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Chairman, The

Twilight Time // PG // July 16, 2019
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Twilighttimemovies]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 23, 2019 | E-mail the Author
The Chairman (1969), an espionage/sci-fi thriller starring Gregory Peck and directed by J. Lee Thompson, was one of dozens of critical and financial flops that plagued 20th Century-Fox during the late-1960s. Critics hated it, and for a time it seemed to vanish. Years later I remember catching it on commercial television, beginning with a dialogue scene between Peck and an actor playing the Chairman of the title, Mao Zedong himself. Nonplussed, I continued watching this strange movie for a time, fascinated by scenes of Peck sneaking around China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Turns out the movie is most entertaining, if occasionally preposterous. Tautly edited, this relatively short (98-minute) feature is fast-paced and genuinely exciting. Peck, as he almost always was, is excellent, and the dialogue written for him by Ben Maddow (adapting Jay Richard Kennedy's novel) is witty and intelligent, though the basic premise is seriously flawed. The movie probably seemed hopelessly old-fashioned to film critics in 1969, arguably Hollywood's most tumultuous year, with pictures like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider changing the business in myriad ways. But, today, the cynical nature of the story plays well.

The plot is remarkably similar to Alfred Hitchcock's earlier Torn Curtain (1966), about a scientist who pretends to defect to East Germany in order to steal and bring back a top-secret formula known only to a scientist there. Take out the girlfriend character in Hitchcock's film, and The Chairman essentially tells the same story.

Peck is Dr. John Hathaway, a London-based, Nobel Prize-winning enzyme specialist recruited by one-eyed Lt. General Shelby (Arthur Hill) to travel to China to visit Hathaway's former colleague Soong Li. He's apparently developed an enzyme that allows crops to thrive in any environment. Hathaway is shown surveillance film showing wheat growing on snow-capped mountains in Tibet.

Before departing, Hathaway agrees to have a poker chip-sized transmitter implanted into his skull. Using a secret satellite orbiting over China, this will allow to Hathaway to send (but not receive) messages back to London simply by talking aloud. Further, the device can monitor his heart rate and other vitals. What he doesn't know is that the device is equipped with small explosives that can be triggered remotely from the London nerve center.

Once in China, Hathaway is summoned to a meeting with Chairman Mao (Conrad Yama) before being allowed to finally meet with his long-lost scientist friend (Keye Luke). Though Mao is all smiles and cooperative, Soong Li doubts very much Hathaway will ever be able to leave China alive.

The Chairman was the first release of Arthur P. Jacobs's production company, APJAC, following the huge success of Planet of the Apes, one of Fox's few box-office hits of the period. Some of the same key people, including producer Mort Abrahams and composer Jerry Goldsmith, worked on The Chairman, while director J. Lee Thompson would later direct Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) for Jacobs. Neither The Chairman nor Jacobs's other 1969 release, the musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, were successful, so the following year the company focused on more Apes sequels.

Given a healthy $5 million budget, The Chairman is lavishly produced. Naturally filming in China was not permitted, but locations in Taiwan are reasonable substitutes. The climax was shot in Snowdonia, in Wales, terrain similar to the Scottish locales used in From Russia with Love (1964). The IMDb reports that the nerve center where Arthur Hill's character spends most of his time was the same set, redressed, for the nerve center in Fantastic Voyage. It certainly looks very similar, but that would have been on a stage on the Fox lot in Beverly Hills, and the end titles credit only Pinewood Studios in the U.K.

Regardless, the film makes use of practically every London-based Asian actor working at the time, as well as a few imports like Keye Luke. Mai Ling, who played a pretty but sinister stewardess in Goldfinger (1964) plays virtually the same character in The Chairman, spying on Peck and lifting his fingerprints. Ric Young, who played an alien from the planet Lystria in the low-budget but fun sci-fi yarn Invasion (1965), turns up as Hathaway's Chinese liaison/security chief. Francesca Tu plays Soong's daughter, Chu, who serve as both her ailing father's caretaker and Communist watchdog. Even Burt Kwouk turns up, in a peculiarly small part, and dubbed (by Robert Rietty) at that.

The biggest surprise, though, is the appearance of Zienia Merton, the exotically beautiful Burmese-born actress best-known as a regular on the TV series Space: 1999. She attempts to seduce widower Hathaway in one scene, which was expanded to include more explicit nudity for international release. Merton's 2018 obituary made note of a sweet story about her leading man. After Peck's death, his family sent her a letter from Peck to the producers, recommending Merton for the role, a fact that, until then, she was completely unaware.

The short running time, quick cutting, and existence of alternate cuts (described below) suggest The Chairman was originally planned as a much bigger, more important release, then scaled back during postproduction. In the seduction scene with Merton, for instance, she makes a strange reference to butterflies that only makes sense in the international version cut. Other scenes tend to start and end abruptly.

The biggest narrative flaw with The Chairman is the premise of the implanted transmitter. Many scenes have Peck seemingly talking to himself when no one else is around, updating Shelby and others back in London on his progress. The Chinese spying on Hathaway are aware of a transmitter device, but can't figure out where it might be, even though they secretly X-rayed Hathaway, apparently skipping his head. Later they use homing technology to pinpoint its location, but there's an obvious plot hole: Why don't the Chinese simply bug Professor Soong's laboratory-home? Hathaway doesn't exactly whisper his progress reports.

Roger Ebert's pithy 1969 review focused almost entirely on what he viewed as the absurdity of Peck's noble character, the kind of role Peck almost always played. But Hathaway is a noble scientist, a civilian, with altruistic aims: he wants the enzyme as a gift to a hungry world. It's the politicians and military men who want to weaponize it. Interestingly, it's Hill's general who puts Hathaway's life most at risk, ready to detonate the bomb in Hathaway's head should anything go wrong. Soviet troops, seen near the end, become the Good Guys. Even Chairman Mao is depicted far less critically than he usually was in the western-world press, first glimpsed playing ping pong with China's champion player. Politically Mao and Hathaway may be worlds apart, but the gulf separating Hathaway and Gen. Shelby is far wider.

Peck's articulate, sometimes humorous observations are smart and funny, and the actor expertly maximizes their potential. For such an ultimately lightweight if engaging film, Peck gives it his usual best efforts, and he's fascinating to watch throughout.

Video & Audio

  Filmed in Panavision, Kino's new Blu-ray of The Chairman looks reasonably good, if a tad greenish overall, though it comes to life here and there. The DTS-HD Master Audio, available in 1.0 and 2.0 mixes, is fairly strong, and optional English subtitles are provided on this region-free disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include two alternate takes from the international version, both of which add fleeting nudity that was cut for the U.S. release, originally rated "M," the forerunner to "PG." What's identified as a restored "mini-film," appears to be a highlight reel summarizing the film for distributors many months prior to The Chairman's release. It also includes cut scenes and alternate takes, adding evidence to the assertion that a longer film was planned. (Second-billed Anne Heywood, playing Hathaway's girlfriend, appears in just two scenes in the release version, an excised third appearance turns up here.) There's also an audio commentary track with film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer, and an original trailer. However, on my player the trailer exhibited an electronic whine with no other discernable audio, perhaps an authoring flaw. An isolated music track allows listeners to enjoy Jerry Goldsmith's score, which exhibits the same Asian-exoticness of his score for Tora! Tora! Tora! the following year.

Parting Thoughts

A very pleasant surprise, The Chairman is a fun, at times even tense picture, absurd on some levels but polished and well-made generally. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.






Highly Recommended

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