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Blood on the Sun

Blood on the Sun
1945 /Colorized, originally B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 98 min. / Street Date July 22, 2003 / 14.98
Starring James Cagney, Sylvia Sidney, Porter Hall, John Emery, Robert Armstrong, Wallace Ford, Rosemary DeCamp, John Halloran, Leonard Strong, James Bell, Marvin Miller, Rhys Williams
Cinematography Theodor Sparkuhl
Production Designer Wiard Ihnen
Film Editor Walter Hannemann, Truman K. Wood
Original Music Miklos Rozsa
Written by Garrett Fort, Nathaniel Curtis and Lester Cole
Produced by William Cagney
Directed by Frank Lloyd

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Produced by Jimmy Cagney's brother William, Blood on the Sun is a thriller about early intrigues in Tokyo before the militarists came to power. It was probably suggested by some government agency that wanted to remind Americans that not all Japanese were evil fascist savages, as the propaganda had been spouting for over four years. The script (by one of the Hollywood Ten) is tight, Cagney is in good form both talking fast and performing Judo, and the production is lavish for an independent released by United Artists at this time.

Artisan must be an office that blindly orders up its DVD production, because even though there is no mention of it on the packaging, the transfer encoded has been colorized. Yes, I'm not kidding. The version bears a 1993 colorized copyright; it could have been chosen from the vault because it looked better than any B&W transfer, but who knows? When fans who thought colorization was a dead fad put this disc up, they're going to hit the ceiling. 1


Nick Condon (James Cagney), a newspaper editor in Tokyo in the very early 30s, uncovers a document outlining Japanese plans to invade China. His editor Arthur Bickett (Porter Hall) wants to appease the militarist hard-liners, but Condon holds out, which results in a couple he knows being murdered before they can leave for the states. Now Condon has to play a cat-and-mouse game with the secret police agents of the top Japanese commanders: Premier Tanaka (John Emery), Colonel Tojo (Robert Armstrong). A half-Japanese/half Chinese operative for the militarists, Iris Hilliard (Sylvia Sydney) appears to be Condon's worst enemy, until he gets to know her better.

Toward the end of hostilities, Hollywood's war films began to talk about victories in a partial past tense. The fighting may not have been over, but films started treating it as a fait accompli. Pictures like 13 Rue Madeleine looked for heroes in unsung corners of the struggle, and the Cagney brothers' Blood on the Sun reached further back into history to explain that Japan was a nation hijacked by warlords, and not the land of buck-toothed grinning demons as pictured in everything from cartoons to musicals. I don't think the words 'Jap' or 'Nip' are even used here; it's definitely a bury-the-hatchet movie, politics-wise.

Most of the Japanese, as was the custom, are still played by Anglo Hollywood actors. They're pretty good in the looks department but pretty dreadful with the accents. John Emery (Kronos) is unrecognizable being sinister behind a ton of makeup; likewise Robert Armstrong (King Kong) is totally incognito as Tojo, here portrayed (natch) as a sadistic pervert. There are only a couple of Chinese actors passing as Japanese. Marvin Miller is made into a nasty, grinning underling with a huge set of teeth.

The story depicts a free-wheeling editor trying to outsmart the Japanese spies, who murder on the sly and try to blackmail him with a frame-up. Editor Cagney is never seen reading or writing any newspaper copy, and flits runs about like a secret agent, taking Judo lessons and running from the secret police. Sylvia Sydney is an unlikely Asian, but handles her role well. Naturally, she and Cagney fall for each other and fight on the side of justice. It's really kind of a spy picture, with Cagney putting up with the duplicitous, scheming militarists, and then dishing it out when the time comes. To provide a socko finish for the matinee crowd, there's a judo-fisticuffs showdown with the biggest and most loutish of his foes. The Quiet American, this ain't.

James Bell, Cagney's constantly-worried newspaper buddy, is familiar from a couple of Val Lewton films. Hugh Beaumont isn't billed, but has a couple of bits as an embassy official. Wallace Ford and a young Rosemary DeCamp are very effective in brief roles as Cagney's close friends.

Legendary production designer Wiard Ihnen designed the film, which alternates between interesting Japanese traditional settings and more modern architecture clearly aping Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Japanese hotel. The dramatic ending scene, however, is set on an iconic rainy street that might be from Public Enemy.

Writer Lester Cole wrote a number of patriotic hits like Objective: Burma, and then around 1950 disappeared except for the odd credit under other names, even the big hit Born Free (ironic title) in 1965. One of the founding members of the Screenwriter's Guild, being branded as one of the Hollywood Ten effectively wiped out his career. I don't think we'll find anything anti-American in Blood on the Sun.

How does one review Blood on the Sun for picture quality? Colorization is a discredited gimmick that long ago went the way of the Dodo Bird, and I can only hope that some mistake was made at Artisan. That the packaging is unaware of the colorization can only mean that one hand is ignorant of what the other's doing, or somebody just doesn't care. The fans care, and I bet more than a few are returning their discs and/or howling at Arisan. The version bears a 1993 colorized copyright.

The B&W print that was colorized was probably in pretty good shape, but the gamma (density) has been been made lighter to facilitate the paint-by-numbers tinting work. It's one of the better colorizations I've seen, but it's still like watching a tinted lobby card that moves, not a 1945 movie. Turning off the color gives you a bunch of washed out greys - the low gamma I'm talking about.

The packaging design is reasonably attractive, and uses Artisan's standard incorrect aspect ratio diagram that says the format was modified, when it wasn't.

(Thanks to Dick Dinman for corrections... he tells me that the Hal Roach DVD of Blood on the Sun is of decent quality, in real B&W. 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Blood on the Sun rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Poor
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 28, 2003


1. It's possible that there was a disclaimer on the shrink wrapping mentioning the colorization. I don't remember seeing one when I opened the disc, a week ago. My apologies if all the store copies are so labeled. For what it's worth, the Amazon listing doesn't mention colorization, and ID's the disc as B&W.

2. More Artisan-Hal Roach reader info:
I've got a slight addendum to your Blood on the Sun review, about the Hal Roach DVD being of decent quality and in b&w.

I have this disc, and there are some rather important notes printed on the back that distinguish the Hal Roach DVD above all others, which your readers will find valuable:

"DIGITALLY MASTERED FROM THE ORIGINAL NITRATE CAMERA NEGATIVE Blood on the Sun has historically suffered by being presented in very poor 16mm and 35mm dupe versions, most of which contained a very serious indigenous jitter (Note: not on the Artisan disc). This stunning digital transfer was made from the brilliant original nitrate camera negative, which remains in mint condition after almost six decades."

The Hal Roach DVD is far better than Artisan's edition - it's in B&W, in excellent condition, utilizes the original nitrate camera negative, and is the best transfer the film will likely ever get. (Hal Roach Studios, 94m, #HRS9444). Thanks, Jeff Krispow


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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