An early title from MGM's newly re-launched movie-on-demand program, The 7th Dawn (1964) is a surprisingly good action-adventure / political drama set in British Malaya from the end of World War II through the early 1950s. It's almost an epic; with a few more big stars it might have been distributed as a reserved-seat roadshow engagement. Though its character relationships play out in predictable ways, they're all based on real people and events, and the story's attitudes about communist terrorists and British colonialists are unusually intelligent and shaded for the time. This probably didn't go over well in America, where the war in Vietnam was just beginning to heat up. William Holden, Susannah York, Capucine, and Tetsuro Tamba star.
MGM's movie-on-demand DVD-R is 16:9 enhanced widescreen but it's an old and problematic transfer, watchable but not very good. Further, I experienced some minor but nerve-wracking authoring issues discussed below.
At the end of the war guerrilla leaders Ferris (Holden), an American, Malaysian-Chinese Ng (Japanese actor Tamba), and Eurasian Dhana Mercier (Capucine, notably deglamorized) celebrate the defeat of the Japanese but have mixed feelings about Malaya's British occupiers. Ng, a communist, leaves for Moscow to complete his education. His lover, Dhana, chooses to remain behind and becomes president of the local teacher's union and, later, Ferris's mistress. (Capucine was having an affair with Holden and/or producer Charles K. Feldman at the time.) The expatriate American starts a rubber plantation and tin mine, eventually controlling some 20,000 acres.
By 1953* Ng has returned to Malaya, hiding out in the jungle with communist insurgents using terrorism - specifically random hand-grenade attacks on British interests - hoping to drive out their country's condescendingly paternalistic occupiers. Aware of Ferris's past relationship with Ng, the British compel him to find Ng's secret base and attempt to work out some compromise, but Ng refuses to budge.
Ferris returns home and becomes involved with Candace (York), the young daughter of the new British Commissioner, Trumphey (Michael Goodliffe), a more reasonable man than stereotypically sanctimonious, racist soldier Cavendish (Allan Cuthbertson, who excelled in such roles). But then tensions flare when a grenade is tossed into the crowd at a welcoming ball held at the Commissioner's official residence. Trumphey orders reprisals by burning the entire village said to be aiding and abetting the enemy.
Based on a novel by alleged one-time spy Michael Keon, The 7th Dawn is both exotic and authentic, with characters modeled after real-life historical ones: Ferris on SOE officer John Davis and explorer Frederick Spencer Chapman; Ng on Chin Peng, Malaya's Communist Party chairman; Trumphey on Sir Donald Charles MacGillivray. Dhana was reportedly based on Eurasian writer-physician Han Suyin, whose novels include Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, a Eurasian and American love story filmed in 1955 - and which starred William Holden.
Though its plot is very different, structurally the movie is quite similar to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). In both films, William Holden plays a cynical, politically ambivalent American in the Asian jungle caught between stubborn British forces and non-native Asian invaders (if one considers Ng and his soldiers Chinese) out to destroy one another. At a time when Western world films generally depicted all communists as slovenly, freedom-hating monsters, The 7th Dawn is notable for making Ng sympathetic and his anger entirely justified, while still critical of his extremism and condemning his terrorists acts. Conversely, the British come off even worse, with their intractability and shock-and-awe strategies. When they burn an entire village - and it's a big one, not just a few huts; we're talking major carbon footprint shooting this scene - the horror and anger on the faces of its displaced children, sick, and elderly is compelling stuff. (And apparently genuine. Squatters moved into the set as soon as it was built, only to lose their new homes during filming.)
The film was shot almost entirely on location, including studio interiors with apparently only the postproduction done in England. (One clue to this: though his name doesn't appear in the IMDb's 7th Dawn entry, the voice of a judge seen late in the film is unmistakably re-looped by British actor Michael Hordern, uncredited.) The picture makes superb use of Malaysia's colorful cities, mountains, and beaches. Almost certainly director Lewis Gilbert and cinematographer Freddie Young were hired to direct the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967), filmed in Japan, based on their work here. (Bond title designer Maurice Binder also did The 7th Dawn's credits.)
The cast is excellent, starting with Asiaphile Holden, so good in these kinds of films. When Cuthbertson's Cavendish tells Holden's Ferris that a wrongly accused terrorist will be treated to "a fair trial. But there will be only one verdict possible. Hanging." Ferris cynically retorts, "Couldn't be fairer." No one delivered lines like that better than Holden. York is luminous, Capucine effective, and Tamba, whose own voice seems to have been retained, is memorable.
Video & Audio
Like Warner Home Video's Warner Archive Collection, MGM's movie on demand program - apparently under the "Limited Edition Collection" banner - similarly offers its DVD-Rs with no-frills menu screens (this having only a "Play Movie" options) and chapter stops every 10 minutes. Though a DVD-R, it's region 1 encoded and copy-protected.
Shot for 1.66:1 projection, the image is 16:9 enhanced widescreen but obviously an old transfer. The film itself looks a bit rough around the edges to begin with; add to that there's an enormous amount of edge enhancement (see Holden's houseboy at 16:01) and digital artifacting (the jungle foliage gets awfully blocky at times). Moreover, my brand-new disc jammed briefly around the 24:23 and 25:35 marks, though not thereafter. Even the mono audio was slightly out of synch by several frames for several reels about halfway through.
These sorts of problems so plagued MGM's first dip into the movie-on-demand market that customer complaints halted the program entirely for several months**. And it's going to fail again unless MGM gets its act together. The suggested SRP, $19.98, already pricey for a DVD-R, isn't reasonable if the transfer is poor and the customer watches in suspense wondering if the movie is going to play all the way through to the end. I've seen far worse transfers and, to be fair, this was at least serviceable and I'm glad that the movie's available - but it's far from perfect.
There are no Extra Features.
The 7th Dawn is definitely worth seeing, a near-epic that's intelligent, well-acted, and about a historical conflict not widely known in the west. MGM's movie-on-demand DVD-R has a lot of problems, but ultimately it played all the way to the end with only minor problems and looked at least okay. Recommended.
* In a continuity goof, Holden sports the exact same shirt in 1953 he was wearing at in August 1945.
** The one title I bought, House of the Long Shadows, was an appalling full-frame transfer so badly authored it refused to play at all after the first ten minutes.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.