Movie Review: China Clipper (Ray Enright, 1936) 🇺🇸

China Clipper |

October 01, 2021

Everybody remembers the “funny little voice” asking a pilot forced to land in the desert: 

  • “Please... draw me a sheep!”

And since he couldn’t manage a sheep, being more concerned with mechanical problems than artistic truths, he ended up drawing a plain old crate containing a sleeping sheep. Luigi Martinati did something similar when commissioned to create this poster, giving free rein to his imagination to the detriment of historical accuracy. 

When you see this large, olive-green aircraft piercing skies reddened with smoke and flame, you might think you’re looking at a painting for a war movie. In strictly historical terms, this poster could quite easily be portraying the 1927 “Shanghai massacre”, with bare-chested and blood-smeared men, their hair plaited, confronting bamboo-hatted armed foes. Unless perhaps it is evoking the end of the “Long March”, as the exhausted Red Army continues to resist the Kuomintang forces. The film’s title in Italian, Ali Sulla Cina (literally “Wings Over China”) is written in a pseudo-Chinese font in white on blue banners, looking like a political slogan. But in this film the wings of the aircraft only fly over locations that are relatively peaceful – mostly stretches of ocean.  China Clipper is very much a film about aircraft, but you won’t see the smallest drop of blood.

Veering close to a veiled advertisement for the famous Pan American Airways, Ray Enright’s film retraces the story of the flying boats, the “China Clippers”, that began operating the first trans-Pacific postal service in 1935. Stamp collectors, this is a movie for you! How many of you still faithfully keep letters and postcards sent from across the ocean, bearing the magical stamp “By Air Mail”? Am I the only one, once I board a plane, to always chose the window seat so I can have my head in the clouds and lose myself exploring lands my feet will never touch? Just as I love those safe landings when the pilot is applauded! But how can we keep these dreams alive today, when we know that planes take off and land every second? Aviation exerted a great fascination in the period between the two world wars. Flights were often epic rides, and pilots, many of whom flew during the First World War, were seen as real heroes. The public was eager to hear of the exploits of Blériot, Mermoz, St Exupéry (who did more than just draw sheep!) and, of course, Lindbergh who made the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927. 

The film opens with Lindbergh’s triumphant return to New York, where he is hailed by enthusiastic crowds. In the crowd is another pilot, Dave Logan who, overjoyed to be reunited with his wife Jean (the vivacious Beverly Roberts, draped around the neck of the charismatic Pat O’Brien) and no less obsessed with flying, is also laying plans for a new crossing. Viewed as a naive but lovable visionary, he won’t let go of his dream of connecting Key West in Florida with Havana in Cuba. “Dad” is one of the few people to believe in him, using the tablecloth to sketch the design of a mail aircraft that takes flight later the same year. He is the inventor of the “China Clipper”, named in homage to the graceful clippers of the past that plied the tea and cotton routes. This “flying boat” can land on water anywhere, with no need for an airport. Hap, another daredevil played by a young Humphrey Bogart, now joins the team, undeterred by Dave’s frankly unsettling answer to his question: 

  • “What should I do if the aircraft loses its wings?” 
  • “You take the train, idiot!” 

Sacked later in the film, Hap takes his revenge on Dave by landing a magnificent punch on him. His views are shared by everybody in the overworked crew (as well as his badly treated wife?) who also have to bear his rages and insults, triggered by his growing success. “Dad” then dies, both in the story and literally during filming. Buoyed by this first success, Dave continues to pursue his dream by extending the route to Latin America. I’m delighted to have finally taken off and happily admire the landscapes unfolding below, from the Amazon River to the Andes and including the ports of Buenos Aires and Santiago. Dave’s new routes make the headlines, but he has no intention of “stopping the wheel of progress”. 

The tension reaches its peak when the plane sets out to travel from San Francisco to Macao. The film’s final thirty minutes switch constantly from ground to air in a stream of radio calls, which would in turn become the haunting lyrics to Zilch by The Monkeys, “Alameda calling China Clipper/China Clipper calling Alameda”. The “flying boat” struggles to become airborne, forcing it to fly dangerously beneath the Bay Bridge, an event that Ray Enright (deliberately?) chose not film. It then island hops without running into trouble, landing at Hawaii, Midway, West Island, Wake and Guam, before encountering a typhoon in Manila. It’s a race against time and Hap is at the controls. Against all the odds, he makes it to Macao. Still shaking, on his arrival he doesn’t forget to write a postcard: “Dear Dave, I’ve had a wonderful day. Wish you were here…” Was this the final feat Dave needed to grow up? 

How many crazy dreams spring from the imagination of overgrown children? Never forget that “all grown-ups were once children, but few of them remember it”. Buying this poster will reawaken your inner child and set your mind free to explore your dreams of flying. Saint Exupéry would certainly have loved it too.

Check out the French version of this article.