William Dieterle’s Peking Express (1951) wastes no time signaling what kind of film it is—the opening credits are presented in chop-suey lettering over newsreel footage of the Huangpu River and Shanghai harbor, with a stirring and very Western score by Dimitri Tiomkin giving the proceedings a note of heroism.
This is China via Hollywood, with the story a loose remake of The Shanghai Express (well, there is a train journey, a shady lady, a man carrying a torch for her, and a backdrop of civil unrest) spiced up with a family drama and some action sequences. And it needs all the spicing it can get, because there’s no equivalent to Marlene Dietrich or Anna May Wong in Dieterle’s film, just a male lead whose pure nobility casts everyone around him in a positively disreputable light.
Michael Bachlin (Joseph Cotton) is a Western physician in Shanghai trying to track down some stolen WHO medical supplies. This, plus the need to provide urgent medical care to a high-ranking Chinese general, places him on the train to Peking with quite the bomber crew of characters.
Bachlin’s fellow passengers include a black-robed clergyman (Edmund Gwenn, who has little to do until he’s given a plummy speech near the film’s end), a mysterious Asian businessman (Kwon, played by St. Louis’ own Marvin Miller in yellowface), a pushy journalist and strident Communist (Wong, played by Benson Fong), an upper-class Asian woman (Li Elu, played by Soo Young), and a nightclub performer (Danielle, played by Corinne Calvet) with whom Bachlin once had a fling (you have to take that on faith, since there’s no visible spark whatsoever between them). Li Elu’s son Ti Shen (Robert W. Lee) tried to board the train but was arrested on the orders of his mother. Fear not, he’ll play a key role in later proceedings.
Peking Express takes place in China shortly after the People’s Republic of China was created (never mind that the opening footage dates from about three decades earlier), and was the first film set in the PRC. Despite the Communist victory, signaled by a gigantic poster of Chairman Mao in an early scene, conflict remains ongoing with the Nationalists (followers of Chiang Kai-Shek, who fled to Taiwan, which is referred to in the film under the old name of “Formosa”).
The political conflict within China is embodied within Li Elu’s family, and the various members of it (including Kwon, later revealed to be her husband) also embody stereotypes about “good Asians” and “bad Asians.” Miller, who specialized in playing villains and Asians, combines the two in his characterization of Kwon, pandering to Western assumptions about Asian inhumanity in the process.
There’s a lot of story in Peking Express, but as it’s a melodrama with all the improbabilities that implies, none of the details matter all that much. This film was popular in its day, but is a lot harder to enjoy today, given the plethora of stereotypes on display and the use of the world’s largest nation as a backdrop to the doings of some white people.
The best approach may be to consider it as an example of how America’s Cold War anxieties were reflected on screen in an apparently quite different context, as well as a guide to the kind of stereotyping accepted without question by mainstream audiences in the day. You could also interpret it, as does Eddy Von Mueller on the commentary track, as a Hollywood reflection of the Korean War, which was ongoing when this film was released. Or you can forget all that and just enjoy Peking Express for its technical expertise—the art direction by Franz Bachelin and Hal Pereira and cinematography by Charles Lang give the film an expansive feel that could almost make you forget it was shot on the Paramount lot in California. | Sarah Boslaugh
Peking Express is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The main extra on the disc is an informative audio commentary by film historian Eddy Von Mueller; there are also the trailers for six films.