Monday 23 January 2023

Storm Over Tibet (1952)

Director: Andrew Marton
Writers: Ivan Tors and Sam Meyer
Stars: Rex Reason and Diana Douglas

Index: 2023 Centennials.

Storm Over Tibet isn’t a particularly well seen film, because it’s not widely available and so I had to watch a low resolution download from the Internet Archive. I’m happy I did, though, because it’s a fascinating movie, even if Diana Douglas, for whom I’m watching, is only prominent in one of the three acts and a supporting player in another. Then again, that’s still far more screen time than she had in The Indian Fighter, which I watched first because it’s regarded as a standout role in her career. I’m not sure why, because she merely plays one link in an unrequited love chain, albeit a particularly fascinating one. Will Crabtree wants to marry Susan Rogers, who wants to marry Johnny Hawks, who wants to be with Onahti. Respectively, the parts were played by Alan Hale, Jr., the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island; Diana Douglas; her recent ex-husband whose surname she still used, Kirk Douglas; and the Italian actress Elsa Martinelli in redface as a Native American chief’s daughter. As unlikely as it might seem, this is a more believable picture.

It also has a much more interesting history. For a start, it’s an American remake of a German/Swiss co-production from 1935, a film called Der Dämon des Himalaya or Demon of the Himalayas, that was directed by the same man, Andrew Marton, who was a Hungarian by birth, as Endre Marton. He’d started out in film as an editor in his own country but moved around, working at various levels in a variety of others: plenty of editing in Germany and a second unit direction job in Austria, with his first film as a director in the U.S. in 1929, Two O’Clock in the Morning a.k.a. House of Fear. It was for the Germans that he accompanied a Himalayan expedition to Tibet in 1934, which is where he shot Demon of the Himalayas, with some of the other participants appearing in the film. It was released in Germany without his name on it, as he was a Jew and the Nazis wouldn’t sanction that. However, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels allowed him to make it, because the leading actors and the cameraman refused to do so without him at the helm.

Some of that film can be seen here, with the editing capable enough and this download of poor enough quality that it all seemed to be consistent. It’s obvious less for use of different technology and more for the numbers of people visible on screen; some scenes in the expedition footage depict far more people snaking down the mountains behind the leaders or manning rafts in the river than are supposed to be there for this story. I wonder if more people in 1952 recognised these scenes from the 1937 Columbia version of Lost Horizon, where they were used as stock footage, than from the actual movie for which they were shot. There are also climbing scenes shot in a studio with cornflakes painted white to approximate snow, but they’re not particularly obvious either. It’s all very capable stuff and that holds true for the acting, even though the star of the film, Rex Reason, was making his debut and he has said that he was only cast because of a physical similarity to his equivalent in the original 1935 version.

Reason is Captain David Simms, who we meet in Tibet during the Second World War. He’s part of Operation Hump, in which Allied pilots flew vast amounts of supplies from India to China over the Himalayas. Reason’s deep and serious voice is perfect for the early narration that explains this, because it’s a tough mission, flying over mountains that have never been climbed and bleak landscapes that have never been explored, landing on airstrips that haven’t been finished yet. He paints a camel on his plane after every flight and he’s about to go home after seventy-four of them. The most crucial detail is that he’s going to take an exotic mask with him, of a Tibetan demon called Sindja, who guards the sacred peak of Amne Mandu; according to the text that rolls up the screen in a Star Wars crawl as the film begins, he “judges the dead and punishes those who doubt his existence”. It’s a fearful mask and Bill March, his fellow pilot, realises that he’s stolen it from a temple and actually fights him to do the right thing: give it back and apologise.

What seals March’s fate is that he loses that moral battle. In the struggle, Simms cuts his hand on glass from a broken picture and, while he still jumps into the cockpit to fly his final mission, his diligent co-pilot refuses to let him take off, bleeding as he is through his bandages. So March takes his seat with all Simms’s stuff still on board, mask included; the compass goes haywire, the plane goes off course and they crash into a mountain at 22,000 feet. And suddenly, for all that this is a mountain film, a serious one following a parody that Marton had made called North Pole, Ahoy! a year before Demon of the Himalayas, we suddenly find ourselves firmly in the territory of the horror movie. “Was it an accident? Was it a curse?” The superstitious Simms, who rubs a rabbit’s foot for luck in his cockpits, is stricken with guilt and attempts to pay for the mask he stole back at the temple, only to be told by a lama, via translator, that, “If it was meant for you to die on Amne Mandu, then you will die there.”

At least Simms is decent enough to adhere to his old colleague’s last wish, for him to check in on his girl Elaine back home. Sure, it’s a couple of years before he actually does it, but he does it nonetheless and he ends up falling for her. And here’s where we meet the reason why I’m watching, because Elaine is played by Diana Douglas. I had a lot of problems with The Indian Fighter, not least how it seemed to be notably progressive in some ways but still cast a neverending succession of poorly disguised white guys as the Native Americans, but I thoroughly enjoyed the banter between Diana and Kirk Douglas. They’d been divorced for four years at that point but still seemed to get along and to actually enjoy working together. Their back and forth, which favoured her throughout, even if he was the lead, was one of the highlights of the movie. She’s immediately good here too, appearing very natural, both through her excellent delivery of dialogue and her impressive body language, at a time when many actresses didn’t move much.

David and Elaine get married and settle down and life is golden, until one day when the mask mysteriously arrives at their door, no sender on the package and no return address. They put it in the closet, but its presence nags at Simms until he has to do something about it and he signs up for a United Nations expedition to Tibet. She won’t let him go without her, so they sell their stuff to pay for the trip and off they go. Here’s presumably where the footage from Demon of the Himalayas comes in, even though it’s neatly edited to avoid us noticing, even during an important scene at a Tibetan monastery, where the lamas create a dance to divine whether the gods will look favourably on the expedition or not. Needless to say, they don’t but it moves forward anyway. Simms even receives a personal audience with the head lama, who tells him how well it won’t go. Mountains will fall, he says, and so there’s a real sense of doom overshadowing the men who set off for Amne Mandu. And yes, it’s just men. The women must stay behind at the monastery.

Of course, here’s where the movie firmly plants its feet in the snow as a mountain film. This was a quintessentially European genre, one that thrived in the late silent era and into the thirties, though it’s gained some traction in the United States more recently, with films like 1991’s K2, with Michael Biehn; 1993’s Cliffhanger, with Sylvester Stallone; and 2000’s Vertical Limit, with Chris O’Donnell. It dates back as far as 1903, but the Germans in particular found a national identity in the genre, in a similar way to how Americans do with the western. The breakthrough director was Arnold Fanck, who found success in 1920 with The Wonders of Skiing and so turned the genre into a career in films like Mountain of Destiny, The Holy Mountain and The White Hell of Pitz Palu, the latter with G. W. Pabst. Leni Riefenstahl was a fan of the former and the star of the latter two. She would direct a mountain film of her own, The Blue Light, prompting Adolf Hitler to have her direct Triumph of the Will and Olympia, arguably the best propaganda films ever made.

Frankly, I wish Diana Douglas had got more time in the mountains in this mountain film but the only female character who gets an opportunity to join the men up in the snow is Mrs. Faber, the wife of the expedition’s leader, Professor Faber, after one of a string of calamities threatens their ability to continue. It probably won’t surprise to discover that she was played by Jarmila Marton, who was the director’s wife. However, she did play a prominent part—Goebbels called her the leading lady—in the original 1935 version so ought to have been a natural choice. Douglas may or may not have been good in the snow, as climbers tend to be unrecognisable wrapped up tight against the elements with goggles over their eyes, but there would have been opportunity for her and I think she would have lived up to it. Instead, she’s stuck at the monastery, talking with the head lama, who delivers good advice. “We cannot stop one who must find his way alone,” he explains, adding that Simms will be able to see so far up there he may see into himself.

It’s a shame that this is such an obscure film, because there’s much to praise about it, from the cinematography to the score, which also reused material from Demon of the Himalayas. What impressed me is how it works in so many genres. It’s decent as a mountain film, even though that genre had long fallen from favour when this picture was made and even though the available version hasn’t a chance of matching the impact that a capably restored version would provide. It’s not a bad horror movie either, with an unusual monster in a Himalayan demon who never actually appears in any form other than the mask that causes so much anguish. It’s good as a redemption drama, an adventure film, even a romance, however briefly during the second act. It also works well as a particular form of exploitation flick that exploits an exotic locale and its people, sometimes called a goona-goona epic, after a 1932 South Seas drama. There are no half naked natives here, but the temples and dances we do see are an intrinsic part of that genre too.

And it’s another opportunity to see Diana Douglas, whose film career began before her husband’s, even if his success would quickly eclipse hers. She was born Diana Dill in Bermuda to a British lieutenant colonel who had commanded the Bermudan artillery, been elected as a member of the Bermudan parliament and served as a former attorney general of Bermuda. While her sister Ruth would marry the heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, she tried acting instead, attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, with at least two other future stars as classmates. Initially, Kirk Douglas dated Lauren Bacall, who later helped kick his Hollywood career into motion, but he married Dill, even telling his shipmates in the U.S. Navy that he would when they all saw her grace the cover of Life magazine in 1943, in a striking pose advertising the issue’s Spring Match fashion collection. He did too, later that year, and they had two children, the actor Michael Douglas and the producer Joel Douglas.

She rose through the credits quickly, Storm Over Tibet being only her seventh film and her first as the female lead; her previous peak was fourth billed in a fantasy comedy called Let’s Live Again in 1948, after such forgotten names today as John Emery, Hillary Brooke and Taylor Holmes. Like so many actors born in 1923, she found broader success on television, initially on Three Steps to Heaven, the 1953 soap opera, as the second of three actors to play the lead, Mary Claire “Poco” Thurmond. After odd films and TV episodes here and there that ran through the fifties and sixties, she finally hit it big again on another soap opera, Love is a Many Splendored Thing in 1970, playing Lily Chernak Donnelly in 834 episodes over four years. Other prominent roles included appearances in films as varied as Jaws of Satan and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, taking her into the eighties. Her final film role was in 2003’s It Runs in the Family, a happy Douglas family reunion, starring Kirk and Diana, their son Michael and Michael’s son Cameron. She died in 2015 at 92.

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