“The Mountain Road” is an odd little movie that bent over backward to be anti-war. It marked Jimmy Stewart’s only WWII movie. A veteran bomber pilot from WWII, Stewart avoided war roles, finding them unrealistic. He would not have taken this role unless he was sure it would not glamorize war. The movie was based on a novel by Theodore White. White had been a correspondent in China in the war and was disillusioned by the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalist Chinese. He interviewed OSS Major Frank Gleason, Jr. for the book. Gleason served as an uncredited technical adviser. Surprisingly, the movie had cooperation from the Pentagon.
The movie is set in 1944. Major Baldwin (Stewart) is in charge of blowing up an airfield as the Chinese forces retreat. His orders call for him to take his demolition unit on the Mountain Road and do what he can to slow the pursuing Japanese. He hooks up with Madame Su-Mei Hung (Lisa Lu in her film debut). A romance develops, of course. It’s going to be rocky because Baldwin is bitter and anti-Chinese. At one point, he and his crew, who include Harry Morgan as his trusty sergeant, blow up a bridge, stranding many refugees on the other side. War is hell! Baldwin decides to make a side trip to destroy an ammo dump. He doesn’t have to do this, but he knows Hollywood loves explosions.
This is a strange movie. It goes out of its way to avoid cliches. Stewart plays an anti-hero before they became common later in the 60’s. Baldwin does resemble some of Stewart’s flawed characters in his Westerns. But those characters like in “The Naked Spur” and “Winchester ‘73” are still likeable. Baldwin is not likeable. He avoids the usual arc of gaining respect from his crew. Conversely, he gets some of them killed. His romance with Su-Mei is awkward and not believable, except for its final result. In fact, one of the themes of the movie is power corrupts. Oddly, another theme is not the corruption of the Chinese army. Baldwin has no problems with a Chinese general who is with them. And no problem with the Japanese. They do not even appear in the movie.
The movie is well-acted by a cast of familiar faces (if you are a baby boomer). Stewart is great as a character that he liked to play after his WWII experience. Unlike the war-avoider John Wayne, he was not afraid to play jerks. And since the movie is basically a character study, we get a heavy dose of Baldwin. And not a heavy dose of action. The movie is bereft of suspense until a firefight at the end. It’s a battle with bandits, not Japanese. The movie hints at dysfunction in the unit, but drops it.
“The Mountain Road” deserves its status as a forgotten movie. But is it a forgotten gem? Not really. If you are a Jimmy Stewart fan (which I am), it certainly is a must-see. This may be the first time you have heard of it. It is not even in Stewart’s filmography on Wikipedia! Although too out of the box to be effective, the film is a great tribute to Stewart the actor. He was as gritty as Baldwin and willing to take chances with his career. This movie did not make any waves at the box office, but I bet he was proud of it.
GRADE = B-