DVD: Soldier of Fortune (1955)

November 25, 2019 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label: Fox Home Video

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released: August 15, 2006

Genre:  Melodrama / Adventure

Synopsis: A woman travels to Hong Kong and engages a smuggler to help rescue her husband from mainland China.

Special Features:  Audio commentary by film historian Danforth Prince / Stills Gallery / Theatrical Trailer.




Upon it’s original theatrical release, Clark Gable’s first picture after being ‘dumped’ by longtime studio MGM wasn’t well appraised by critics, and although the passing years may have enhanced the film’s curio value – namely, the gorgeous cinematography of Hong Kong prior to its meteoric growth as a major commercial hub with massive waterfront redevelopment – it isn’t a particularly good picture.

The chief culprit is Ernest K. Gann’s adaptation of his novel that features an undercooked, poorly developed romance between a married woman and the charismatic bad boy she hires to rescue her flaky shutterbug husband from a mainland Chinese prison. Sometimes the dialogue sparkles and is amusingly wry, but there’s a weird push to get the unlikely lovers lip-locked within minutes; alternate footage of Gable taking a mountain tram down from an observation point was used  as background footage for the Main Titles, but it’s a cheat, as Gable doesn’t appear until 25 mins. into the picture.

The goal may have been to build up the mystique of Hank Lee through contrasting observations using secondary characters: local police Insp. Merryweather (reliable, stoic, and wholly emasculated Michael Rennie) calls him a gangster while a nick-knack shop owner & ex-lover (Frances Fong) praises him as a white linened saint. In the end, however, the filmmakers relied on Gable’s innate charm to make up for an underdeveloped anti-hero who never does anything especially nefarious.

Hank’s a genial smuggler who wields a hard fist or fires a hidden deck canon at aggressors, scumbags, and selfish conmen; instead of facilitating drugs, he smuggles watches, and respects local customs instead of being an exploitive ugly American. Heck, he even adopted two ragamuffin orphans because he felt an instant responsibility for their uncertain futures. Of course, the only missing element in his life is a good wife & mother.

That inaugural dinner between the inevitable couple blazes through drinks, a nostalgic echo of Hank’s bustling Chicago via an LP recording, and a western dinner. There’s also “Rita,” a furious storm which barely manages to hide its role as kitschy metaphor to Hank’s quick, tight, embracing and lip-smashing of Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward), his chosen woman.

Hank’s aggressiveness is soon tempered by Jane’s need to work with him to rescue husband & photographer Louis (Gene Barry, who has barely 3 scenes in the whole picture), locked up in one of the least secure Cantonese prisons. Hank is willing to facilitate the Hoyts’ reunion purposely so he can tell Louis man-to-man he wants his woman – a muddy possibility that’s clarified in the finale when Louis’s revealed to be a milquetoast, a wanderer, and physically unfaithful (as per his more-than-likely fling with a waterfront prostitute, played by Grace Chang).

The poster art’s colourful evocations of ‘soldiering’ does eventually kick in during the last half hour in which Hank, his first mate, and Merryweather break Louis free in the easiest prison escape ever, and while slickly filmed & edited, there’s little in the action nor the film’s overall direction that shows Edward Dmytryk seemed to care about the production;  maybe he sensed the script’s malnourished state, or stuck to workmanlike direction, given Gable’s anti-leftist stance – Dmytryk’s career had been freshly resuscitated after he agreed to name names for HUAC following his blacklisting with fellow Hollywood Ten members – and the star getting 10% of the gross profits.

The leads may be the initial attraction for audiences, but as the script and direction’s quality become clear, our attention switches to Leo Tover’s striking widescreen shots of Hong Kong harbour, its still-rustic streets, the mix of colonial and traditional architecture, and gorgeous colour lighting for the dramatic scenes when Jane stupidly visits a ‘language teacher’ (Mel Welles) in Macau, and is locked up until she bleeds more money for her gambling captor.

Hugo Friedhofer’s lush score does convey the romance implied in the script, as well as the danger as Hank whisks Louis back to Hong Kong, and the composer would re-team with Dmytryk for the director’s excellent WWII drama The Young Lions (1958).

The next realm of interest for audiences lies in the supporting cast who imply depth, or what DVD commentator and historian Danforth Prince describes as ‘intrigue to characters and possible side stories which Gann never bothered to explore.’ The material was either never present in his novel, or the script was tailored to its two leads, which isn’t implausible, as there’s a radical time jump between Jane bolting from Hank’s arms at their inaugural dinner, and him already at the Rolls Royce which will take her back into the city. The whole film is cut to keep characters physically moving instead of allowing for measured and affecting scenes of verbal interaction or quiet reflection.

Alexander D’Arcy (How to Marry a Millionaire) is great fun as the muscular, smiling, womanizing drunk Rene Dupont Chevalier who eyes fresh targets but never remembers the point at which he gets blotto; Tom Tully (seen in Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny) is Tweedie, the sexist pub owner who’s quite mean-spirited to Jane; and Jack Kruschen (The Apartment) glides between sleazebag and Hank’s loyal charge d’affaires. Also within the cast is Leo Gordon (Hondo, Great Day in the Morning) and Russell Collins (Miss Sadie Thompson, The Enemy Below) as Tweedie’s pals, Richard Loo (The Keys of the Kingdom, Hell and High Water) as a broke ex-General, and former Sam Goldwyn starlet Anna Sten (We Live Again) as a faded debutante who trades information for chicken legs at Tweedie’s.

Hayward wasn’t Gable’s ideal choice – he wanted Grace Kelly, with whom he co-starred in the steamy classic Mogambo (1953) – but she’s fine as the wife torn between fuming love and corseted fidelity, and fighting against the undeniable charisma of macho Hank. Gable still looks good at 54, a bit stocky yet trim in the T-shirt he wears for the finale’s action scenes, but there’s nothing to challenge the actor. Gable hits all the familiar marks of a gentleman, a cad, and a masculine commander whose risks are tied to passion, but it’s a greatest hits performance rather than an aging star flexing his skills in what should be a compelling, flawed archetype from his character roster.

Fox’s DVD sports a decent transfer with clean stereophonic sound, and Prince’s commentary addresses all the key players of the production, providing compact bios, career sketches, and contextualizing the challenges in making the film when Hayward was forced to film all her scenes in the U.S. during a nasty divorce and custody battle. Other extras include Fox Home Video’s then-standard practice of adding a restoration demo, plus photo gallery and trailer. (Originally released separately on DVD and as part of Fox’s Clark Gable Collection with The Tall Men and Call of the Wild, this title was released in 2019 on Blu-ray by German label Explosive Media.)

Gable’s next Fox title would be The Tall Men, a much better and more interesting use of his stature and age in a western that features some of the most beautiful landscape CinemaScope cinematography, courtesy of Leo Tover.

Edward Dmytryk’s next film would be a similarly odd and undercooked drama, The Left Hand of God (1955), starring aging Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney in her final feature film as leading lady. During the 1950s, Clark Gable would make roughly a film a year, but among his best final works are Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), the goofy Teacher’s Pet (1958), and his swan song The Misfits (1961). Whereas Susan Hayward would win an Oscar nomination and win for I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) and I Want to Live! (1958) respectively, it was the debacle of The Conqueror (1956), which also featured Leo Gordon and Richard Loo in small roles, that would erode her health, much like co-stars John Wayne and Pedro Armindariz.

Films based on the works of Ernest K. Gann include Blaze of Noon (1947), Island in the Sky (1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Soldier of Fortune (1955), Twilight for the Gods (1958), Fate of the Hunter (1964), The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark  (1980), the epic TV mini-series Masada (1981), and The Aviator (1985).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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