Heavy-handed sentiment and political messages never make for a great movie, and terms like “Important Film”, “World War II Propaganda”, and “Interesting Failure” come to mind when Dragon Seed (1944) is mentioned, but it’s no less a fascinating experiment. Based on the Pearl S. Buck novel, it’s the story of Ling-Tan (Walter Huston) and his family, the simile-and metaphor-spouting denizens of a Chinese village and the impact the Sino-Japanese War has on them.
Putting aside the whole controversy of westerners playing Asians, Kate gives an unremarkable performance even though the role of Jade was an opportunity for her to spout her independent, proto-feminist beliefs as well as a chance to publicize the Chinese war effort. The Chinese portrayed here would later be Communists and not exactly a United States ally, but that would be the case with the Soviet Union, too; it’s funny how politics work: your ally becomes your enemy and your enemy becomes…okay, you get the idea.
Still, this was 1944 and World War II was well under way. The war in China had been raging full on since 1937 (or 1931 if you count the conflict in Manchuria), when this film takes place, and China was suffering massive casualties while under siege from Imperial Japan since 1937. Hollywood tends to act years after the fact, just as they did in the production of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), though the republican faction in Spain had long since been vanquished by Franco’s forces. With Dragon Seed, at least the struggle continued in China and perhaps the film could bring attention to this ally in the East. There was great sympathy for China and the Soviet Union during the war, and when watching Dragon Seed it’s best to keep that context in mind. The film is interesting more for its historical context than its dramatic power. It is also regrettable that the westerners portraying Asians is a distraction, even to those of us who dwell among the anointed ones flowing over with much wisdom. Sorry, I’ve been watching Dragon Seed…
Katharine Hepburn receives top billing as Jade, the curious and free-thinking wife of Ling-Tan’s middle son Lao (Turhan Bey) and who wants to stand up to the invading Japanese. Or to be more specific it’s Katharine Hepburn playing herself in Asian-style makeup. You have to give Kate a ton of credit for trying vastly different roles; in our previous Hepburn performance review, she played a boy (in disguise). Jade longs to become educated and is interested in world events, especially the Japanese invasion. Hepburn’s first scene is at a propaganda film showing with what is probably a communist political officer narrating a newsreel of Japanese atrocities and is imploring the complacent Chinese farmers to act.
Hepburn is unremarkable in the role though she earnestly tries to become the character; but it just doesn’t work. She’s alternately coy, evasive, and downright flaky! There are some genuinely bizarre facial expressions, too which I found to be distracting. Jade is supposed to be shy in her admissions in wanting to be “of the new” and the modern and she’s full of so many deep, meaningful thoughts: “My thoughts are like a chain and one is fast to the other.” See? Jade is complex! She contains multitudes! Unfortunately, Kate delivers much of her dialogue as if she were in an opium-induced trance. I’d love to know what Hepburn did to prepare for this movie.
Dragon Seed, despite some manipulative yet effective scenes, is more a historical curiosity, one that was borne of public conscience and war aims rather than cinematic achievement. It was perhaps more important for Katharine Hepburn to be associated with this film’s purpose—the support of China—than it was to give a memorable performance. She lent her name and her presence to the project but she’s off the screen for long stretches, one as long as thirty minutes. Much of that time in the film is spent on showing the Japanese pillaging and destroying and being evil. It’s easy to rail against the depiction of the Japanese in the film, but this was after all the same campaign that brought The Rape of Nanking.
Dragon Seed airs on Turner Classic Movies June 23 @ 6am EST.