Anachronistic Malaya

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Released some years after the period it was set in, Malaya (1949) features two Americans posing as Irishmen as they sail to Penang on a secret mission — to smuggle rubber out of Japanese-occupied Malaya. Under the watchful eye of Colonel Tomura and the suspect assistance of the European planters in Malaya, reporter and ex-convict must set aside their differences. Despite the much hyped slogan “When you kiss a girl in Malaya…keep your eyes wide open and a gun in your hand”, this espionage film featuring an all-star cast disappointed some with the outdated plot.

Compare the poster below, printed in local newspapers, with the American poster at the beginning of this post. The local one highlights the Malayan rubber industry –with the tagline “A picture which will advertise forcefully to the world Malaya’s importance in rubber production”– while the American one sensationalizes the thrilling plot. Despite attempts to localize the film by the local film exhibitors, audiences outside of America didn’t seem completely bought over.

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Described as ‘exciting hokum’, referring to the implausible plot of smuggling rubber under the Japanese Occupation, it is perhaps unsurprising that most negative reviews came from the English. Hollywood films have never been known for their depiction of reality. But there was more to the scathing London reviews. Their national egos had been bruised with the developments during and after World War II, and for the Americans to rub it in with a Hollywood film depicting an American ex-convict and reporter swooping into Malaya to save the day was just too much to bear.

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The Singapore Free Press, 24 December 1949, Page 2

Reviewers in Malaya didn’t take too well to it either, which implies that perhaps the days of Hollywood imaginations of Malaya being well-received globally were numbered. One Straits Times reviewer took issue with the “cardboard Malaya” portrayed in the film, where

‘Malayan’ characters, dressed like pirates, effusively greet each other with the word ‘amigo’…[and] gives one the impression that Malaya during the Japanese occupation somehow drifted to somewhere off the coast of South America.[1]

Written by Manchester Boddy of Los Angeles Daily two years ago,[2] it is perhaps unsurprising that it felt a little dated (nor that a reporter is the protagonist of the film). However, other national developments had made the plot even more unpalatable to Malayan audiences, who now had local alternatives and were understandably tired of the blatantly inaccurate Hollywood portrayal of Malaya. It also repelled old-school colonials who were put off by what they saw as an attempt to “glorify the earthly virility of American democracy by showing how a couple of tough and worldly-wise characters can forget their cynicism and risk all for Uncle Sam.” Clearly, this was a film made for America, by Americans.

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The Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 1950, p. 5

 

Join us for the screening on 10 July for this, by now, long outdated espionage film!


[1] ‘Sunday Cineview’, The Straits Times, 15 January 1950, p. 10

[2] “’Malaya’ A Thriller”, The Miami News, 14 Feb 1950, p. 11

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One comment

  1. Fiona Tan

    Comment from an audience after the screening in NUS Museum:
    Amico means ‘friend’ in Italian. And in that all-European make-up of the film, the sailor/pirate was playing an Italian person.
    Thanks for the comment!
    I guess the Straits Times reviewer didn’t get his ‘amicos’ from his ‘amigos’ right then.

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