Our first departure from black-and-white, East of Sumatra is an Techni-colourful mix of romance and adventure, with an underlying commentary on exploitative capitalism, reflecting the predominant mood as the winds of decolonization began to blow in the region.
Duke Mullane (Jeff Chandler) ventures to Tungga, near Sumatra, to start a tin mine. When local chief, Kiang (Anthony Quinn), realizes his fiancee, Minyora (Suzan Ball) is drawn to the rugged Duke, he withdraws his hospitality and starts to make things difficult for these outsiders. Making things worse, Duke’s ex-flame (Lory Hale played by Marilyn Maxwell), currently engaged to his brash superior (Daniel Catlin played by John Sutton), turn up unexpectedly in a plane. Double-crossed by his home-office, Duke is stranded on the island facing angry locals and torn between two women. Sounds like all the various themes ever featured in the films we have screened thus far.
Written by Louis L’Amour (1908-1988), a noted author of Western novels but who had travelled to Sumatra as a merchant seaman (no guarantees about how successfully that translates into this film and his numerous short stories set in the Malayan archipelago though…), East of Sumatra was seen to be a sure hit. To its director, Budd Boetticher, best known for westerns he directed later, it was “just a fun film to make all my friends some money”. Indeed, the following review considers a sure winner, as “a story based on action in the great outdoor spaces is almost always good box office year in and year out”, made all the more viable with good casting.
Contrary to the typecasting of Jeff Chandler as the hero due to his rugged good looks, the supporting lead, Anthony Quinn, didn’t fare so well. He was once again typecasted as the semi-despotic Oriental/tribal chief, a role which he was no stranger to and would reprise in numerous other films, such as the popular Road to… series. It also marked the peak of Suzan Ball’s career, who after snagging her first star credit in this film, discovered a tumour in her knee after an injury sustained while shooting one of Minyora’s enchanting dances. She passed away two years later, of bone cancer.
Depressing news about the cast aside, positive contemporary reviews of the film only tell a side of the story. Clearly not everyone shared these views. One even commented that “The whole thing [was] made with more technical competence than the ridiculous story deserved”
But that’s the nature of show-business. Every movie is going to have their supporters and detractors. What is surprising is the scarcity of reviews of this film in Malayan papers, despite the presence of advertisements. This suggests that the tastes of the audiences were changing by this period, and Hollywood films just weren’t interesting enough to take up precious column space. Unsurprising given the increasing film options available to local audiences, and probably ones which did not make them cringe at an “Oriental zoot-suit.”
From enchanting dances to Oriental zoot-soots, join us in our first departure from monochrome at the NUS Museum. 31 July, 7pm, at the LKC Gallery.
 Ed Andreychuk, Louis L’Amour on Film and Television (Jefferson, N.C. : McFarland, 2010), p. 19
 “Suzan Ball, Plucky Actress, Has Right Leg Amputated”, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 13 Jan 1954, p. 16