This weekend in 1983 a terrible Hollywood tradition continued; the tradition of the knock off. For every blockbuster movie there are at least one or sometimes a dozen similar movies hoping to strip mine the same success. In 1983 “High Road to China” arrived with hopes of glomming off the success of “Raiders of the Last Ark” and in grossing more than 28 million dollars it was a solid, entirely forgettable, hit movie.
“High Road to China”
Starring Tom Selleck, Bess Armstrong and Jack Weston
Director Brian G. Hutton
In Turkey in 1920 pilot Patrick O’Malley (Selleck) is scraping out an existence as a pilot for hire who teaches rich folks to fly planes. O’Malley’s life is altered forever when he encounters Eve (Bess Armstrong), a spoiled rich girl who needs to find her missing father before she loses her inheritance. Together the gruff O’Malley and the dilettante Eve go on an adventure that will lead them into the hills of Tibet and the fires of a revolution.
Arriving at the box office a week after the execrable thriller “10 to Midnight,” “High Road to China” must have been a breath of fresh air by comparison. ‘High Road’ has the breezy charm of an episode of “Magnum P.I” with the budget explosion and bullet budget only a big screen feature can afford. Selleck has the predictable charm of a roguish adventurer and plays well off of Armstrong’s flighty socialite. That said, it’s easy to understand how our collective pop culture forgot about “High Road to China.” The direction is less than adventurous; the plot halts and stalls more than Selleck’s planes and while ‘High Road’ is often mildly amusing it lacks the much needed sense of humor that marked the Saturday afternoon serials of the 1930’s that inspired it.
Director Brian G. Hutton is said to have given up directing after “High Road to China” and became a plumber.
Hutton’s only other notable directorial effort was the 1970 war movie “Kelly’s Heroes” starring Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles.
Many different sources claim that “High Road to China” was Hollywood’s consolation prize to Tom Selleck after he missed out on “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” As ‘Raiders’ fans know Selleck got as far as the screen test wearing Indy’s iconic hate and whip before losing out on the role because CBS would not adjust his shooting schedule for the TV detective series “Magnum P.I.” It certainly doesn’t seem coincidental that Selleck wound up playing an unlikely adventurer in the 1920’s in an exotic location with a beautiful sidekick/love interest.
“High Road to China” is an indication of one thing for sure, Hollywood’s love of knock offs hasn’t changed. Thirty years later Hollywood still looks at one successful movie and attempts to clone it for a quick buck. For every blockbuster that lasts forever ala “Raiders of the Lost Ark” there is a “High Road to China” cynically chasing a buck in the blockbuster wake.
Grade: C+ (At least it helped us forget “10 to Midnight.”)