In this exotic adventure story, Gary Cooper is an American soldier of fortune in the Northern provinces of China during the days when many warlords terrorized China, draining their fiefdoms of money, land, and goods. The worst of the lords is Akim Tamiroff, a cunning, savage bandit who
intends to take over the entire country and place one of his top aides in control of each of China's 12 provinces. Cooper despises Tamiroff and his plug-uglies and agrees to smuggle gold to Shanghai to buy ammunition and arms for a peasant uprising against them. After meeting rebel leader Dudley
Digges, Cooper survives an assassination attempt by Philip Ahn, Tamiroff's chief henchman. Ahn then hires a destitute, cowardly American, Porter Hall, to inveigle Cooper onto a train en route to Shanghai. Hall's beautiful daughter, Madeleine Carroll, lures the adventurer aboard where he is
abducted by Tamiroff's troops. Hall then takes the rebels' gold on to Shanghai, but Cooper, who manages to escape Tamiroff's guards, follows the American. Cooper regains the treasure but in the process kills Hall in self-defense, an act which Carroll cannot forgive, even though she has fallen in
love with Cooper. Tamiroff's men capture the lovers and take them onto his huge junk which lies in the harbor. William Frawley, the drunken gunrunner from whom Cooper was to purchase the arms for the rebels, is also on board and is shot to death after he stabs Tamiroff, mortally wounding him.
Tamiroff orders Carroll and Cooper executed, but the latter devises a clever scheme whereby he and his lady love are set free. The warlord then orders his henchmen to commit mass suicide, which they do, and he dies himself.
The point of this thick, though action-laden, melodrama seems to be that occidental logic outdoes oriental inscrutability. All of Lewis Milestone's directorial devices, such as the dolly and pan shots and the boom shots to encompass large masses of people, are incorporated in this absorbing,
though considerably dated, film. The script is tight, witty, and ingenious. This was the first screenplay written by budding playwright Clifford Odets. Odets, Hollywood gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky, novelist John O'Hara and director Milestone appear in the movie as foreign correspondents
traveling on the train which carries Cooper and Carroll. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is similar in to SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), but Carroll is less of a trampy vamp than Marlene Dietrich. Cooper is perfect as the resolute hero, and Tamiroff is the ideal villain, vainglorious, crude and rapacious. His
performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Hall provides his usual good rendition of a weak-willed and unscrupulous person. Frawley is engrossingly reckless, insulting, and violent, offering one of the greatest early portraits of the "ugly American" on record.
Milner's artfully lit camera work brought an Oscar nomination, as did Janssen's score and Tamiroff's part, the latter being the first Academy Award for a supporting role.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: In this exotic adventure story, Gary Cooper is an American soldier of fortune in the Northern provinces of China during the days when many warlords terrorized China, draining their fiefdoms of money, land, and goods. The worst of the lords is Akim Tamiroff… (more)