Friday, September 23, 2011

American Nationalism, American Patriotism, Anti-Communism, and Hollywood: The Case of The Bamboo Prison

I recently saw a film on the retro television channel Antenna TV that I found quite interesting, The Bamboo Prison. The Bamboo Prison was produced by Columbia, written by Edwin Blum and Jack DeWitt, who also wrote the story the film is based on, and directed by Lewis Seiler.

The Bamboo Prison takes place in a POW camp during the Korean War and was released in 1954, a year after the real Korean War ended. The Bamboo Prison tells the tale of a POW, John Rand of Toledo, Ohio, played by Robert Francis who, when the film begins, appears to be a Benedict Arnold, a turncoat who, convinced by the truth of communist ideology about fat cats, Wall Street, and capitalists, appears to be aiding and abetting the ideology of the enemy. But appearances can be deceiving in Bamboo Prison. Rand is not who he seems. He is actually a secret agent working for the US who, in the course of the film, is told by another secret agent Brady, played by Brian Keith, that he has been ordered to uncover evidence about communist atrocities in Korea.

In order to gain this much needed information and send it back through Brady to US forces in Korea, Rand goes all commie and is allowed perks that all "progressives" get, including leaving the camp. Rand believes that another turncoat, Mr. Clayton, the propagandist from Moscow who used to work for a US communist newspaper, presumably the Daily Worker which shows up in the film and plays an important and ironic role in Rand's and Brady's communications with each other. So Rand makes close with Clayton's ballerina Russian wife, Tanya (Dianne Foster).

It turns out that Tanya has a secret, well a couple of secrets, too. She married Clayton in order to get to the United States because she hates communism. Clayton, by the way, is using Tanya as a sex favour toy to gain favour with the communist elite crowd in Moscow and "Peiping". Rand and Tanya, of course, this is a Hollywood film after all, fall in love and Tanya helps Rand to find the documents he has been looking for and which have been hidden in her husbands death all along.

The Bamboo Prison comes to a head when another secret wills out. It turns out the Catholic priest, Father Dolan (E.G. Marshall), is secretly a communist agent masquerading as a priest. Dolan eventually uncovers Rand's dirty little secret forcing Rand to act. Rand kills the priest, helps Brady to escape by staging a fake fight, kills Clayton, who has arrived back from "Peiping" unexpectedly, and arranges for Tanya to finally live her consumer dreams (she likes sable and pop music) by escaping to the West. At the end of the film with the war over Rand refuses to repatriate to the US telling his military interrogators that he is a true commie believer. Just before he gets on the truck to return to the North Rand spies Tanya and Brady and tells them that he must do his duty as a patriotic American by continuing to spy on the North Koreans and asks Brady to take care of Tanya until he can return home. An almost fairy tale ending. But we viewers can't help but believe the fairy tale will become reality soon given what we have seen of Rand throughout the film.

I was fascinated by the The Bamboo Prison for a number of reasons. It is clearly a piece of wartime propaganda much like Casablanca (one of the greatest propaganda films of all time and one of the greatest films ever made, in my opinion), Mission to Moscow, and The North Star. It is in many ways an earlier and much less ambiguous version, though Bamboo Prison does have some of the prison camp humour you see in Stalag 13 (Billy Wilder) released a year before The Bamboo Prison, though it has none of the cynicism of that film, of the Manchurian Candidate (1962), which takes the theme of communist brainwashing in a much darker direction. The Bamboo Prison, a film about secrets, makes no secret about its ideology, good old American patriotism and good old American heroes and heroism. It wears its ideological heart on its sleeves unlike some films whose cultural and ideological work goes on beneath the surface. Even the only Black prisoner we see in the film Doc (Earle Hyman) is an American patriot who doesn't fall for the bourgeois America keeps the Black man down on the plantation routine the communists, Korean, "Russian", and Chinese, are giving him. His patriotism will earn him a beating and jail time in the isolation cooler, the "ice house". Don't forget that communist "propaganda" was making much hay out of the fact that Jim Crow was slavery by another name in the 1950s and 1960s, much to their advantage in some quarters.

There is so much that is interesting and intriguing about the ideology of The Bamboo Prison. There's Comrade-Instructor Li Ching (played by veteran Chinese-American actor Keye Luke) who, when discussing the joys of American consumerism with a POW who sells cars back home and who is trying to sell cars to POW's in the camp (a good capitalist never misses an opportunity apparently), seems more interested in American consumer products than the communist ideology he is supposed to be teaching the POW's. The Bamboo Prison has that good old time good capitalist consumer society versus evil communist famine binary and theme in spades. Then there is that good old notion that all communists (met one, met them all) are united be they "Russia" (it is never called the Soviet Union), North Korea (I don't recall this phrase being uttered by anyone in the film), or China. This, of course, reflects a common understanding of communism among much of the American population at the time of the Cold War despite the fact that by the 1950s the Soviet and Chinese alliance was fraying and the split would become irrevocable by the 1960s.

The Bamboo Prison is not likely to show up in the books or articles written by academic film scholars or the work of film critics these days. Though many film scholars condemn the auteurism that has dominated film study since the late 1950s they continue to focus on the films of auteurs like Hitchcock, Welles, and Lynch, and they continue, like Andrew Sarris, to ignore films made by metteurs-en-scene like Bamboo's director Lewis Seiler when they can. And though film scholars are interested in ideology they tend to like their ideology beneath the surface of the text so they can expose, through textual analysis, the gender, racial, ethnic, capitalist, ageist, and misogynistic ideologies secretly lurking and repressed beneath the surface text. I can't imagine much interest in a film like the The Bamboo Prison among contemporary film scholars, a film which wears, as I said, its ideological heart on its sleeve.

Nor is The Bamboo Prison likely to show up on the retrospective art film circuit of film festivals or museums. Its aesthetic is realist and its director is not someone much talked about in film critic circles. I am glad I got to see it, however. It reminds me of all those paintings lurking in the basement of museums that John Berger showed viewers of his wonderful BBC documentary Ways of Seeing (a Benjaminian critique of Sir Kenneth Clark's BBC documentary Civilisation), paintings that elite's had painted of their mistresses so their elite buddies could gawk at them. Like those paintings, which tell us something important about status and wealth in Europe, and particularly in England and Britain past, The Bamboo Prison may not, like Berger's paintings, have much in the way of cultural capital these days, but it tells us something important culturally about the US in the 1950s. Looking at it from a historical perspective then, there is something to be said for cultural artifacts which wear their ideological hearts on their sleeve.

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