score establish an unrelenting atmosphere of peril.

Flynn’s troops do not encounter any local people until meeting a few Urdu-speaking longyi-wearing men at the outskirts of an otherwise Japanese-occupied village. The village has stone Buddha and chinthe (mythical lion) statues, a fantastic gingerbread pagoda, and a temple bell. These serene Burmese elements contrast with the Japanese atrocities against American soldiers that have taken place in the village.

Anna and the Pilot

The Purple Plain (1954), based on a novel by H E Bates, with a script by Eric Ambler, was filmed in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Forrester, a Canadian pilot played by Gregory Peck, loses his wife in the bombing of London, then crashes his plane in the dry zone of Burma. Barely surviving a harrowing jungle trek, he finds his way to a Burmese village, where he meets the luminous Anna, played by Win Min Than.

The Purple Plain was the only Western movie about Burma to bother casting actual Burmese actors, until 1995. Win Min Than’s Anna revives Forrester’s mind and soul. It is a vivid, memorable performance. Novelist Paul West has written that the "slender, winsome, deeply spiritual" Anna, with her crisp British accent, "animates the movie" and "summons up all the Asian heroines" of literature. Although Anna ultimately serves as the agent of the Western male’s salvation, when Win Min Than is on screen the movie is about her. This focus on a Burmese person makes Purple Plain unique.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Escape to Burma (1955) is a bit of nonsense apparently meant for the Saturday matinee crowd. Although the story refers to the murder of an ethnic Shan saohpa’s (local chieftain) son by an American miner, and Barbara Stanwyck plays a tough teak wallah—instead of a nightclub dancer—the whole effect is ludicrous. Caucasians in Indian raja drag play the Shans, the elephants are very obviously on loan from a circus along with the orangutan and the chimpanzee, and the studio jungle set is straight out of a florist’s shop. Not even references to tigers, rubies, nats (animist spirits) and dacoits bring this any closer to Burma.

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