A viewer today might be tempted to dismiss this old-school Hollywood Prestigious Literary Adaptation; just the sight of Caucasian leads Paul Muni and German-born Luise Rainer playing Chinese peasants is embarrassing. To me, even more discomfiting than having palefaces play Chinese people are the mannerisms Paul Muni uses to play a “simple” peasant. But once you get past those dated, cringe-inducing aspects what’s most interesting about the movie is what a product of the 1930s it is, and how far removed that ethos seems today.
Is the Pearl S. Buck novel still a fixture of junior high school reading lists? The story, of course, is about Chinese farmers who are literally dirt poor struggling to survive. But the Great Depression is the subtext — none too subtle, but who cares — underlying the movie’s humanism. A mass audience watching these images in the ‘30s would have felt a bone-deep identification with Wang and O-lan’s struggles.
The story views wealth not just with suspicion but as actively corrupting — Wang Lung (Muni) betrays his family and all of his old ideals once he attains riches and status. But this isn’t Social Realist propaganda: Wang and his wife O-lan (Rainer) aren’t heroic ideals, but rather all too human. Their excruciating poverty leads them to take risks, to steal and even to debate selling their daughter to get by.
Wang and O-lan suffer humiliations and suffer, period, but the movie makes clear this is part of daily existence for people in their position. Life is hard work, all grit, no bellyaching allowed. The peasants’ toil is heroic, their tribulations epic. Survival consists of everyone pitching in, not just the whole family but the whole village, with even the bitterest conflicts set aside when everyone has to join together to ward off a swarm of locust. The climactic battle to stave off the locust is rousing, and still comes across as tour de force of special effects today.
The movie’s other arresting sequence — one that holds up, and then some — is the montage showing a riot in an unnamed city in southern China. The montage is credited to Slavko Vorkapich, an editor who specialized in what he called “symphonies of visual movement,” i.e., sequences that would hurtle a story forward in a dizzying flow of images. Vorkapich’s work here is remarkably effective in ramping up the movie’s energy.
In the riot sequence, poor unsuspecting Wang Lung finds himself caught up in a revolution. It’s worth noting, though, that while he’s oppressed by the existing order as much as anyone, he doesn’t agitate against it. There were limits for a Hollywood hero, even in a movie with a marked populist streak.