No. 27: High Road to China

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

I knew going into this project that I’d run into a few obstacles along the way when it came to accessibility for some of the lesser known films on this list, and that has been the case with several of the movies I’ve seen so far. In every case I’ve encountered thus far, the problem has been that my primary source for obtaining copies of these films, Netflix, simply doesn’t have the film in its library. I expected to see some of that. What I didn’t figure was that a movie that made over $28 million at the box office and helped launch the career of a moderately large star would fail to ever receive a Region 1 DVD release.

The fact that Warner Bros. has yet to bring out this film on DVD is pretty baffling, particularly when you check out some of the other titles they have brought out already (many of which are rotting at the bottom of $2 bins at Wal-Mart). Amazingly, while American viewers can’t (legally) buy a copy of this film, they can easily obtain an interesting bit of footage (via the Indiana Jones Trilogy DVD box set) showing the seed that eventually led to this film’s production.

In 1980, Tom Selleck was a veteran of TV guest roles and TV movies but things were finally starting to come together for him. He starred in a promising pilot for a slick crime series and was called in to audition for Stephen Spielberg‘s latest project, a George Lucas-scripted period adventure film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg loved Selleck’s audition and actually cast him in the lead role but unfortunately for Selleck it wasn’t meant to be. CBS decided to pick up his pilot Magnum P.I. and take it to series, meaning Selleck was contractually obligated to turn down the role of Indiana Jones. Check out his screen test to see what might have been.

So here we are, three years later and Raiders of the Lost Ark has become a cultural phenomenon, one of the most successful films of the early ’80s and an inspiration for a number of copycat projects that feature exotic, period adventure tales led by a tough, sarcastic hero. Originally conceived as a project for Roger Moore, High Road to China eventually landed Selleck in the lead role as O’Malley, a hard-drinking, devil-may-care flight instructor who gives flying lessons in Istanbul in the 1920s. Bess Armstrong (who most will know as the mom from My So Called Life) plays Eve, a bratty heiress who spends her days partying it up in Istanbul with the rich and famous.

The two equally headstrong characters end up paired together because Armstrong’s father, who has been off living in the wilderness for years, is set to be declared legally dead, which means she’ll lose all his money to her father’s evil business partner. For some reason, Eve can fly a plane but doesn’t own one of her own so she contracts O’Malley and his wacky partner Struts (played by Jack Weston) to fly with her across the Middle East and Asia to find her father where along the way they encounter various threats and enemies in an episodic manner.

Putting aside the ridiculous notion that you can just somehow look around the Middle East and Asia long enough and eventually the person you’re looking for will turn up (as if it’s all about the size of a Super Wal-Mart), some of the individual episodes are pretty entertaining, particularly the one involving the barbaric Mongol leader Suleman Khan. British character actor Brian Blessed is a lot of fun to watch and though the character is written to be a bit of a  racist stereotype, Blessed’s performance takes it from being a ludicrous “Muslim savage” stereotype to being a unique and interesting villain.

Along the way, most of the scenes we get are there to develop some tension/chemistry between O’Malley and Eve and it’s largely predictable, conventional stuff. If you’ve ever seen an action movie of any variety, you know where it’s going before it even begins. That said, Selleck is pretty fun as a laid back male lead and despite my expectations after having rolled my eyes at her quite a bit in My So Called Life, Armstrong is actually pretty likable here too.

Obviously since this is essentially a road movie set in airplanes, there are an awful lot of aviation shots which vary greatly in quality. Some shots are taken from the ground with shaky cameras and grainy film quality while some shots taken in the air from another plane look truly spectacular.

The flying shots are also accompanied by one of the best scores I’ve heard so far for 1983, a nice soaring adventure theme from John Barry (most famous for composing the James Bond theme).

The film wraps up with a big battle sequence as O’Malley and Eve finally locate Eve’s father, played with great gusto by Wilford Brimley, in a small Tibetan village trying to free itself from the tyranny of a hostile warlord. There’s lots of flying and explosions and shooting and rescuing and kissing and all that good stuff. Like the rest of the film, the last sequence is pretty predictable and conventional but still ultimately rather entertaining and engaging thanks to a likable cast, respectably clever dialogue, a great score and some nice photography.

It’s a good though largely unmemorable movie, which probably accounts for why Warner has yet to release it on DVD. There’s a market for great films and there’s also a market for really bad films (ironic hipsters) but apparently, and unfortunately, there’s not much of a market for a 27-year-old mediocre film.

Next Up: Rodney Dangerfield and Joe Pesci in Easy Money.