By Chris Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
“I Cover the War,” made in 1937 by John Wayne presents a minor example of what Professor Said was attempting to describe as “Orientalism.” Often the term is used to indicate that much of our country’s history, and that of England has been distorted by misunderstanding of Muslim religion and culture. Orientalism has also analyzed a romantic tendency among writers and artists from the west. Just think of the images created by the words “harem,” “seraglio,” “belly dancer,” “veil,” “concubine” and “sheik.” Romantic and exotic images come to mind. Now you can add stereotypical terrorism and extremists. This movie even has those.
Bob Adams, (John Wayne) and Elmer “Slug” Davis (Don Barclay) have been assigned by the Atlas Newsreel to the British protectorate Samaria near the Iraq border to photograph the legendary and elusive Arab leader Muffadhi (Charles Brokaw.) There is a sub-ploy involving Bob’s brother, gunrunners masquerading as newsreel men, and the romantic interest. Wayne’s character ultimately meets and films Muffadhi who is planning a sneak attack on the British forces. This is a case of an “insurgency” and “terrorist” attacks. Will Wayne get the message to the British troops in time? Is their any political justification for Muffadhi’s behavior? Who will finally prevail in Samaria, the British or the residents? This is Hollywood in the 1930’s not Baghdad or Damascus in 2016.
This was the fourth picture Wayne would make for Universal and filming began on April 10th in Red Rock Canyon. After a day, and 15 camera set-ups, the production company went on to Lone Pine and then the studio for interiors. The company worked for eleven days, six days a week and the director, Arthur Lubin, was noted for achieving more than 50 camera set-ups a day. It was one of the very first assignments for Director of Photography Stanley Cortez who went on to lens more than 80 films in his career. Cortez had been born Stanislaus Krantz in New York City, changing both his name and his nationality before embarking on his Hollywood career. He was also the brother of actor Ricardo Cortez.
Don Barclay had a long career of fifty years. He appeared in over 100 feature films, but began as a Keystone Kop. He was in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, My Darling Clementine, and The Long Gray Line, with his final performance in Mary Poppins. Major Sam Harris served as a consultant and actually had a part in the film. John Ford always liked working with Major Harris and whenever possible, he found a role for the patrician Australian actor.
Some of the action scenes are well-staged and help move the plot along. The rebels tent camp was located in the southern part of Lone Ranger Canyon, and was impressive by B movie standards. The three guards left to make sure Wayne and Barclay do not escape become fascinated with the camera. Their portrayal is beyond naïve, picturing these backward yokels so bewitched by modern film technology. Soon they are full-blown clowns and Wayne finally convinces them to run away in the opposite direction so he can film them. Reducing local inhabitants to clown characters is one way to demean them and make them unimportant, even appear stupid. Of course, the prisoners escape seamlessly without either trouble or violence, but just by outsmarting these Middle Eastern types.
Another scene has a babe in a skimpy faux Oriental outfit ride by, giving the male characters a chance to ogle her. She looks like she has come directly from a chorus line. Of course, no woman would dress in such revealing ways in the streets of any Islamic country. It would even be unusual to see a woman here in the United States dress in such a revealing way, but definitely standards are constantly “evolving” in the West. Hollywood loved and still admires when characters dress or comport themselves with such male fantasy styles unrelated to the culture of the character. It does sell tickets they assume.
I call these movies “Easterns” as opposed to westerns, because the Hollywood costumers. They are really not much more than making fun of locals who dress in strange ( read different) clothing. John Wayne by this time had already perfected his “John Wayne” style of acting. He is both competent at it and predictable. There is also comedy relief, especially with a monkey who gets to roam the plane as they fly from Damascus to Samaria. Of course, the main characters smoke on the small plane, and they don’t seemed to need to ever buckle-in.
Some reviews at the time picked up elements of the movie, a unique one for Wayne that is still difficult to locate today. But worth the effort. “[A]n ingeniously romantic fable, which never stoops to logic and is content to tell a good lie,” wrote “The New York Times” critic on August 2, 1937.” Film Daily” on April 29, 1937 stated, “Happy mixture of melodrama and comedy gives star new type of role.” Finally the “Motion Picture Herald” noted the use of the desert, desert warfare and the romance of it all: “Once again production takes to the desert and romance against the melodrama of desert warfare and intrigue for screen material…. Universal is confident that the forthcoming feature will maintain the amusement and commercial appeal.”