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Described in a review at the time of its release as a "mild little war sermon," The Mountain Road (1960) follows a U.S. Army major and his unit as they attempt to destroy bridges and roads along the eponymous Chinese route used by the Japanese in the last days of World War II. Although it contains the requisite action for a war movie, the film also tackles a more sensitive subjectcultural misunderstanding and racial prejudice between the American soldiers and their Chinese allies. The story takes a particularly nasty turn in a sequence depicting the vengeful destruction of a Chinese village, making this "mild little sermon" in hindsight something of a dark foreshadowing of the kind of events that would erupt during the Vietnam War a few years later. In a mostly unsympathetic role not typical for him, James Stewart, as the flinty, cynical major, eventually learns a little about compassion and the pitfalls of power from a spunky Chinese war widow, played by Lisa Lu.
The Mountain Road is based on a book of the same name by Theodore White (1915-1986), noted American journalist, historian and novelist. Best known for his The Making of the President accounts of the 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections, White had a long and respected career, beginning with his extended stint in China, from 1938 on, first as a freelance reporter and shortly after as correspondent for Time magazine. Chafing at the restrictions put on his reporting by the Chinese government and the rewriting of his stories by editors at the magazine, White left the post and returned to the States, but maintained his interest in the country. In 1946, he and colleague Annalee Jacoby wrote a best-selling nonfiction book about the country during wartime, Thunder Out of China, describing the corruption of the Nationalist government and warning of the growing threat of Communism. His novel The Mountain Road was published ten years later. White had interviewed Frank A. Gleason, the head of the demolition crew on which the story is based, for Time. Gleason was hired as technical consultant on the film, according to a 1959 LA Mirror-News article, although he is not listed in the film's credits.
Lisa Lu has the distinction of being one of the few Chinese actresses to break through in Hollywood. Born in Beijing, she had her first successes on American television, appearing frequently on the small screen from the late 50s into the 70s. The Mountain Road was her feature film debut. Studio publicity materials of the day revealed that Lu recruited faculty members from the Chinese Mandarin Department of the Army Language School to appear in the film. While continuing in American films, she also went to Hong Kong where she had a number of important roles, two of them resulting in international film festival awards as Best Actress. She has also had major roles in such films as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) and as the storytelling mother in The Joy Luck Club (1993). Now in her 81st year, Lu continues to act; her most recent role was in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution (2007).
The Mountain Road was directed by Daniel Mann, former actor, musician and theatrical colleague of Elia Kazan. His feature film directing debut was Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), the first of several stage-to-film adaptations he would make. His greatest success came within his first eight years in Hollywood, when he directed seven different actors in Academy Award-nominated performances: Shirley Booth and Terry Moore (Sheba), Anna Magnani and Marisa Pavan (The Rose Tattoo, 1955), Susan Hayward (I'll Cry Tomorrow, 1955), Paul Muni (The Last Angry Man, 1959), and Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8, 1960). Booth, Magnani, and Taylor won Best Actress awards for those roles. The last years of Mann's career (he died in 1991) were spent working in television.
The rugged terrain around Tucson, Arizona, substituted for the mountains of China in The Mountain Road and the film was shot by award-winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who won Oscars® for his work on From Here to Eternity (1953) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Director: Daniel Mann
Producer: William Goetz
Screenplay: Alfred Hayes, based on the book by Theodore H. White
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Editing: Edward Curtiss
Production Design: Cary Odell
Original Music: Jerome Moross
Cast: James Stewart (Major Baldwin), Lisa Lu (Madame Sue-Mei Hung), Glenn Corbett (Collins), Harry Morgan (Sgt. Michaelson), Frank Silvera (Col. Kwan).
by Rob Nixon