Peking Express, William Dieterle

Film-Noir ‘Peking Express’ Is Hollywood’s First Encounter with Red China

The 1951 film-noir Peking Express (not to be confused with Shanghai Express) should be seen as Hollywood’s first attempt to deal with Communist China in the context of the Red Scare.

Peking Express
William Dieterle
Kino Lorber
29 November 2022

We can’t help thinking of William Dieterle‘s Peking Express (1951) in exactly the wrong way. We do the film no favors by thinking of it as a remake of one of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s most lush and sexy pre-Code films, Shanghai Express (1932). Instead, as revealed in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray mastered from a 4K scan, Peking Express should be seen as Hollywood’s first attempt to deal with Communist China in the context of the Red Scare.

That sounds considerably less sexy, and it is. In place of Dietrich’s feathered and furred harlot, who famously pronounced, “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily,” Peking Express offers Corinne Calvet as Danielle Grenier, a widowed cabaret singer and possible spy who anguishes over her reputation even though it’s not that terrible.

Her role is closer to Ingrid Bergman’s misunderstood Ilsa in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) while made up to resemble a cross between Dietrich’s cheekbones and Rita Hayworth’s hair. The Casablanca link is reinforced when Danielle bids goodbye to a diplomat played by Gregory Gaye, who had played the uptight German banker barred from the casino in Casablanca. In the end, Peking Express is no longer about its exotic heroine, who’s largely displaced from the spotlight. [See Peking Express trailer on IMDB.]

The hero is Michael Bachlin (Joseph Cotten), a morally committed doctor for the recently formed World Health Organization of the United Nations. It’s one of two recently formed organizations in this story, the other being the People’s Republic of China, declared in 1949. America’s fresh experience of China had been as an ally against the Japanese, and now the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek had been replaced by Chairman Mao’s communist revolution. Peking Express is the first Hollywood film set in that uneasy context while China was still fighting nationalist forces and local bandits or militias controlled by various bosses.

If you Google Peking Express, every source repeats the same wildly inaccurate logline about “a group of refugees fleeing Chinese Communist rule via train”. Nope, not a single refugee pops up, nor would it make sense. It’s a train starting in Shanghai and heading to Peking, so refugees would be fleeing in the wrongest direction possible. That’s more evidence of why it’s important to see Peking Express for oneself instead of relying on other sources.

As film historian Eddy Von Mueller points out in his commentary, Peking Express is “almost nuanced” compared to the era’s other Red Scare films. It’s not a foaming anti-commie screed, even though the moral authority of the U.N.’s Bachlin and the Catholic missionary Father Murray (Edmund Gwenn) make their disapproval clear.

When Wong (Benson Fong), a strident apparatchik masquerading as a journalist, boasts of achieving the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, Bachlin calmly parries that a dictatorship is still a dictatorship, whether of the proletariat or the aristocracy. Murray laments that if only Wong applied his fervor and commitment to the word of God, the world would have nothing to worry about. This remark is staged and delivered as a rhetorical slam dunk.

So yes, the PRC and its functionaries are portrayed as unpleasant, intolerant, and controlling, even as they make points about China’s self-determination and desire to be free of Western dominance and as characters debate the relative merits of security vs. personal liberty thoughtfully. Still, Peking Express‘ Bad Guy isn’t a commie mastermind but a perfect example of corrupt, selfish, counter-revolutionary forces willing to exploit capitalist tactics of profit via the black market: a false and hypocritical pseudo-communist named Kwon (Marvin Miller).

As nearly as I can tell, Kwon looks like the only Chinese character played by a caucasian actor, and this has the effect of underlining his phoniness and duplicity, his debt to corrupt Western values while pretending to be a patriotic Chinese. I wonder if this effect is intentional or accidental or merely occidental.

Otherwise, Peking Express is populated by practically every Chinese-American extra and bit player on the Paramount lot in 1951. These include the very effective Soo Yong in the update of Anna May Wong’s character from Shanghai Express. Also seen are Victor Sen Yung, Harold Fong, Peter Chong, Robert W. Lee, James Leong, and Beal Wong.

Returning to Kwon, the story’s moving force; he’s portrayed as a kind of evil version of Warner Oland’s Charlie Chan. The things he says with restraint and delicacy are Machiavellian bits of cynicism and pragmatism, but he’s ready to wield a heated poker for a bit of impersonal torture or to have people shot down in cold blood. His strongest motives are personal, related to his wife and son and his desire for Danielle. By the way, all the Chinese conveniently speak perfect English unless we assume that the foreigners speak Chinese, which I doubt.

Von Mueller makes the excellent observation that Kwon functions as an equivalent to Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), an intelligent, amoral egotist who, like Kwon, finds it convenient to hijack medical supplies for profit. Audiences in 1951 might have made the same connection due to Cotten’s presence in both films.

When we consider the steps of Peking Express’ story, the character who triggers all the problems is Kwon’s wife (Soo Yong), the most sympathetic person. Her attempt to save her son by separating him from his father is the catalyst for Kwon’s holding the train hostage and killing so many people. All their hopes and crossed plans come to nothing, which adds up to a sobering message of the devastation wrought by destiny and personal choice and not a positive paradigm for the new China.

Scriptwriter John Meredyth Lucas is mainly known for the first Star Trek series. His script is based closely on the structure of Jules Furthman’s adaptation of Harry Hervey’s original story, the basis for Shanghai Express. In between Shanghai Express and Peking Express, Paramount had made another remake, Night Plane from Chungking (Ralph Murphy, 1943), the most obscure version of all. When Paramount owned the rights to a story, they saw no reason not to bring it out of mothballs every decade or so and update the details to keep it topical.

Dieterle and Cotten made several collaborations, including one of Hollywood’s greatest films, Portrait of Jennie (1948). As a visual stylist, Dieterle was more controlled than flashy and very effective. He works with legendary photographer Charles Lang on Peking Express, whose 18 Oscar nods included a single win. Neither is doing his most spectacular work nor are they phoning it in. Their evocation of a bustling, heavily populated China passing before the camera works well, and Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray mastering gives just about the perfect presentation.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s score works itself up to bombastic proportions, as is par for his course. The music goes into overdrive during the out-of-left-field shoot-em-up climax, as though the film suddenly remembers it’s supposed to have action. The motivating factor is that Wong knows of Bachlin’s mission to save an enemy general, so he rides pell-mell with guns and grenades to intercept the train.

Wong might have achieved the same purpose by calmly driving to the nearest town and using a phone, but then we wouldn’t have this noisy excitement and the proof that our upright doctor is a dab hand with a machine gun. I guess Wong’s gotta be “gung ho”, or his wits are snapped after the torture. I find this final bombast Peking Express‘ least convincing element, it disguises the film’s political ambiguities, and the survivor’s futures are left unresolved. Maybe that also makes Peking Express more subtle when you think about it.