The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2014 - page 40

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JULY-AUGUST 2014
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THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
appears before the examination board, enters the Foreign Service,
learns Chinese at the Foreign Service Institute and is assigned to
a faraway consulate in postwar north China, “Mingu,” somewhere
near Mongolia. InWashington, he meets Marge Waldon (Bruce),
and they meet again when she visits Mingu as a rover.
There’s trouble up north—but from “bandits,” not communists.
A local strongman, Marshal Yun Usu (Richard Loo) hopes for rec-
ognition by the government in Nanking, but our brave American
diplomats know him to be a smuggler and a power-mad scoundrel.
When he and his uniformed thugs take over the consulate and
kill the loyal Chinese radio operator, Johnny Han (Victor Sen Yun,
in one of his most memorable roles), Kenmust use his Marine
veteran’s knowledge of explosives and his Foreign Service courage
to foil the warlord’s plan.
The film closes with Ken’s name being chiseled on the AFSA
memorial wall at the State Department.
Immortal Lines
Alas, none of the lines inMilton Raison’s boffo script have
become as common as “Make my day” or “I’m shocked, shocked
to find that gambling is going on here.” But members of the Foreign
Service can well appreciate these quotes:
Consul Reither: “I think I’d better informWashington.”
Ken: “I’m just a vice consul, a dime a dozen.”
Marge: “This happens to be a post where the clerical work is
quite superior.”
Colonel Aram: “The marshal is very angry. He has broken your
radio.”
Pay no attention to the crabby review on the Fandango website:
“The characterizations are of the cardboard variety and the dia-
logue is straight out of FuManchu.”
Not a Foreign Policy Primer
I suppose it was asking a lot of “State Department File 649”
to portray Foreign Service heroism and the subtleties of postwar
foreign policy. One commentator, Catherine Yronwode, sums up
the challenge UCLA professor Yu-Shan Han, the film’s technical
adviser, faced:
“Howmany modern viewers will understand the backdrop
of what the script refers to as “the present crisis”—the fact that,
in 1949, this meant the communist takeover of China, withMao
Tse-tung wresting control from the pro-American Generalis-
simo Chiang Kai-Shek? Communismmight have made a credible
opposing force to the heroic Americanmen and women of the
State Department, but the filmmakers apparently wanted to play
it safe. Not knowing which way the cats were gonna jump in old
Peiping, they inserted a stereotypical ‘Mongolian warlord’ figure as
the opponent to America’s interests, a ‘Yellow Peril’ threat that was
dated at the time and hasn’t aged well since.”
Promoting exports is one Foreign Service role that could not
fit in the film, but there is a subtle message on behalf of American
products. When the warlord comes, he arrives in a sleek, long
trailer, obviously made in the USA. Its arrival—with cavalry escort,
no less—never fails to evoke laughter among 21st-century viewers.
No doubt that reaction expresses joy at the successful promotion of
American vehicles in north China markets.
The Enduring Spirit of the Foreign Service
Foreign Service viewers of the filmmay also erupt in laughter
at the bulky tape players in the language course at FSI; gasp at the
short list of names on the AFSAMemorial Plaque; and wonder
what it was like to serve in one of the consulates in China where
the entire staff consisted of a consul, a vice consul, a secretary and
a Foreign Service National. All will surely notice the absence of
female officers, along with the histrionic portrayal of an exhausted
and stressed Foreign Service secretary (played by Barbara Wood-
ell). As Consul Reither says, “I suspect she cries more than is good
for her.” And needless to say, the Chinese roles are stereotyped.
Still, as the film comes to its conclusion, our brave vice consul
confronts the warlord and expresses the spirit of the Foreign Ser-
vice and America: “I amon the winning side, Marshal. I represent
an ideology that recognizes the dignity of the individual, that holds
all men to be free and equal under God. You represent murder,
rape and slavery in the name of the law. You’re a mad dog that
must and will be destroyed.”
Admittedly, these flag-waving lines now seem corny and any-
thing but “diplomatic.”The whole tone is dated, oh so 1940s. Yet ...
don’t murder, rape and slavery still stalk the world? Don’t “dignity
of the individual” and “free and equal under God” still express the
best American sentiments, nomatter how imperfectly we advance
them? Don’t we still believe in—and represent—these old values?
So here’s to you, Virginia! Here’s to you, Bill! And here’s to “State
Department File 649!” Surely, Mr. Spielberg, this classic deserves a
remake.
n
The entire staff of Consulate Mingu consists of a consul,
a vice consul, a secretary and a Foreign Service National.
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