Film: Very Good
Region: 0 (NTSC)
Released: February 5, 2003
Genre: Adventure / Romance
Synopsis: Wanted for murder, a gem miner’s escape to Burma is halted when he falls for a teak plantation owner.
Special Features: Double-billed with Appointment in Honduras (1953) / Theatrical trailers for Escape to Burma (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), and Silver Lode (1954).
One of the last batch of films released by dying major RKO Radio Pictures in the 1950s, Escape to Burma was another efficient low-level A picture produced by Benedict Bogeaus with major stars shot on a modest budget, offering some romance, action, exotic escapism, and a tight story that worked as long as you didn’t think too hard and notice its seams.
Based on Kenneth Perkins provocatively titled story “Bow Tamely to Me,” Escape to Burma deals with the heiress to a teakwood plantation in Burma, and the wanted murderer who wins her heart, yet drags her into an ongoing flight from British and Burmese justice.
Barbara Stanwyck (Double indemnity, Titanic) is Gwen Moore, plantation owner and major matriarch to her extensive staff of Burmese loggers and elephant handlers; Robert Ryan (House of Bamboo) is Jim Brecan, rare gem miner wanted for the murder of a local sultan’s son; and David Farrar (The Small Back Room) plays sexless foreign office agent Cardigan, a decent soul who tries to arrest Brecan and haul him back to Britain before the Burmese soldiers can hang him without any trial.
Allan Dwan manages to extract quite a bit of intrigue and conflict in spite of the fast scene transitions and ludicrous coincidences and strokes of luck. In spite of trekking into the jungle, each of the three main characters always manage to find each other, and when Brecan is finally apprehended and flagellated for a very long time, his recovery is strength, stature, and ability to smile are admirable.
Escape could’ve been a quickie – it looks like it was shot within a tight timeline – but Dwan adds real elephants and has Stanwyck often in close proximity to a live pachyderm. A few puppet inserts do stand out, but the encounters between man, woman, and jungle beasts are well done, except for an abrupt cut and frame frame freeze after a tiger is shot by Brecan. (Filming reportedly took place at California’s World Animal Jungle Compound, so any animal deaths happen off-screen or with minimal coverage.)
Perhaps the leading reason Escape hold its own is the cinematography by John Alton (Tea and Sympathy, The Brothers Karamazov, Elmer Gantry), who fills the screen with rich colours, lovely shadows for the night scenes, and brisk plant-filled tracking shots that were reportedly typical of Dwan’s style, and give action scenes a faux 3D quality.)
Had the lead roles been filled by less skilled actors, the film would’ve been a banal B-entry. Stanwyck plays Moore as a woman who goes on faith rather than her heart, and although she falls for bad boy Brecan she doesn’t surrender her independence and position as the plantation’s CEO. Brecan does earn trust and stature within Moore’s minimal corporate structure (there’s God, the regional Sultan, Moore, and no one else), but he won’t get higher than site manager. The immediate respect he’s given by her staff, however, comes more from Brecan being a Great White Hunter type; had he been Burmese, his arrival would’ve been recognized for what it was: a crook, breaking into her home, drinking her booze, and weaseling his way into her life.
Ryan is one of the few actors who could convey a subtext of character depth when none existed. The sole clever maneuver within the script by Talbot Jennings and Hobart Donavan is we’re not allowed to find out if Brecan is innocent of murder and theft until Moore and Cardigan get the info, which occurs in the last few minutes – a clever tactic that helps us get past the story’s convenient twist and turns.
Farrar plays Cardigan straight, offering no depth but neither characterizing the agent as a cartoon. It is strange that he never develops passion for Moore not attempts on muscle in on Brecan’s girl, but in keeping him focused on arresting his target, it eliminates one of the most obvious clichés in a romance-adventure: the love triange. If anything, Brecan, is competing with her immutable love for the elephants and managing a plantation – her dream job since childhood.
Louis Forbes’ score is part lush, part action-oriented, and smoothens the fast transitions between scenes. (In one instance, near the tail-end of a dissolve, a character starts talking, indicating Escape could’ve been a longer film, but was likely pruned to 87 mins. for timing and perhaps double-bill screenings.)
VCI’s transfer likely stems from around 2003, and although anamorphic, it’s not the wider 2.0:1 SuperScope ratio; it’s more 1.85:1 with slight pillarboxing at the frame edges. Moreover, the source seems to be a PAL transfer, with the weak NTSC down-conversion resulting in ghosting / strobing whenever the camera pans across a series of vertical objects and figures.
Forming part of a DVD double-bill released in 2003 and reissued as a MOD DVD-R by VCI, Escape from Burma is paired with another Benedict Bogeaus production, Appointment in Honduras (1953).
The producer also reunited with Dwan for several films released by RKO – Pearl of the South Pacific (1955), Tennessee’s Partner (1955), Slightly Scarlet (1956), Typee (1958) – and the Fox-released, colour noir The River’s Edge (1957). The final film for each was their last pairing, Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) for Columbia.
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review