How High Road To China broke all the rules of adventure movies

High Road To China might be dismissed as an Indiana Jones wannabe, but Aliya reckons it's more interesting than that...

Tom Selleck was once, according to film legend, going to be Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. He had the looks, charm, and timing of a classic Hollywood hero, and I think he might have made an excellent Indy. If you’re interested in how that might have played out, you can search online for a screen test of Selleck with Sean Young playing Marion Ravenwood. He looks pretty good in that hat.

But he never did get the chance to do more than a screen test. He was offered the role, but had already signed a contract for Magnum PI, and couldn’t get around scheduling conflicts. And so Harrison Ford donned the fedora, and made the role his own. But there’s more to this myth – the story goes that, as a consolation prize for losing out, Selleck was given the starring role in an adventure movie that is often regarded as an Indy knock-off – High Road To China.

High Road To China was a box-office success, and the 27th highest grossing film of 1983, beating a lot of films that we remember more kindly nowadays: Dead Zone, Krull, and Educating Rita, for instance. Not that box office returns mean much when you revisit films from the past, but it does go to show that it hardly sank without trace. But its popularity didn’t lead to endurance, and people think there’s nothing interesting to be found in it when compared to Raiders.

Is it really such a clone? Here’s the general plot: in 1920s Istanbul, heiress and socialite Eve Tozer (Bess Armstrong) discovers that her missing father is about to be declared legally dead by his nefarious business partner (played with usual aplomb by Robert Morley). If this happens, she loses all her money, and so she hires drunken pilot O’Malley (Selleck) to fly with her in his two biplanes on a journey through countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal, and China. Along the way they argue and encounter many difficulties, including an unpleasant Afghan warlord played by Brian Blessed. (What more does a film need?)

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So there’s a quest, a laconic hero, a feisty heroine, some exotic locations, and a dash of danger – the mainstays of the adventure movie. There’s some strong dialogue and excellent comic timing, and the chemistry between Selleck and Armstrong is fun and pleasant, if not earth-shattering. There’s also a good turn from Wilford Brimley and some great shots of O’Malley’s planes (named Dorothy and Lillian, after silent film stars the Gish sisters) in action. But what’s really interesting about the film is what it doesn’t have. There are a number of key ideas that turn up time and again in classic adventure movies, for characters from Allan Quartermain to Zorro. High Road To China simply doesn’t do them. You can see this as a weakness or a strength, depending on whether you like the film or not, but for me, it makes the film fascinating. Here’s a quick run-down, with spoilers, of what it doesn’t do:

1. Nobody gets punched very much

The hero punching people, particularly punching them in the face, is an important part of many action movies. What kind of hero doesn’t get physical when necessary? The answer is – O’Malley in High Road To China. The first punch thrown in the movie is one where O’Malley gets knocked out, and there really aren’t many others. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a similar start, in that the first punch of the movie is thrown by Marion and connects with Indy’s jaw – but after that Indy throws a lot of punches of his own, including that great sequence where he takes on the German Mechanic on the airfield.

High Road To China has aerial dogfights, bombs, explosions, but hardly any physical battles. It makes you feel that O’Malley really is a washed-up pilot, not up to running and fighting like your usual hero. That’s not to say that Selleck isn’t striking in the role – tall, broad-chested, a gifted physical comedian, he looks like heartthrob material. And yet they don’t give him the opportunity to really prove his hero status. Maybe it’s got something to do with point two…

2. The heroine doesn’t need saving

Marion Ravenwood is a great heroine. She gives as good as she gets, and is handy with sharp words, cutlery, and frying pans. And yet she still needs to be saved an awful lot. She gets abducted, she gets tied up in tents, she gets dropped in holes. We know Indy is a real hero because he always gets her out of these messes, although not always in the way that she would like. A lot of the joy of Raiders Of The Lost Ark comes from resolving the traditional problems of adventure movies in a surprising way.

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Eve Tozer doesn’t appear to have much of a vulnerable side. When we first meet her, she’s Charlestoning on a table and all the men in the room are besotted with her. Then she gets told about her impending disinheritance, and suddenly she cares about where her father might have got to, and so she hires a pilot to go searching. Except she doesn’t really need a pilot; she’s a flying ace herself. It’s the plane she needs, and O’Malley can come along just to show her the way.

Eve comes across as quite a hard figure, and the running around and driving the adventure forward falls to her. She gets to wear the disguises and square up to the bad guys. Some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones where she and Brian Blessed eyeball each other with mutual dislike. How dare a woman talk to him, a Warlord? Well, this is no ordinary woman. There is one moment where you think she might need saving, but it turns out she’s just playing a trick on O’Malley.

Eve is a character you’ll either love or hate. Personally, I love her, but I would concede that her impregnability makes Tom Selleck’s hero role even harder to believe in.

3. The music isn’t thrilling

Everyone can hum the music from Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It’s brilliant. Not many people can recall the music from High Road To China. But it is good – it’s by John Barry, and it concentrates on the aerial beauty of the film, the swooping sensation of flying. Barry wrote a very similar score for Out of Africa two years later, and that is a movie that also has a love of landscape seen from above, unfolding for the camera.

The only thing I don’t like about the music is that it doesn’t really seem to fit in an adventure movie. It doesn’t gear you up to take on the world. It does fit perfectly with the flying scenes though. If you like planes and John Barry, this film and Out Of Africa are most definitely for you.

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4. The villain doesn’t get his comeuppance

Robert Morley’s villainous character is a nasty piece of work. He relentlessly bullies his sidekick and employs a waitress who is far too old to be carrying around heavy trays (she looks like a forerunner of Acorn Antiques’ Mrs Overall). By the end of the film, I felt ready for him to get punched in the face by Tom Selleck – but this did not happen. In fact, the film neatly sidesteps the whole issue of money and we can only assume that the bad guy does, indeed, get his wish to declare Eve’s father dead.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark gives us a much more satisfying ending. The bad guys get their faces melted, or their heads explode. It feels like it serves them right. But I also like High Road To China’s sudden volte-face; it’s as if the characters suddenly decide that there are more important things than money in the world. And, after their experiences, I believe them.

5. There’s no happy ever after

Well, there is a happy ever after, in that O’Malley and Eve end up together at the last minute, and everything is resolved (whether you think it’s resolved to your satisfaction depends on whether you think the villain should get punched in the face or not). But for a film in which the two biplanes play such an important part, it’s an interesting choice that the writer decided to have them both destroyed, leaving our hero and heroine stranded in China. A more rewarding ending might have seen them flying off together in one plane instead of two, symbolising their togetherness, but no, High Road To China was never going to do anything that obvious. Instead they’re simply – stuck there.

Indy and Marion have more of a resolution. Even though the Ark is taken away and deliberately lost in bureaucracy, they get to go and have a drink together. And yet I believe more in Eve and O’Malley as a long-standing couple after the credits roll – they have something that will keep them together long term. They have to rebuild an entire plane or learn the Chinese language.

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Everyone knows Raiders Of The Lost Ark is a great adventure film. It’s not surprising that it spawned more than a few imitators. I stand by High Road To China as one of the most surprising of those imitations, taking you in a few directions that you couldn’t foresee. It’s worthy of a watch on a weekend afternoon, and a think about what exactly you’re getting when you settle down to an adventure movie. Must there always be a punch, a kiss, a quest? What happens when we fiddle about with those expectations? Can the result be enjoyable on its own terms?

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