With the Oz-Asia Festival about to start here in Adelaide here are two films that are respectively a USA and a UK 1950s vision of India and China – and both were box-office flops. Bhowani Junction was based on a novel by John Masters and was produced by MGM and directed by George Cukor; Ferry to Hong Kong was produced by Rank and directed by Lewis Gilbert. As well as being directed by two notable directors, both films were hailed (and hammered) for their on-location technicolour filming, at considerable cost. The Indian government refused to allow Cukor to film Bhowani Junction in India, resulting in the film being made in Pakistan. The change to Pakistan required a number of changes to the script, which had already been altered to cater for Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger so that it achieved a relatively happy ending. Cukor, however, was very proud of the film, stating that he felt it was the first time the real India was presented – even though it was filmed in Pakistan.
Lewis Gilbert called Ferry to Hong Kong his ‘nightmare film’ and that ‘everything was wrong with the film – principally Orson Welles‘. Unfortunately, this is right. Orson Welles is one of my major inspirations for everything. It is truly shattering to see him in something in which he is simply terrible. The fault, however, is not entirely his as originally Welles and Kurt Jurgens were set to play the opposite roles. However, Sir John Davis, head of Rank, demanded they reverse roles. Not sure if it would have made much difference as Ferry to Hong Kong is not very good. There are a couple of nice cameos, notably Margaret Withers as Miss Withers and Roy Chiao as Johnny Sing-up; neither are necessarily likeable characters but manage to exert some power and charm in this shipwreck of a film that was at that time the most expensive overseas film Rank had made.
Bhowani Junction is a more successful venture, and does benefit from its location filming, as well as good performances from its actors. Ava Gardner is one of the screens great ‘P.Bs’ (Professional Beauties) and in the right role is a actress of considerable power and sensuality. Whilst this film is pure melodrama, nonetheless, Ava Gardner successfully captures the passion and turbulence of the central character Victoria Jones, an Anglo-Indian caught between worlds at the time when the British were extracting themselves from India.
Many have condemned both films, with some justification. Are these films worth watching? Well – yes; primarily because of the locations and the cinematography, capturing respectively time, place and period. This includes a particular ‘Western’ eye on the ‘East’. It is uncomfortable at times, but there are thing to be gained – even if they are lessons in what not to do. Whilst both films capitalize of Asian stereotypes, nonetheless, within each film there are Indian-Asian characters (and actors) that are more than stereotypes, which heralds, however small, some advancement in regards characterisation and depth.