Filmsite Movie Review
The General Died at Dawn (1936)
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Background

The General Died at Dawn (1936) is Paramount Pictures' melodramatic-adventure film set in the northern Chinese provinces in the 1930s, an area that was torn by civil war, unrest, and revolution. It was adapted from Clifford Odets' first screenplay. It was notable for early innovative camera techniques (by cinematographer Victor Milner), including creative transitions (i.e., a white doorknob dissolved into a billiard ball) and split-screens.

The film was famous for Gary Cooper's line to Madeleine Carroll: "We could make beautiful music together."

The Story

An idealistic, American 'soldier of fortune' mercenary and reporter O'Hara (Gary Cooper) was on a dangerous mission to smuggle gold (in his moneybelt) across China to Shanghai. His objective was to help finance arms purchases to fund an oppressed peasant uprising in a province ravaged by lunatic, savage ambitious warlord General Yang (Oscar-nominated Akim Tamiroff). He was advised by rival general Mr. Wu (Dudley Digges) to take a plane (with the money) rather than on a train.

The cunning and evil Yang, who was interested in controlling all the northern provinces of China, attempted to have him assassinated, and when that failed, lured him onto a train en route to Shanghai. There in Shanghai, O'Hara was to purchase weapons from alcoholic American gunrunner Brighton (William Frawley).

He was set up for an ambush and abduction when he met and fell in love with the daughter of one of Yang's agents - the beautiful spy Judy Perrie (Madeleine Carroll). Her shady, cowardly and weak (opium-addicted?) dying father Peter Perrie (Porter Hall) was in league with Yang and pressured an unwilling Judy to luringly betray O'Hara. Peter wanted to fund his dream of escaping China so he could return to the US and die there.

The balance of power seesawed to a perilous conclusion in which they were captured by Yang and taken away on his junk. The General intended to torture O'Hara to locate the gold. During their ill-fated love affair, O'Hara told Judy:

"We could have made wonderful music together."

Judy was ultimately self-loathing and devastated by her and her father's double-crossing betrayal of O'Hara.

In the film's preposterous conclusion on his Chinese junk, as the 'general died at dawn,' his devoted soldiers were ordered to execute the whites and Mr. Wu: ("White flesh die. Also Mr. Wu. One by one"). However, Judy, O'Hara, and Wu survived a mass shooting when O'Hara convinced Yang to let them live so that they could tell of his glorious reputation:

"You're a brave, great man, and so are your guards, but who will know it if they die with you? Who's left to tell the story?...Yang, what will your enemies say? They'll say river pirates assaulted you, or Nanking surprised you in the night. Your enemies will never know the glorious death that was yours and your men's....Yang, listen to me. Such great honor should not live in a closet. It needs the open air and daylight. Your enemies must not laugh at the memory of General Yang. Coolies must not laugh. Peasants, old men, women must not spit on your name....Someone must be left, Yang. Someone who has seen this last, glorious page in the history of General Yang's life....If you stop all our mouths, who will be left to speak tenderly of Yang? No one, I tell you, no one!...Yes, I will tell it. Yes. Of your greatness and the obedience of your men. Gentlemen in clubs will hear it. Crowds at the dog races will talk of your guards. Shanghai diplomats will know it. Gunboat captains will tell it by radio....Every great paper in the world must tell how Yang's guard went to death with him. The London Times, The New York Times...Let us go....All of us, to see no stain or blemish is left on the memory of Yang. Will it be worth it?...I swear, this is one true thing....Yes. Yang, before you fall asleep!"

The dying Yang followed O'Hara's wishes and ordered his soldiers to shoot at themselves in a mass sacrifice. The film's last words were spoken by Wu, describing the deceased Yang as talented but corrupt:

"He was a talented man, but very, very corrupt."