Thunder in the East

An exotic locale, a morally dubious lead, and a set of circumstances with all the potential of a powder keg in a raging inferno – this is the kind of scenario which generally grabs my attention effortlessly. Such movies always hold out the promise of adventure, intrigue and, if we’re lucky, maybe a little something extra to spice it all up. Thunder in the East (1951) is a film that could have sold itself to me on the basis of the cast alone, and the aforementioned plot elements simply ramped up the appeal.

India, in the period just after independence, and a plane lands in the fictional province of Ghandahar. The pilot is Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd), one of those rootless Americans so beloved of films of the period. He claims to have an appointment with the Maharajah, and positively exudes the kind of cockiness that is the preserve of men confident of making a quick and substantial profit. We never learn much about what made Gibbs the man he is beyond the fact he once was a member of the Flying Tigers, but that’s not really important. He’s in Ghandahar to sell a shipment of arms to the head man and the unstable political situation thereabouts leaves him feeling pretty sure of his chances of success. Regardless of all that, our man is riding for a fall as he’s failed to count on the presence of the Maharajah’s right hand man, and the real power in the province, Singh (Charles Boyer). The latter is a man of rigid principle, one who has seen what can be achieved without resort to violence and is thus determined to be rid of Gibbs and his cargo of munitions. Before he knows what’s hit him, this flyer finds his wings clipped and his weapons impounded. Still and all, a man like Gibbs is naturally inclined to sniff out the chance of making a deal wherever and whenever the opportunity arises. If that means selling his wares to the rebel opposition in the surrounding hills and later topping up his take by evacuating the Europeans he’s placed in greater danger, then so be it. But fate, or perhaps destiny if one’s mind runs in that direction, has a habit of intervening and toying with such schemes. Few men are truly devoid of conscience or feelings, and the apparently innocuous presence of a blind woman (Deborah Kerr) stirs memories of such sentiments within Gibbs. What remains to be seen is how this mercenary character will respond, and indeed how others will similarly address their own preconceptions, as the militia relentlessly burns and butchers its way towards the practically defenseless palace.

Thunder in the East was directed by Charles Vidor, a man whose work I’m not all that familiar with. Gilda is clearly his standout title (Ladies in Retirement is one I intend to get round to as I work my way through my unwatched pile) and ought to mark him out for attention even if he’d never shot another picture. His work on here is fine although it flags a little in the middle as the tension drops off slightly. The film was photographed by Lee Garmes, who was in the middle of a fine run at this point, and his touch is particularly evident in the second half. While it never reaches the heights of exoticism or atmosphere to be found in von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express there’s much to admire in the filming of Ladd’s drive through the sacked town and the tense climax in the besieged palace grounds.

For me, the theme underpinning a film is the aspect which stimulates or interests me most. Even the most casual viewer to this site will be aware that I’m an unashamed fan and champion of the western, that purest and most beautiful of all cinematic genres. The classic western theme is that of redemption and spiritual rebirth, yet it’s by no means confined to that genre and can be found throughout cinema, particularly in the classic period. Thunder in the East is therefore no exception in this respect, and I think it’s this which is its greatest strength. The intrigue and suspense have a part to play of course but the heart of it all, that which gives it life and artistic value, is the redemptive journey undertaken by Steve Gibbs. Allied to this, and bolstering it all, is the focus on the restorative power wrought by the faith of others in the inherent decency and humanity of even the most jaded of souls; just as Ladd becomes the eyes of Kerr by proxy, so she becomes the small voice whispering persuasively within his mind to kindle the embers of half-recalled ideals.

Alan Ladd seemed to make a habit of starring in a string of movies located in the East around this time – Calcutta, Saigon, China – and this provided a pretty good role for him. He had the laconic toughness down pat and was generally at his best when he used that quality to disguise his inner pain. I think the best acting always derives from the search, either within or without, for fulfillment and the peace which accompanies it, and Ladd was a fine exponent of that. For such a quest to take place it’s necessary for a tangible and credible motive to exist. If Ladd is the tarnished knight, then his grail is represented by Deborah Kerr. She was always a classy performer, alluring yet also pure. I alluded to the western above, and I shall do so again as Kerr’s role illustrates just how significant the female frequently is in both spurring and completing the spiritual odyssey of the hero. Playing blind, or indeed any physically challenged, characters can be problematic, the potential for descent into cliché being ever present. In my opinion Kerr avoids that danger and gives a portrayal of a fully rounded character who never strays towards the pitiful nor the superhuman. Boyer is also fine as the conflicted and idealistic Singh, embarking on a philosophical journey of his own over the course of the story. In support, Corinne Calvet is perhaps somewhat wasted as the fearful courtesan and I think more could have been made of her part. In smaller roles, John Williams and Cecil Kellaway are welcome faces in fairly typical, but highly enjoyable, character turns. 

As a fan of Alan Ladd I’ve always been on the lookout for his films and Thunder in the East has been one of the more elusive titles. It’s recently been released on DVD in Italy and I was keen to sample it. The transfer is what I’d term as OK, a little soft and muddy with occasional instances of print damage visible. Having said that, this Paramount film is not widely available and I can’t say the overall presentation was a major disappointment under the circumstances. The soundtrack is offered in both the original English and also an Italian dub and there are optional Italian subtitles. The disc features the theatrical trailer and a selection of galleries as extras. I should perhaps point out that the movie offers up a critique of the philosophy of passive resistance, building towards a resolution that may or may not appeal – I leave that judgement to each individual, and it’s not my intention to pass comment on it either way. On the whole, I liked the film. Some may regard the ending as being a little rushed but I can’t say it bothered me too much. Recommended to those who enjoy Ladd and Kerr, and who appreciate the kind of themes often found in westerns of the era.

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43 thoughts on “Thunder in the East

  1. I too am a fan of Ladd and haven’t seen this one since a late night viewing a good twenty years back. A rare title for sure. It’s another example of my always pointing out that Ladd films get little respect and should have been rescued from obscurity. Mostly by his home studio of Paramount before he became a free agent.

    • Quite agree. It’s only relatively recently – say, within the last 10 years – that I’ve managed to catch up with some of Ladd’s films, and there are still a number that I haven’t gotten round to yet. While there is more of his work available nowadays it’s still necessary to hunt around for it.

  2. I’m anxious to see THUNDER IN THE EAST as your review resurrects a level of anxiety I experienced when it first came out and for whatever reason never had the chance to see it.
    I was and have always been an A. Ladd fan since he stole the show as “Raven” in THIS GUN FOR HIRE. I recently found out that Paramount is offering in the near future (January I think) a box set of 4 or 5 early Ladd starring movies including TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST and OSS. Hopefully the success of that venture will lead to some more box sets that may include CALCUTTA, SAIGON, and WILD HARVEST.

    • I hadn’t heard about that box set being on the way, Max, so thanks for passing the info along. Thunder in the East hit the spot for me and it’s just a pity there’s not a crisper version out there. Personally, I’d snap up good quality copies of both Saigon and Calcutta in a heartbeat.

  3. Insightful review Colin – this is the way to write about films, or Art in general for that matter! I just adore how you widen the scope of what a story means into the bigger picture of life while holding tight to the specific themes of the film itself along with its meat and potatoes facts about cast, crew, ;locations and direction. A real pleasure to read.

    • Thanks, Chris, I appreciate that. I think good examples of filmmaking, or any expression of art for that matter, just naturally create the opportunity to look at things from a wider perspective, to encourage our feeling and by extension our thoughts too.

      • Yes, that hadn’t occurred to me, but you’re absolutely right; what you say is, of course, the whole point of Art. But it also takes artistry such as yours to express a response to it as an insight in itself.

  4. Thanks for the review. It’s certainly whetted my appetite to see it. I don’t recall seeing this before and had no idea it was available. Another one to add to the list of DVDs to get from Italy…
    A quick perusal of the cast list on IMDb reveals that this was also the film debut of Jill St.John, in what sounds like one of those blink-and-you-miss-her appearances!

    • I hadn’t noticed Jill St John myself now that you mention her – it must have been little more than an extras role. I must have a look next time I watch it to see if I can spot her.
      Italy has supplanted Spain as my primary European source for movies these days. A&R, Golem and Sinister Films put out a lot of stuff, and most of it is pretty good quality too.

  5. I saw this once at least thirty years ago on late night TV and remember that it held me but can’t say I remember anything else about it now. You definitely piqued by interest in seeing it again. I too like the elements of this kind of movie going in, so only hope it will be well done. I too like the cast here. Well, who wouldn’t love Deborah Kerr?–she was great. And Alan Ladd is perhaps still underrated.

    And director Charles Vidor too. Colin, I believe he has one other definitively great film to put along with GILDA, one of the best movies of the 1950s as GILDA is one of the best of the 1940s. That one is LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME (1955)–don’t know if you’ve seen this bio of singer Ruth Etting, which stars Doris Day and James Cagney in very complex, unsweetened relationship. It is like GILDA in that both have romantic triangles (two men and a woman) to which the viewer cannot have a simple response. And several other of his movies have this too–I wouldn’t say he seeks out that theme but does seem to respond to it when it’s there. Anyway, for this and other reasons, I’ve found that he has my interest.

    • I’m pleased it got you interested, Blake. I don’t know how you would react to it but I came away from it enjoying myself – I have a hunch that it would be the kind of film you would take at least something positive from.
      I’ve seen a handful of Vidor’s movies but Love Me or Leave Me isn’t one of them – I’ll keep it in mind though now you’ve recommended it.
      Aside from this one and Gilda, the others are A Farewell to Arms and The Desperadoes.

  6. Thunder in the East can be viewed on YouTube, for free, as part of the Paramount Vault series. But the transfer would appear to be the same disappointing one you describe on the DVD. (The movie is also available, for free, to Amazon Prime members.) Many other titles of interest in the Paramount Vault, which is well worth checking out. You have to sit through an opening commercial, but the movie plays uninterrupted.

  7. Even though this is one of my favourite non western Alan Ladd movies ,I think that it could have been a little better .I love his action movies and he plays a good tough guy .I hope that maxofdimitrious is right when he says an Alan Ladd boxset is on the way .I have a lot of his early films on DVDr and I was thinking about buying this from Amazon It ,but I will wait and see what happens with this proposed Paramount release.

    • Yes, there’s room for improvement, but that’s something I could say for many films. Overall, I found many more positive aspects than negative ones, which generally keeps me happy. 🙂

      That box set that Max was referring to is this one, containing four titles.

  8. Colin ,thanks for that link .I actually checked it out on TCM after I posted that last comment .Hopefully they will be good transfers .Long overdue release.

  9. Another Ladd film set in the east is 1943’s CHINA. This Paramount Pictures production stars, Alan Ladd, Loretta Young and William Bendix. It is a wartime flag-waver set in China just before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Have a review up at IMDB. I liked the film.

  10. So nice to encounter another Alan Ladd fan 🙂 You’ll probably be getting a few comments from me over the course of the day, as I check out more of your reviews.

    I have not yet seen Thunder in the East, but it’s on my Amazon watchlist. I’m slowly working my way through Ladd’s films, savoring them and making them last as long as I can. This one sounds right up my alley — a lot like China, which I very much enjoyed. Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful review!

      • Aww, thanks! I’m never sure if my name/icon will link to my blog or not with the WordPress thing, but I’m glad it did, and that you enjoyed my blog 🙂

        Looking at your sidebar, I see you added me to your blogroll — thanks! That’s very kind of you. I see several of my favorite blogs there, especially Sidewalk Crossings.

        • You were replying to a comment by Gord there, but I fully endorse his approval of your site.
          Yes, I added a link to your place because I had a look myself and liked it. The process of commenting on other platforms – WordPress to Blogger or vice-versa – can be problematic at times, usually it works fine but may well not on another occasion.

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