After leaving British Vogue in 1945, Lesley Blanch freelanced for a year, and was a regular contributor to Edward Hulton’s The Leader (sister publication to Picture Post). She covered film and photography – still relatively new media – and profiled rising stars; Vivien Leigh, Peter Ustinov and Billy Wilder among them. A fellow contributor and friend, Robbie Lantz, later became her agent when they were both living and working in the US. He also took on her husband Romain Gary as a client. Film Orientations is the first in a series of feature articles by Lesley Blanch being republished that originally appeared in 1945.
Since I wrote some weeks back, on the manner in which one nation presents another on the screen, so many people have written asking my views on Western versions of the East, that I shall go into the question more fully, here and now.
First of all, speaking generally, I have no words to describe what I think of those typical Californian-Arabian super-spectacles such as Kismet, Sudan or Arabian Nights: they’re about as Oriental as a Kardomah Café, and are an extension of frantic fantasy, on the sort of Eastern themes found on boxes of Turkish delight or dates.
It’s a world of its own, this pseudo-East of the cinema: a harem-houri paradise of sherbet and camels and gold-painted slaves with jewelled (uplift) brassières: the East where pale hands are always beside the Shalimar, the Sheik of Araby’s never-never land , the land of Salomé, where she never danced: where India, Africa, China and Japan merge with Persia and Turkey into a sort of exotic jumble. Taj Mahal; blends with desert mirage, Baghdad and Morocco meet: Little Blossom O So Kosi is dust beneath Amy Woodforde-Finden’s chariot wheels, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves march with Bengal Lancers and Foreign Legionnaires, away and off, into Lost Horizons.
But isn’t it about time the English-speaking cinema began taking the Eastern people as human beings, and the East, whether near or far, as something more than a highly-coloured background for white races in helmets? Isn’t it about time the Western cinema stopped patronising the Eastern way of life and thought? There’s a big enough gulf between the two ways without any added misunderstandings. There must be a vast and thinking public who would like to know something about the East besides travelogues or travesties in the pantomime manner.
Eastern people each have their own history, religion, and philosophy; their own code of conduct, their ideologies, politics, and economics. Pictures which helped us to understand something more about this other half of the globe might strengthen our links as human beings; might help us to achieve that unity which sounds so fine on paper, and which is so important to us, in particular, with our vast ranged Empire.
Both the French and the Russian cinema has proved that it can handle pictures about the East in adult and sympathetic manner. Pictures like La Bataille, L’Esclave Blanche, Adventures in Bokhara, Storm Over Asia and others are proof. But I shall have more to say about them later. Meanwhile the English-speaking cinema, by that I mean the chiefly American, continues its grotesque versions of Far and Near East.
Then there is another type of picture. Somerset Maugham’s characters commit adultery, do murder, or play bridge, very much as they would in London, Paris or New York. They are a series of European characters involved in self-contained dramas of their own and are merely set against a tropic backcloth.
Louis Bromfield’s book, The Rains Came, has much that was interesting in its analysis of the various characters, Eastern and Western, the interplay, and clash of the two ideologies. Whatever you may think of Bromfield’s other novelettes, this book has all the qualities which could have made a magnificent film, a passionate study of races, and creeds, shown with almost scientific detachment – but instead it became a love story between Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy: one theme in all the rich and variegated field this book covered, was enough for Hollywood to focus on: and it was the underlying theme at that.
The French Can Do It
Compare this with the brilliant handling of French film. La Bataille, which told of the clash between Japanese and French ethics – the eternal triangle, Merle Oberon and Charles Boyer, as the Japanese naval officer and his wife, and John Loder as the French – or was it English? – naval attaché involved in a triangular drama, where the Eastern and Western ethics clashed personally, yet were united by the onset of battle; this was an outstanding film.
Perhaps now with the ending of the Japanese war it may be revived, and, no longer having propaganda angles to confuse its issues, may be enjoyed as a sociological drama.
Watching the latest Cagney picture, Blood on the Sun, I was more than disappointed. This sort of thriller gains nothing by being set in Japan. It’s a childish sort of Western cash in. It wasn’t such a bad picture of its kind, but that kind of picture – the usual cliché of stolen documents, Foreign Office incidents, the tough freedom-loving Yank reporter who blows the Axis gaff, and gets the girl – the half Chinese girl who burning to help her Eastern half-sisters out of slavery into the complacent glow of Western emancipation (and note she is only half Chinese so it’s OK for Cagney to fall for her), all these things are clichés of a thousand nights that go beyond boring us.
Their mechanical facility becomes an insult to adult audiences. The whole picture might as well have been set anywhere else. It just happened Tokyo was topical. A few years before, the stolen plans, the journalist, the girl and the rest of the baloney would have been set down in Nazi-dominated Europe. I suppose such films are best dismissed as commercial and surface-scraping, about as indicative of Western trends as a new hat – the fashion of the moment.
I am reminded of another fine French film which approached the East, or rather the near-Eastern way of life, with a brilliant blend of drama and romance, and showed the sociological and racial abyss between East and West. This was L’Esclave Blanche – The White Slave – which for all its lurid title, was far from being cheaply sensational. It was set in Turkey, at the turn of the century, when Constantinople was still a medieval city of harems, pashas, slaves, and the stifling atmosphere of intrigue and secret police surveillance; a country whose frontiers led not only from Europe into Asia, but into an earlier century, too.
There were some unforgettably lovely scenes. The great, ornate marble pillars of the seraglio, the shimmering light falling on the preening, chattered crowds of turbaned, trousered houris. The great ebony slave women like janitors at the latticed courtyard windows. The little beetling figure of the Sultan with is mopetty white poodle, and his favourite wife, the old heavy, domineering queen bee among the scuttling, jealous odalisques.
But the picture was not an excuse for cheap, sexy situations; it set out to trace the effects of the two ideologies, their clash, and the logical outcome of the problem. It showed something of the background from which modern Turkey has evolved, and although it was never considered a particularly outstanding film, either in France, or here, it was, by comparison with most American pictures on eastern themes, a masterpiece of taste and clear thinking.
Then, too, consider some Russian pictures: Storm Over Asia, Turksib, though this was really a documentary, or the recently shown Nasreddin. This latter was an Oriental fairy tale on picturesque lines, but it was documentary in the fidelity of its approach. It was made in Tashkent, with a cast which was almost entirely Eastern; music too, was as unmistakeably un-Western in type as was the sort of beauty displayed by the charming, plump, moon-faced heroine.
The whole thing was an essay in eastern folklore, with no concessions to the West. Yet it enchanted those Western audiences lucky enough to see it (Londoners saw it at the Tatler, but regional audiences dependent on the bookings of commercially-minded renters and exhibitors were not so fortunate); for they were thus able to get first-hand impressions of the Eastern idiom
How different this idiom, to that of Hollywood, which seems to regard China as a vehicle for Katherine Hepburn and Paul Muni, though it is only fair to say that they do better by China than other Eastgern spheres. Perhaps it all boils down to Pearl Byuck’s own brand of chinoiserie.
There have been a few exceptional pictures from both American and British studios which I remember gratefully, and hope will serve as models for the new, post-war, worldwide cinema I want to see develop as the world re-shapes. Let us have more pictures like Robert Flaherty’s Elephant Boy made by London films in 1936; or the French film Caïn.
I do not know whether Arab countries now make their own films or not; if so they might well be interesting to us here. India has its own cinema industry, but their pictures are not shown here. Indian audiences adore Chaplin films, and piece his old shorts together into a long side-splitting jumble, proving that great art knows no racial distinction. It may be for some want of enterprise that we are missing some equally outstanding Indian players – a Hindu clown, or a Garbo from the Ganges.
Before the war, way back in ’36 or ’35, I heard that the Japanese film industry had serious designs on world markets, and with that end in view, selected its film stars for their more western cast of countenance, and groomed them along western lines, streamlined figures and contemporary rather than traditional coiffure and costume.
Hollywood has two big stars used in both Eastern and Western dramas. Anna May Wong was a Chinese beauty, but very much Westernised. The Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa remained more truly Oriental, and his heyday was in the middle twenties. His films were always of a sombre nature, ending sadly, if not tragically, owing to the fact that he was never allowed to win the girl, if she was white, as she usually was, for fear of offending public taste.
There have been a few Japanese films such as Father’s Spirit in Dagger which were entirely Japanese, and to Western audiences were more in the nature of dramatic documentaries. I should like to see many more of this type of picture concerning other Eastern and Asian races.
There must be many kinds of customs, rituals, festivals and folklore, from Persia to Bali, which could form the nucleus of films which are far more than just travelogues. Eisenstein proved this, with his wonderful Thunder Over Mexico, made in 1934, but never seen here in its entirety. It brought the pulsing texture and smell of Mexico to the outside world.
Audiences: New Demands
I believe that post-war audiences here in Britain, will be very different from pre-war ones. The home public will be avid for open windows on to the world. For six years this public has been cooped up, hemmed-in, and concentrating of the day-to-day struggle for survival. They will crave wider horizons. And when the fighting men return – those who’ve been too long on far horizons, and acquired first-hand knowledge of the East – they won’t stand fro being fobbed off with Chu Chin Chow.
The men of the 8th Army didn’t see North Africa through Marlene Dietrich’s Seven Veils of hokum. They saw it straight: not just as one great big exotic bazaar, but besides being their battlefield, a complex world of its own, a place where flies, dirt, disease and poverty spell spoliation of mind and body – and yet a place for which dignity, great teachings and a great cultural tradition still survive, for those who look for them. A world of its own, which cannot be judged and must not be misrepresented by European standards alone.
That is, I think, the whole issue. Are Western audiences content to go on using the East only as a backcloth for dramas of our own civilisation? Or do we want to see the various aspects of the East as a setting for subjects which are the outcome of the Eastern way of life and thought? Let’s leave the bizarre hokum to Hollywood, with their jumble of cobras swaying to Benny Goodman’s band in an African oasis.
But, in our own cinema, let us begin to take the East seriously.
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