By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
“Orientalism” is an attitude, an ignorant evaluation, a culture bound value judgment and at best, a misunderstanding of eastern cultures by western cultures, particularly Europe and the United States. It is seen in art, film, economic and political policy and in the intention of one culture to dominate another. It undoubtedly has affected European and American foreign policy, often rendering it ineffective and even counter productive. Most recently, we have seen it reflected in many calling for barring all refugees from entering these countries from Syria and Iraq, judging, probably in fear, that all Asian and Middle Eastern Arabs are part of Isis and intend harm to the host countries.
Orientalism was first identified and popularized as an academic orientation, one ripe for study by Professor Edward Said in the 1970s with a book of the same name. Since then there have been both enthusiastic and thoughtful defenders and also denigrators. The discussion continues. The assumption here is that there is such a things as distortion of “Oriental” cultures in our art, writing, thought and public discourse as well as in popular thought. The radical and violent few in the extreme wing of the Islamic religion and their terrorist acts have not helped rational discussion or gaining a more accurate view of the East, and seeing clearing distortions that have resulted in portraying the people and culture.
We will examine a set of films made locally, numbering more than thirty-five since 1935, that have settings in Asia and the Middle East and then are likely to have reflected prevalent perspectives that we now list under “Orientalism.” This is not where the most serious and dangerous distortions have taken place. These movies were made first to entertain, then to educate. What makes them harmful is that these films seem innocent or trivial and yet over the years the attitudes they embody have been able to inculcate themselves because they were for entertainment first. By examining them in depth and building context with events and statements now, and expressions of Orientalism in other more “serious” art forms as well as public debate, we will see revealed just how nefarious some of these attitudes and orientations are in our free society today.
Many of the films I consider “Orientalist” involve the British Empire. Usually the Raj is being forced to defend its colonies in India, Central Asia, Arabia, North Africa and China. The British military sub-genre is seen in “Lives of the Bengal Lancer;” “Gunga Din;” “Desert Legion;” “King of the Khyber Rifles;” “Storm Over Bengal;” “I Cover the War” and even “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery,” to name just a few.
Then there are the films about raiding hordes of desert tribes: Bedouin, and many unnamed representatives in flowing robes. Some of these films include: “The Desert Hawk;” “Flame of Araby;” “ Outlaws of the Desert;” and “Outlaws of the Orient.” Movies sometime are set in the United States but have characters from the Orient. Two films made in Death Valley include the Chinese detective Charlie Chan, rife with stereotypical distortions, even to the point the actor who played the detective was not Chinese but Japanese; the four films set in China or Tibet: "Adventures of Marco Polo;” ”Oil for the Lamps of China;” “The Shadow;” and even parts of a modern film “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” This last film we will consider when we take up evil Arab stereotypes in our modern action films.
We begin today with the film “Oil for the Lamps of China (1935).” It may be somewhat ironic then that this film takes big business to task much more than Chinese culture and national conditions. In this case, the big business is oil extraction and developing a new market which happens to be China. An oil executive (Henry O’Neill) of the Atlantis Oil Company sends men to China promising that although the country is primitive, backwards and full of peasants, the company will take good care of its employees. Our hero Stephen Chase, played competently by Pat O’Brien gets a contract to Manchuria, but asks for leave from his immediate boss (Arthur Byron) to marry. His boss is dead set against it, saying that China is not place for women (like half the population are women already.)
Chase gets permission, but when he gets to Yokohama there is only a letter from his fiancé saying she’s not coming because she can’t imagine living in a place like China. While there he meets Hester, the daughter of a professor of Chinese studies. Unfortunately, her father has died and she finds herself alone. When Chase proposes marriage to avoid “loosing face” about his lost fiancé, she accepts. Because these two lived first in a novel and now in a film, this kind of western arranged marriage ends happily with them falling in love, at least for a while.
Hester become pregnant. Stephen is assigned an even more remote and rural area. He does not want her to come, but she insists. The travel and living conditions are so harsh and difficult that Hester looses the child. The marriage is very stressed because Stephen has chosen his job (fighting a rampaging fire) over taking care of his wife and getting the doctor. We will continue the story of Stephen and Hester Chase and this movie’s oriental attitudes next time.