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The only film that World War II veteran James Stewart made during his career was one far away from his wartime experience flying missions over Germany in the European Theater. In fact it's the Chinese mainland theater which few have ever written about.
One of those who did was Theodore H. White who in the year before his first Making of the President books came out wrote the novel on which The Mountain Road is based. White was a correspondent during World War II and he covered this forgotten theater of the war where more time was spent in the quarrels with American commander Joseph Stilwell and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek of the Kuomintang Nationalist Chinese forces than in actually fighting the Japanese.
The year is 1944 and the Japanese army is once again on the offensive and the Chinese are retreating deeper into their interior. Stewart heads an eight man army demolition team and he's destroying a whole lot of things useful to the advancing Japanese, scorching the Chinese earth for the invaders.
But he's in a country that the only things Americans know about it come from missionary tales, Pearl Buck novels, and Charlie Chan movies. Which would make Stewart's character no different than most of the rest of his countrymen. One of the people in his team is the Chinese speaking Glenn Corbett who's studied the language and culture.
In this war movie, we never see the Japanese. Stewart's big problems come from the mass of refugees heading west to escape the advancing Japanese. He's also dealing with conflicting orders, with Chinese commanders looking to evade responsibility, and some outright bandits who really don't care who wins the war.
Four of the team are killed and the reprisals Stewart takes cost him the affection of Lisa Lu, widow of a Chinese general who chose wrong politically and paid for it.
Actually the performance I liked best in the movie is that of Frank Silvera as a Chinese Kuomintang commander who actually does understand and sympathize with Stewart, but who also knows his people.
My guess is that James Stewart took this film because it's not a typical war film with no great combat scenes. It's about the responsibility of command in a war where you can't tell whom you should fear.
Still The Mountain Road drags in spots and comes to no real satisfactory conclusion. It's different, but because of that remains one of James Stewart's least known and viewed films.
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