Today, having a conversation about international relations without mentioning China is like talking about October without mentioning the World Series. Or Halloween.
Fretting over Beijing’s destabilizing rise is now common among Republicans and Democrats alike. What to do about China the most challenging foreign policy question of the day.
China hasn’t always been America’s fiercest global competitor, and Hollywood has reflected the change in American perceptions of China over time. Here are eight key cinematic checkpoints along the winding road of U.S. impressions of the Middle Kingdom.
#8. The Good Earth (1937). Based on the 1931 best-selling book by Pearl S. Buck, a young farmer marries a slave girl. His fortune waxes and wanes alongside those of rural China.
Made when it was not politically incorrect for actors to play any ethnicity imaginable, the film starred the great Paul Muni. Nowadays, the film and the book are dismissed as perpetuating racial stereotypes and marginalizing ethnic groups. But that was not their intent.
Like many Americans, Buck had great sympathy for the Chinese people. She wanted to raise the West’s awareness of issues like poverty, gender oppression, and the plight of China, and the film also reflected that ascetic. The popularity of both the book and film mostly demonstrated widespread American interest in–and sympathy for—the Chinese.
#7. 55 Days at Peking (1963). At the close of the 19th century, the Emperor’s hold on China began crumbling amid the destabilizing influence of Japan and various European nations. All of this contributed to the misery of the Chinese people.
The U.S. was just beginning to emerge as an Asian-Pacific power. It had no sphere of influence like the European powers, but it did have an embassy in Peking which became the target of a populist uprising: the “Boxer Rebellion.”
That’s the subject of this awesome, big-budget action flick. In the days before Vietnam, Americans were still the heroes in Hollywood movies. Here Charlton Heston, David Niven and Ava Gardner desperately try to make China great again.
#6. The Sand Pebbles (1966). In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, America was in China to stay with small numbers of ground and naval forces deployed to protect U.S. commercial interests in the “Treaty Ports.” Aside from the occasional tiger hunt or pursuit of bandits, the American forces were mostly bored.
In this film, Steve McQueen plays a sailor on navy gunboat, part of the Yangtze Patrol. He does his best anti-hero acting and, spoiler alert, after a stellar screen performance—dies in the end.
#5. The Manchurian Candidate (1962). During World War II, China moved from an American interest to a full-fledged ally. But after the communists took over in 1949, Beijing slipped into the enemy camp. In the Korean War, they sided with the North.
This film tells the story of captured American prisoners who are turned into murderous communist sleeper agents, and only Frank Sinatra can stop them. The Cold War classic is not to be confused with the dreadful 2004 remake.
#4. The China Syndrome (1979). After Nixon went to Beijing in 1972, America grew kind of ambivalent about China. They had a middling economy. They weren’t much of a military threat. What’s the big deal?
In this movie, Jane Fond and Jack Lemmon try to prevent a nuclear plant from melting down—maybe all the way to the other side of the world. The title of film confused moviegoers because the movie had nothing to do with China. And, that was how most Americans felt: we had nothing to do with China.
#3. Red Dawn (1984). When Reagan became president, Americans went from thinking about surviving the Cold War to winning it. Hollywood joined in. The communists couldn’t even beat our teenagers.
After the Russians and their minions invade America, Patrick Swayze and his band of Wolverines courageously battle back. At one point, they ask: Who is on our side? They are told, “Six-hundred million screamin’ Chinamen.” The reply, “I thought there were a billion Chinese.” Answer: “There were.”
Hollywood was way ahead of geo-politics. America was thinking less and less about China as an extension of Soviet power and more as an independent player, who might in the future have more to do with us than Moscow.
#2. Red Dawn (2012). When the Chinese economy took off and the country’s global influence expanded, Americans started paying more attention to China. A furious debate broke out between the “panda huggers” and the “dragon slayers.” The former argued that as China rose it would have a greater stake in globalization and conform to international norms. The latter warned that a rising China would be a threat to a stable world order.
An early sign that things weren’t going well was this dreadful remake. Since the Soviet Union of the original film no longer existed, a new bad guy was needed. Originally, the invaders in this film were supposed to be Chinese. But Out of fear of offending Beijing, the studio self-censored and made the bad guys North Koreans.
This was one of many films where Hollywood altered its “artistic vision” to avoid making China mad. Clearly, a lot of people were now thinking: maybe the “screamin’ Chinamen” were not going to turn out to be our friends after all.
#1. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). Today, the panda huggers are mostly hugging the dragon slayers. Most everyone worries about China: from the national security risks posed by companies like Huawei to Chinese influence on American universities. And Americans are feeling like they’ve had enough.
Chinese censors, upset with the portrayal of Bruce Lee, demanded changes to this comedy-drama set in 1969 Hollywood. Apparently, the filmmaker told them to get bent.
Image: Creative Commons.