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Race & Hollywood: Asian Images in Film (Tuesdays & Thursdays in June)
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Walk Like a Dragon

Walk Like a Dragon

"California in the 1870s was rough and violent. Men were plentiful, but women were scarce. So girls were secretly and illegally imported from China and sold as slaves. They were used, but scorned and isolated. This is a story of those times... It happened."
-- Opening Title Card from Walk Like a Dragon

In 1960, writer/director/producer James Clavell was just beginning his Hollywood film career. Although in later years he would become world famous for his Asian novels -- King Rat, Tai Pan, Shogun, and Noble House among them -- at the time he was a mere novice in the movie industry.

After growing up as the son of a British career military officer stationed in Australia, Clavell joined the Royal Artillery and at the tender age of sixteen found himself smack in the middle of World War II. Stationed in Malaysia, he was wounded by machine gun fire and ended up as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore's Changi Prison, a place most inmates did not survive. (Clavell based his King Rat character on an American G.I. who liberated him and his compatriots from the prison.) Despite the horrifying conditions, Clavell was philosophical about his time there: "Changi became my university instead of my prison," he said years later. "I learned the art of surviving."

Now a Captain, Clavell returned to England but had a motorcycle accident which left him with an injured leg. His military career was over, but after attending Birmingham University and meeting a young actress who would later become his wife, Clavell turned toward a career in the movies. Interested mostly in directing, he nevertheless took whatever related projects came along, including work in film distribution which eventually brought him to the United States. Some TV production work in New York followed, and then a move to Los Angeles, where the survival skills learned in Changi Prison served him well. The clever and canny Clavell talked himself into an assignment writing the highly effective screenplay for the 1958 horror thriller The Fly, followed by another screenplay for the African-set adventure Watusi in 1959. But Clavell wasn't content to be just a screenwriter; he aspired to triple-threat status, and achieved it with 1959's Five Gates to Hell, a tough-minded action drama about a group of besieged women in 1950s Viet Nam. Clearly Clavell's first-hand experiences and fascination with wartime Asia were bubbling to the surface, and he channeled it into his filmmaking.

James Clavell got his second chance to write, produce and direct with Walk Like a Dragon in 1960; he utilized the Western genre to explore themes that would echo throughout many of his later books. Clavell ambitiously decided to set his intriguing story of Asian-Caucasian relations in the framework of an iconic and distinctly American form. However improbable Walk Like a Dragon may have been as history, Clavell's story took the exciting traditions of the Western -- gunfighters, rowdy saloons, galloping horses -- and combined them with an intriguing battle of wills between a prejudiced frontier businessman, the beleaguered Chinese girl he rescues from slavery, and a feisty and ambitious Chinese immigrant who fights against the subservience expected of him. As portrayed by talented and dynamic actors Jack Lord, Nobu McCarthy and James Shigeta respectively, Clavell's characters and storyline set up a premise ripe with passion, intensity, and an unexpected but entertaining cultural slant. Throw in singer/actor Mel Torme as a Bible-verse spouting fast gun dressed in black leather and you have all the ingredients necessary for a decidedly offbeat Western.

Actor James Shigeta was cast as the immigrant Cheng Lu. Shigeta, of Japanese ancestry, was born and raised in Hawaii and had been an English major at New York University, the University of Hawaii and USC. Blessed with good looks and a set of pipes, Shigeta appeared as a singer on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and got a taste for show business. He left school to join the Marine Corps and ended up living in Japan, where he resumed his singing career and was recruited by Steve Parker, actress Shirley MacLaine's husband, to appear in "Holiday in Japan," the musical revue he was putting together to take to Las Vegas. (Early reviews complained that there wasn't enough female skin on display by Vegas standards). Shigeta starred as both emcee and featured singer in the show. Now back in the U.S., Shigeta was briefly put under contract to Columbia Studios where he made his screen debut in the Sam Fuller-directed crime thriller The Crimson Kimono (1959). It was a major debut for the relative newcomer Shigeta and important because he was essentially the male romantic lead in the movie. He even ended up with....a Caucasian girl. Nobody in the audience would have wanted it any other way because Shigeta was dynamic onscreen.

Shigeta continued his Vegas gig, getting noticed by Time Magazine -- they called him the "ballad belting M.C." -- for his imitation of Elvis Presley. Soon he was approached by Paramount to make his second movie, Walk Like a Dragon, and he was forced to juggle the Hollywood filming with his stage show appearances. At one point producers hired an ambulance to daily speed Shigeta directly from the soundstage to Las Vegas, as the actor snoozed in the back before beginning his onstage musical duties.

Jack Lord played freight line operator Linc Bartlett in Walk Like a Dragon. The actor came from an interesting and varied background; the son of a shipping executive, Lord traveled with the Merchant Marine all over the world, studied painting, attended the Actor's Studio in New York, and made his movie debut in 1949. His acting career prospered in the decade that followed, with many television and movie appearances, but of course his biggest success would come in 1968 in the TV series Hawaii 5-O as police detective Steve McGarrett.

Actress Nobu McCarthy, who had already worked with James Clavell in Five Gates to Hell, was cast as Kim Sung, the Chinese slave girl who finds herself in a love triangle between Lord as Linc and Shigeta as Cheng Lu. Nobu, the daughter of a Japanese diplomat, got into show business early. As a very young child she took singing lessons and was appearing on radio by the time she was six. While a teenager she established a ballet school for children, and after some publicity stories about the pretty young dancer, Nobu was in demand as a runway model in Tokyo fashion shows. Nobu fell in love with an American G.I. stationed in Japan; they wed and soon moved to the U.S. where she was discovered one day while dining in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo. Agent Freddie Ishimoto, who counted fellow Walk Like a Dragon co-star Benson Fong among his clients, signed her up immediately and her acting career began. Her first major role was in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Geisha Boy in 1958, and after other TV and movie work, including the Ernie Kovacs' service comedy Wake Me When It's Over (1960), she went to work on Walk Like a Dragon.

Several other Asian-American actors appear in Walk Like a Dragon. Benson Fong had been born in California but spent some time studying in China before returning to the States to go into the grocery business with relatives. After some early uncredited work in movies beginning in 1936, he was discovered by a Paramount Pictures representative in 1943 and offered a contract. Studios were making WW II movies and needed Asian actors, and Fong began a steady career that kept him busy over the next forty years. Fong also had a successful career as a restaurateur, with five establishments dotting the greater Los Angeles area in the 1970s. Later he became a pop culture icon with his role as "The Old One" on the original Kung Fu series which began in 1972. Also in the cast of Walk Like a Dragon is actor Kam Tong, who had worked in Hollywood constantly since 1936, and was a regular on the Have Gun, Will Travel TV series beginning in 1957. Actor Clarence Lung, a Hollywood veteran with credits dating back to 1938, also appears in Walk Like a Dragon.

Mel Torme plays a delightfully different type of role in the film. His menacing turn as The Deacon, a sly, mysterious character who takes Cheng Lu under his wing to teach him sharpshooting, gave him a chance stretch as an actor. He also sings the title song to the movie -- "Walk like a dragon, breathe smoke and flame, pray that she'll softly breathe your name..."

Walk Like a Dragon was partially filmed on location in Lone Pine, California, a frequently used outdoor setting for countless Hollywood westerns. During production, the Hollywood Reporter alluded to Clavell filming two endings to the movie, with Nobu alternately ending up with Jack Lord's Linc Bartlett or James Shigeta's Cheng Lu, but the footage hasn't surfaced in the intervening years so the report can't be verified. There is also rumored to be a courtroom sequence that was cut before the movie opened.

Released as the second half of a double bill, Walk Like a Dragon received credit from reviewers for tackling an interesting and provocative subject -- mixed-race romance -- and most thought the Western setting was a clever touch. Considered as more a curiosity than a completely successful western, Walk Like a Dragon is nevertheless a well-played, exciting entertainment which gave audiences a chance to enjoy actor James Shigeta onscreen again after his impressive debut in The Crimson Kimono. He would go on to achieve even greater stardom in movies such as A Bridge to the Sun and Flower Drum Song (both 1961).

Writer/director/producer James Clavell didn't forget about the movie, either; he would pay homage to Walk Like a Dragon in another of his works. In Noble House, the fourth book of his Asian Saga, one of the main characters is named Lincoln Bartlett, after Jack Lord's character in the film.

Producer: James Clavell
Director: James Clavell
Screenplay: James Clavell, Daniel Mainwaring
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Paul Dunlap, Mel Torme
Film Editing: Howard A. Smith
Cast: Jack Lord (Linc Bartlett), Nobu McCarthy (Kim Sung), James Shigeta (Cheng Lu), Mel Torme (The Deacon), Josephine Hutchinson (Ma Bartlett), Rudolph Acosta (Sheriff Marguelez), Benson Fong (Wu), Michael Pate (Will Allen), Lilyan Chauvin (Mme. Lili Raide)
BW-95m.

by Lisa Mateas VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

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