China Venture, a WWII story from director Don Siegel. Blah. Pretty weak, isn't it? It's not even good enough to mildly praise nor horrible enough to rip to pieces. It's just there, wasting away in its 83-minute running time. And away we go!
Leading a small patrol of Marines into China late in 1944, Capt. Matt Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) receives a message from Chinese guerrillas high up in the mountains. A high-ranking Japanese general (Philip Ahn) has crashed in the jungle, and for a price -- $10,000 -- the guerrillas will sell him to the Americans. Radioing for help, Reardon's patrol is "reinforced" by a Navy intelligence officer, Thompson (Barry Sullivan), a doctor (Dayton Lummis) and a nurse (Joceln Brando) to interrogate and care for the general. Heading into the thick jungle, Reardon's patrol is in a race against the clock as Japanese forces close in on the downed general too.
From director Don Siegel, 'Venture' is not meant to be some groundbreaking, innovative WWII story. Made in 1953 and not even breaking the 90-minue mark, it is a no-frills story that blends the men on a mission story with a handful of other familiar genre conventions. None of it really amounts to much, the different conventions working against each other in such a short time. The angle of the fighting in China is always interesting -- Americans, Japanese and Chinese warlords all fighting -- but the story never gets to push the limits. Even 1959's Never So Few (in all its amazing badness) went a little further. The "love story" between O'Brien and Brando is a flop too, slowing things down needlessly.
Where some positives come out is Siegel's tough guy talent behind the camera. At different points, 'Venture' reminded me some of Siegel's underrated WWII gem, 1962's Hell is For Heroes. Shot in black and white, it has the gritty, dirty look of an episode of Combat. The jungle is a gnarly, nasty place, and jungle fighting is full of ambushes, booby traps and all sorts of unpleasantness. While there isn't enough action, what's there is appropriately unpleasant. I just wish there was more of it, but instead we get long, uncut tracking shots of Reardon's patrol walking through the jungle, walking up and down hills. Not exactly adrenaline-pumping action.
Leading the cast, O'Brien has some good and some bad going for him. As the smart-mouth but capable Reardon, he's believable; a tough officer looking out for his men. The romance angle with Brando's Lt. Wilkins is painful to watch at times. Sullivan is solid as Cmdr. Thompson, the Navy Intelligence officer with no jungle-fighting experience. Reardon's squad includes Leo Gordon as the tough Sgt. Janowicz (O'Brien's scenes with him are highlights), Dabbs Greer, Alvy Moore, Wong Atarne and several other completely unlisted actors in the cast listing. The whole 'men on a mission' angle is wasted. Instead the focus is on the bickering between Reardon and Thompson, and the lovey-dovey stuff with Brando's caring nurse.
In the last third of the movie, the chance for some betrayals and actual excitement is there, but even that is mishandled. Leon Askin (later General Burkhalter on Hogan's Heroes) is badly cast as Wu King, the Chinese warlord auctioning off the Japanese general. Stereotypical doesn't begin to describe the part. As the rescuing Japanese forces close in, Reardon and Thompson are forced to make an extremely difficult decision, and the result proves to be the movie's strongest scene. But in the moments after, the finale is rushed. The movie isn't bad or good in the end. There are worse ways to spend 83 minutes, but I can think of a lot of better ways.
China Venture (1953): **/****