264. Yangtse Incident (UK 1957)

Director: Michael Anderson

Starring: Richard Todd, William Hartnell, Akim Tamiroff, Donald Houston, Robert Urquhart

Cinematography: Gordon Dines

Original Music: Leighton Lucas

Script: Eric Ambler

FACT: Keye Luke (who plays one of the sinister stereotyped Chinese officers)  also played Master Po in Kung Fu (See SV 262)

Bit Part: Just the best for bit part afficionados - Sam Kydd (the Guvnor), Kenneth Cope, Ian Bannen, Barry Foster ("larrrvely!!!") and two Fawlty Towers guests - Bernard "he sells spoons" Cribbins and Alan 'Colonel Hall' Cuthbertson

In one line:  Royal Naval warship is trapped on the Yangtse River during the Chinese Civil War.



British naval frigate HMS Amethyst sails the Yangtse to deliver supplies to the British Embassy in Nanking. The People's Liberation Army opens fire with its artillery batteries on either side of the river, severely damaging the ship and killing a significant number of the crew. The PLA summon the Amethyst's senior officer and say that it will allow the trapped ship to leave so long as he admits that it was British aggression which caused the incident. A tense stand-off ensues, with more of the crew dying in the intense heat of the Chinese summer. Lieutenant Commander Kerans (Todd) hatches a plan to escape the Yangtse's mudbanks and the banks of artillery waiting to destroy his ship


All of that (above) sounds quite good, doesn't it, and I don't want to decry the deaths of some brave British sailors, but this film is not really a fitting testament to those men. In fact, Yangtse Incident, like the vast majority of British war films of the forties, fifties and sixties is utter, utter contemptible rubbish.

As usual, the strict class divide between the middle class officers and the proletarian rank and file tells you all you need to know about the people who made these terrible films. Todd, Houston, Urquhart and chums are intelligent, urbane and were born to lead and rule. Hartnell, Kydd and Ray Jackson (as Telegraphist French - he doesn't warrant a first name) are cor blimey cretins, officer class lackeys or orders-following drones who wouldn't spot an original thought if it was made of electricity and shot up their arseholes sideways.

None of these men act in any real way like real men. None of them talk about shagging, getting pissed or bodily movements, and none of them feels the need to have a shite, break wind, crack one off or say the word 'fuck' at any stage of the film's 113 minutes. OK, so the mores of the day wouldn't have prevented the explicit rendition of any of these acts, but if you're depicting men at war, surely there should be some indication of those elements man's baser instincts which tend to bond men together in times of danger?

Billy Hartnell and Sam Kydd. Huzzah!

The Chinese are portrayed en masse as a bunch of inscrutable (obviously), cruel and quite vicious bastards, and there's no indication of any sort of idea that they may have had a point about a foreign, imperialistic power sailing their inland waterways with whatever big guns a frigate might possess.

The film's 'Yangtse' scenes were filmed on the River Orwell in Suffolk and there's a definite sense of 'not being in China' throughout the film, but this isn't the film's worst flaw. Time and time again, it's hard to reconcile the frankly poncey upper middle class WW2 overhang/RADA accents portrayed in these films as the voice of Britain's warrior class, and it's almost impossible in these films to envisage a scenario where there wasn't at least one intelligent, independently-minded working class/'other ranks' character who was capable of influencing the action or behaving in a genuinely noble manner.

When tireless radio operator French finishes his 72 hour shift, he's rewarded with his favourite meal - a tin of 'herrings in' (tomato sauce) and much merriment ensues as this has already been, er, telegraphed, by the paternal Lt. Commander Kerans.

"Right, you fellows; it's of the utmost importance that none of you has a shite, cracks one off or talks about ladies', erm, 'bristols', while I'm negotiating with Colonel Peng of the PLA."

Richard Todd (who plays Kerans) had a very distinguished war record, fighting at both Arnhem and Normandy. How he ended up appearing in crap like this is anyone's guess. Money and vanity, I suppose. There's an interesting story in Matthew Sweet's excellent Shepperton Babylon where a drunken (how else) Richard Harris berates Todd and a group of other British actors for selling out their artistic integrities by making these not very (artistically) truthful, rubbishy films. This is the same Richard Harris who went on to make Juggernaut, Orca the Killer Whale and any other number of truly awful, ale-money films. He had a point, though. Yangtse Incident is by no means the worst of this slew of British war films, but it's symptomatic of some of the worst aspects of British society - when it was purporting to celebrate its better elements.

A mate of mine joined the RN as a direct result of seeing Yangtse Incident at an impressionable age. He wasn't cut out for a life filled with rough seamen, and later joined the Fire Brigade, where he's now much happier. In fact, he's one of the really good fire fighters, and not one of those stereotyped ones who sit round all day watching and 'whacking off' over hard core pornography and eating Domino's pizzas, or using the emergency siren on his truck to ensure that the station's chippy carry out is still hot by the time it gets it back to 'the lads'

Anyway, why is YI (man!) included on the list? Well, like many British war films, it's fondly remembered (before adult re-interpretation), and, er, the escape from the Chinese* is quite exciting.

Otherwise, SHITE.


*Just like those crudely stereotyped fire bobbies with their chippy takeaway - only the Amethyst was escaping certain death at the hands and guns of the massed artillery batteries of the Chinese PLA, whereas those naughty firefighters were escaping at great speed from 'the' Chinese to make sure that their array of meals remained piping hot.