Diplomatic Bungling: The Chairman (1969) + The Ugly American (1963)

August 23, 2019 | By

Emerging regimes and conflicts outside of Europe motivated Hollywood to seek out topical stories, and nothing better came packaged with drama than culture clashes, espionage, and Cold War troubles.

The Ugly American (1963) takes place in the fictional country of Sarkhan, but the clashes that erupt from a new U.S. Ambassador and his terrible diplomatic skills almost cause a civil war.

Marlon Brando’s transition from Fox contract player to a freelance and occasional producer didn’t yield any career peaking works – Bedtime Story (1964) may be his strangest attempt at comedy, playing the role later reprised by Steve Martin in the far funnier remake Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) – but if TUA was made as a cinematic cautionary tale based on a novel designed to shock the country’s moldy foreign agent corps, it is unusual, in that instead of being a time capsule and parable of the imminent Vietnam War, it’s aged into a still relevant drama of what happens when bad policy, ignorance, and outright blundering dominate foreign relations.

Brando is quite good, and newcomer George Englund did a decent job directing the imposing star amid a fine cast of supporting actors. The film’s emergence on Blu-ray via Mill Creek gives this 1963 production a new life in a climate when nationalism is once again creating friction and punishing tit-for-tat exchanges between formal allies and super power rivals.


Gregory Peck scrapes his leg in the barbed wire fence while firing one fatal shot at Chinese soldiers causing a massive explosion that distracts his pursuers long enough to escape through a hole blown by the Soviets and crosses into Russia a half second before a bomb blows up his brain like a house of fiery timber!


The Chairman (1969) is a weirder fusion of topical politics – Mao’s Cultural Revolution + James Bondian espionage – with slight comic book results. Gregory Peck may have been one of the few stalwart veterans who could walk through preposterous scenes with dignity, and J. Lee Thompson’s direction kicks into high gear during several tense suspense and action scenes, but it’s very much a product of the Cold War era, with an unexpected allegiance between the U.S., Britain, and the USSR vs. China, who’ve developed a formula to grow any food in any kind of region.

Naturally Peck’s recruited to ‘save’ the formula and ‘donate’ to the global population, hence a trip to Kong Kong. and eventually mainland China, where he’s (naturally) barred from leaving, and must escape to avoid a cranial kaboom.

Twilight Time’s disc sports the same extras as the prior Fox DVD, plus an isolated score track that expands Jerry Goldsmith’s raw, kinetic music in its most complete form to date. There are some issues with the Blu-ray’s master that I detail in the review, but the film proper is a lot of fun for genre fans, as well as Peckphiles and admirers of director Thompson.

Now, if only Twilight Time would get lucky and release a Blu-ray of Mackenna’s Gold (1969), with an isolated stereo track of Quincy Jones’ score, and a commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs that describes this problem-plagued, bloated super-western which has a special place in the heart of unembarrassed, unapologetic fans (like me). There is a French Blu of the film, but nothing thus far in North America.

A friend who lived in Detroit recalled going to test screenings of assorted films prior to their theatrical release, and he remembered seeing the longer edit of Mackenna’s Gold which had the missing footage of the Hadleyburg characters, and other material. I doubt any stems from the movie exist, let alone a pre-release cut, but hey, if the similarly maligned Lost Horizon (1973) can get the kid glove treatment, so should this deeply flawed, star-studded monster directed by Thompson, headlined by Peck and Omar Sharif, scored by Jones, and produced by Dimitri Tiomkin.

Yes, that Dimitri Tiomkin.

Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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