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Not long after collaborating on Hitler's Children (1943), a sensationalistic low-budget exploitation film depicting the Hitler Youth program, director Edward Dmytryk and writer Emmet Lavery made a second flag-waver, this time dealing with the other end of the Axis. And like Hitler's Children, the rabidly anti-Japanese Behind the Rising Sun (1943) was a huge, profitable success. "As timely as the morning newspaper," said Variety of the film.
It's the story of a Japanese newspaper publisher (J. Carrol Naish) who forces his Cornell-educated son (Tom Neal) to join the Japanese army against his will. Both men are hardened and changed by the war, and the film depicts grisly atrocities committed by the Japanese against Chinese women and children as well as Americans. Dmytryk later explained his and Lavery's approach to this picture: "We bought a book for its title - Behind the Rising Sun - not an unusual practice in Hollywood. Then we concocted a story based largely on incidents as they had been reported from the Orient before Pearl Harbor. For example: The slapping of American women, the dispersal of opium to Chinese to keep them docile, etc. On a not very original plot, we strung ten or twelve incidents calculated to increase the flow of patriotic juices. It worked." Seen today, of course, one must bear in mind the context in which the picture was made, and why it was made - to unite the public behind the war effort and to rally moviegoers to buy war bonds. At the time the film came out, after all, Allied victory was certainly not assured.
Behind the Rising Sun features a memorable fight sequence between an American boxer (Robert Ryan) and a Japanese judo wrestler (Mike Mazurki). This fight was based on an actual prewar incident in which the boxer won. Ryan had been a real-life boxing champion while at Dartmouth College and would play a washed-up boxer in one of his most famous movies, The Set-Up (1949), which is filled with top-notch boxing sequences. The ten-minute fight in Behind the Rising Sun is just as intense, with Variety describing it as "a rouser" and Time Magazine going so far as to declare it "as savage as anything in the history of screen roughhouse." Dmytryk was rightfully proud of the scene, calling it "a beautifully choreographed battle between two superior athletes. Even the pro-Axis Argentines cut the fight out of the film and ran it as a special short."
Ryan's character meets a tragic end in this picture, and in fact it was one of the first to establish his screen presence of outward strength and toughness mixed with inner suffering. This was the second of five films on which Ryan and Dmytryk would collaborate. Also in the cast is Margo, best remembered as the girl who suddenly ages when she leaves Shangri-La in Lost Horizon (1937).
Producer: Howard Hughes
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, James R. Young (novel)
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Joseph Noriega
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Alfred Herman
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Margo (Tama Shimamura), Tom Neal (Taro Seki), J. Carrol Naish (Reo Seki), Robert Ryan (Lefty O'Doyle), Gloria Holden (Sara Braden), Donald Douglas (Clancy O'Hara).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold