Ghost of the China Sea
Sony Pictures Choice Collection // Unrated // $20.95 // February 5, 2013
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 2, 2013
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An unremarkable World War II meller, Ghost of the China Sea (1958) is of interest more for the talent involved than for the movie itself. The film combines personnel culled from Columbia's B-picture unit with artists usually associated with producer-director Roger Corman, notably writer-producer Charles B. Griffith (It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors) and actor Jonathan Haze. At the time Griffith was anxious to move on to bigger and better things, and Ghost of the China Sea was supposed to be the first of five movies he was to make for Columbia. However, Griffith ended up making just one more picture for Columbia, Forbidden Island (1959), before returning to the Corman fold. Like Ghost of the China Sea, it was filmed entirely on location in Hawaii and co-starred Haze. Fred F. Sears directed Ghost of the China Sea while Griffith directed Forbidden Island, possibly as a result of Sears's sudden death in November 1957.

A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, Ghost of the China Sea gets an excellent 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen, black and white transfer bereft of extra features or even menu screens.

Nineteen forty-one. The Japanese close in on the Philippines, but sugar plantation owner Justine Woolf (Lynn Bernay) refuses to leave. However, the decision is made for her when Japanese planes strafe her fields, killing several workers while the survivors flee into the jungle. Justine, accompanied by her Japanese-Filipino bookkeeper Hito Matsumo (Harry Chang) and pacifist Reverend Darby Edwards (Norman Wright), catch a ride into town from embittered mechanic Martin French (top-billed David Brian).

The Japanese invaders quickly capture the group, though rather foolishly they leave but a single man, Pvt. Hakashima (Kam Fong, later Det. Chin Ho Kelly on Hawaii Five-O), to guard them. An American sailor, Larry Peters (Jonathan Haze), sneaks up behind the Japanese soldier and overpowers him, though doggedly cynical Martin pegs Larry as a deserter and mercilessly brands him a coward.

The refugees decide to take their chances aboard a dilapidated boat Larry christens the U.S.S. Frankenstein. Along the way they pick up a trio of Filipino guerilla fighters, Sabatio (Gene Bergman), Gaetano (Mel Prestige), and Jamie (Jamie Del Rosario). Meanwhile, the Japanese remain hot on their trail.

Ghost of the China Sea is standard fare story-wise: the misanthropic hero who has no use for the supposedly inferior types around him until Justine accuses him of inaccurately labeling everybody. Martin eventually recognizes that when the chips are down the others are capable of extraordinary bravery and even self-sacrifice. But, for most of the film he's judgmental, sanctimonious, inelegant, and acts like he enjoys hearing himself bellyache.

A clever exchange between Justine and Martin is vintage Charles Griffith:

Justine: "You never lean on anyone, do you?"

Martin: "That's the easiest way to fall down."

Justine: "Which means you've done some pretty hopeful leaning in your time."

Otherwise, the movie is totally ordinary. During the late 1950s and early '60s there seems to have been quite a few of these kinds of pictures: A tiny contingent of American soldiers and/or civilians vs. thousands of mostly unseen Japanese invaders during the latter's invasion of the Philippines. Such films usually required small casts, could be shot without having to build expensive sets, and World War II era props and costumes were readily available, the war having ended only a dozen or so years before. Some of these films were made in the Philippines, but even the wilds of Griffith Park in Hollywood or the Los Angeles County Arboretum to the east could do in a pinch.

Ghost of the China Sea was filmed in Hawaii, with (mostly) Chinese actors pretending to be Japanese. Charles Griffith shows a bit of effort here, however. They speak authentically Japanese dialogue, and even their untranslated lines exhibit some effort at characterization.

While Griffith produced and wrote the film*, the directing chores were left to Fred F. Sears, the B picture actor-turned-director best known for his sci-fi films, particularly Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and The Giant Claw (1957). Sears was good with actors and showed promise in other Columbia Bs, particularly noir and action-suspense type films. Sadly, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in November 1957, probably from overwork. Ghost of the China Sea was his last film, one of a whopping five movies released in 1958, the year after his death.

Haze and Bernay had both appeared in Roger Corman's The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957). Bernay, who resembles Doris Day here, also had small roles in Sears's Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Corman's Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but left acting to become a respected costume designer and set costumer.

The picture reportedly cost just $80,000. If so, the money is there on the screen, looking a bit more polished and more like a Columbia B than, say, a Roger Corman cheapie from this same period.

Video & Audio

Ghost of the China Sea looks just fine, sourcing as it does original film elements probably never in high demand. The blacks are reasonably rich and the contrast good throughout. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Ghost of the China Sea isn't terrible but it is disappointingly ordinary considering Griffith's talents as a screenwriter. Griffith himself was unusually harsh on this and Forbidden Island: "They were really terrible. It stopped me for twenty years from ever directing again. They were really rank. You see, I got chicken and started to write very safely within a formula to please the major studios, and of course, you can't do that." Safely written pretty much describes things, but for the talent involved and the good transfer this still comes mildly Recommended for fans of such films.

* The IMDb but not the credits list actor David Brian as co-writer.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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