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Ghost of the China Sea

D: Fred F. Sears / 79m

Cast: David Brian, Lynette Bernay, Jonathan Haze, Norman Wright, Harry Chang, Gene Bergman, Mel Prestidge

Set in the Philippines during World War II, Ghost of the China Sea is an amiable, if mostly forgettable drama about a group of civilians trying to escape the clutches of the approaching Japanese army. Trapped on an island that has begun to be invaded, and led by rough, tough ex-military man Martin French (Brian), the group – plantation owner Justine (Bernay), pacifist Reverend Darby Edwards (Wright), and plantation bookkeeper Himo Matsumo (Chang) – head for the nearby coast in the hope of finding a boat they can use to find safety on one of the other, numerous islands that make up the Philippines. Along the way they encounter Larry Peters (Haze), a seaman who has become lost on the island, but who saves them when they’re captured by the Japanese.

They help him find his ship, the Ilima, a broken-down vessel that barely qualifies as a navy ship, and which Peters refers to as the “USS Frankenstein”. They set off but soon need supplies, and discover that the Americans are being overrun and destroying any fuel and ammo dumps before moving on. Managing to get what they need, and still being pursued by the Japanese, French and co add a trio of Filipino resistance fighters to their group, and make way again. Along the way, French is challenged by Justine over his dismissive, arrogant attitude towards the others, and as the group is whittled down over time, French comes to realise that he can’t do everything by himself.

GOTCS - scene

Produced and scripted by Charles B. Griffith – better known as the screenwriter of such B-movie classics as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957), The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Death Race 2000 (1975) – and shot in Hawaii, Ghost of the China Sea is as ordinary and unremarkable a wartime drama as you’re ever likely to see. Like many similarly themed movies made in the Fifties, it tells a simple story, populates it with stock characters from the period – the stoic hero, the independent-minded heroine who still needs protecting and/or saving, the comic relief – and puts them all into situations where nothing too unexpected or exciting happens. Griffith himself was unhappy with how the movie turned out, but even so, and despite several reservations that could be mentioned about the movie, it’s still worth watching if you’re interested.

A lot of what makes it worth watching is due to the efforts of its director. This was Sears’ final movie, and the last of five movies to be released following his death in November 1957 (as you can imagine, he had a very busy career). What Sears does best here is to focus on the characters and what few internal struggles they have to contend with. French is all about getting the job done, but has decided that in order to do that he has to shut off from those around him. This makes him practically unlikeable, but thanks to Sears (and Brian), French’s slow reveal as a man of hidden feeling is both believable and a relief. Also, Sears takes Wright’s pacifist reverend and makes his dilemma more heartfelt than perfunctory, and while it’s tempting to view the moment when he has to make a choice (personal integrity vs necessity) as entirely predictable, it’s an affecting moment nevertheless.

Rating: 5/10 – not as corny or pedestrian as it might seem at first glance, Ghost of the China Sea is mildly diverting stuff that benefits greatly from Sears’ direction; unloved perhaps by its writer/producer, it’s a movie that deserves a little better attention than it’s received over the years.

NOTE: Sadly, there’s no trailer available.

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