Film Score: John Barry Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor
Starring: Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong, Jack Weston and Wilfred Brimley
High Road to China as entertaining as it was when it was released in theaters. The fact is, in a certain respect a part of this film is a sixties throwback. The main story, featuring Tom Selleck and Bess Armstrong is as good as it gets, taking its cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in turn inspiring films like Romancing the Stone. But the scenes with Robert Morley as the comedic bad guy harken back to sixties chase films with verbose titles like Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. It might have made for big box office back then, but today it just seems dated and clichéd.
For my money, the action sequences are every bit as good as those in Raiders. Instead of the South American Jungle and the sands of Egypt, however, we have the cold and gray steppes of Asia and the high snowy Himalayas. It’s an exhilarating ride, especially in bi-wing airplanes. Bess Armstrong is a twenties flapper who is about to lose her fortune when her father has disappeared and has been declared legally dead by his business partner. Desperate to find him, she enlists the help of Tom Selleck, a former World War One ace with two planes and no money. Along for the ride, and to give comic relief, is Selleck’s mechanic, Jack Weston, who is fantastic at what he does, but might not be as enjoyable to modern audiences.
The three fly through Afghanistan, to India and, as the title indicates, over the Himalayas to China. The villain, however, played comically by Robert Morley, has agents flying all over the world to stop Armstrong from finding her father. That part of the film is far less realistic than the rest, but I can still forgive it as an homage to earlier films. Wilfred Brimley, before Cocoon and before Quaker oatmeal, is great as the father, and the finale is a rousing conclusion to the proceedings, with the animosity between Armstrong and Selleck resolving as expected. This was one of Selleck’s first film roles while in Magnum P.I., and led to more film work after having previously been relegated to bit parts and TV appearances. It also set the stage for his work in westerns that would begin after this with Quigley Down Under. Bess Armstrong, who could have used the film to launch her film career, unfortunately picked the disastrous Jaws 3-D as her next project and thereafter was reduced to TV work.
Brian Hutton was a great choice as director, having guided Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes to the screen a decade earlier but, fed up with Hollywood, he quit the business after this film, which is a shame because he has a deft hand and his work with the vintage airplanes is tremendous. Another high point in the film is the score by John Barry, alternately soaring and intimate, it captures the mood of the piece in a brilliant way. High Road to China is a great, overlooked adventure/romance film that, while certainly mindful of its major flaws, is a film that I recommend highly. Fans of Selleck’s westerns will want to see where it all started, but fans of the genre should also be satisfied as well.