Upon the gracious invitation from Dr. Judkins, I thought about what I could add to a historical perspective on the martial arts. After considering various topic ideas, I settled on the topic of martial arts in the context of American cinema, in particular the classical Hollywood cinema. In academic film studies, classical Hollywood cinema refers to the period of time from the late-1920s/early-1930s (when synchronized sound replaced the practices of silent filmmaking) to the late-1950s/early-1960s (when the fallout from the infamous 1948 Supreme Court case known as the “Paramount Decree” led to changes in the way films were produced, distributed, and exhibited). At this time Hollywood studios controlled all aspects of the filmmaking process and these efforts were conducted in accordance with a standardized “mode of production” (the standard academic text on this period remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson).
This was the era of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Singin’ in the Rain, and 12 Angry Men. It was also the era of ‘G’ Men, Behind the Rising Sun, Blood on the Sun, Tokyo Joe, and Pat and Mike. If most people haven’t heard of the films on the second list, that’s to be expected. They haven’t been canonized in the academic literature nor have they managed to secure a place in the popular cultural imagination. The history of cinema has for the most part lost track of these films, while the history of martial arts cinema has yet to even recognize them, but thanks to TV, DVDs, and the Internet, history is always a mouse click or channel change away from being (re)discovered.
In typical historical accounts of martial arts cinema, Hollywood tends to be either ignored or denunciated on the basis of a confirmation bias which precludes the possibility of there being an American inheritance of cinematic martial arts. In the first issue of the Martial Arts Studies journal, I will attempt to counter a number of theoretical claims against American cinematic representations of the martial arts throughout Hollywood history, but here, I would like to show on historical grounds that there is, indeed, an American inheritance of cinematic martial arts with a lineage that can be traced back nearly a century through a number of intriguing and ambitious films.
The first film I want to discuss in this post is ‘G’ Men. Made in 1935 at Warner Brothers studios, the star of ‘G’ Men is James Cagney, the unique and iconic Hollywood figure who was part song-and-dance man, part gangster tough guy, and part martial artist (though the third part is the aspect that often gets overlooked). Following his star turn a few years earlier in the gangster classic, The Public Enemy, Cagney was one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood. He also ended up being something of a savior for the Hollywood studios following the institution of the Motion Picture Production Code and the moratorium on gangster films (for information on the history of and the consequences stemming from the censorship battles fought in the early-1930s over gangster films, see Fran Mason’s American Gangster Cinema, Jonathan Munby’s Public Enemies, Public Heroes, and Kendall R. Phillips’ Controversial Cinema).
Amidst this controversy, Hollywood studios were scrambling to figure out a way to continue to produce stories involving the violent and seductive criminal underworld without offending the sensibilities of groups such as the Catholic Legion of Decency, the Protestant League, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Police Benevolence Association, just a few of the many groups that had started protesting the continued production of such “dangerous” films. Their solution: Give the most popular and recognizable cinematic gangster a badge and let him use his gangster tactics in the name of law and order.
I have discussed elsewhere the ideological implications of this transitional period in gangster films for the formation of the contemporary American action movie, but for the sake of historical context, this was the turbulent climate in which ‘G’ Men was produced, and it ended up being one of the biggest financial successes for Warner Brothers in the 1930s and a huge turning point in cinematic depictions of law enforcement and criminality. For my purposes here, however, the importance of ‘G’ Men has less to do with its depiction of cops and criminals and more to do with its depiction of the martial arts. In the film, Cagney’s character (a lawyer who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks but who fought to make an honest living for himself) trades his law books for an FBI badge to avenge the death of his childhood friend at the hands of a notorious gangster. In an early scene upon Cagney’s acceptance into the FBI, he receives instruction in self-defense, first with a boxing lesson and second with a Jujitsu lesson.
I consider it quite significant that the very first lines spoken during the Jujitsu scene involve the agent teaching Cagney (played by Lloyd Nolan) talking about how the utilization of leverage in Jujitsu is “practically the same as in wrestling.” This idea of relating wrestling to Jujitsu speaks to the neglected historical legacy of grappling in the Western (especially American) context. While there is one historical (but not necessarily teleological) trajectory for striking that proceeds from the UK/US boxing heritage to the incorporation of kicking-inclusive styles such as Karate and Taekwondo, there is also a historical (and again not necessarily teleological) trajectory for grappling that proceeds from the UK catch-wrestling tradition and the UK/US professional wrestling tradition (not to mention the illustrious histories of US high school, collegiate, and Olympic wrestling) to the incorporation of the throws, trips, joint-locks, and chokes from the more elaborate groundfighting arts of Judo and Jujitsu (both the Japanese or, as is more prevalent today thanks to MMA, the Brazilian variety).
While by no means a comprehensive history of grappling, this rough sketch does shed light on the conditions of possibility for the American fascination in the first half of the 20th Century with grappling. In addition to introducing the existence of Jujitsu, though, ‘G’ Men also attempts to introduce the techniques of Jujitsu, and the method for shooting and editing grappling devised by the filmmaking team on ‘G’ Men showcases a uniquely American action aesthetic I have previously termed (in an essay entitled “Action Aesthetics: Realism and Martial Arts Cinema”) martial suture. As a way to explain the importance of ‘G’ Men for my conceptualization of martial suture, we can look at Cagney and Nolan’s “live drills” from near the end of the scene.
We enter the Jujitsu scene after Nolan has already had Cagney drill a couple of techniques, at which point he encourages Cagney to try employing them while facing active resistance. The two grappling sequences that follow establish the aesthetic blueprint of martial suture in relation to cinematic grappling. On the basis of what, in my “Action Aesthetics” essay, I call the attack-defense-counterattack pattern, grappling sequences in film typically follow a pattern where the first step is an attacker trying to grab, throw a punch or kick, or strike with an object; second, the grab is neutralized, the punch or kick is blocked or caught, or the strike is slipped or blocked; and third, having committed to and missed an offensive attack, the attacker is thwarted with a counter grappling technique.
We can see the attack-defense-counterattack pattern at work here in ‘G’ Men. Consider the first grappling sequence:
In Shot A, Cagney attacks with a wristlock but Nolan successfully defends himself, after which, in Shot B, he flips Cagney with a counterattack (in the interest of increasing the visceral impact of the scene, a third shot is added to cap the sequence to emphasize Cagney’s rough landing on the mat). Utilizing a two-shot AB dyad, the attack-defense-counterattack pattern is rendered clearly and expressively via martial suture. The second sequence follows a similar pattern:
Once again, in Shot A, Cagney attacks with a wristlock but Nolan successfully defends himself, after which, in Shot B, he throws Cagney across the mat with a counterattack, the impact of which is registered once again in a third shot as Cagney comes to rest on the other side of the mat.
As I maintain, martial suture is a conceptually rigorous yet aesthetically flexible method for shooting and editing sequences of grappling action in martial arts cinema, and these two examples by no means exhaust the aesthetic variety of martial suture. They do, however, provide a solid foundation for the concept and highlight the intuitive visual schema for cinematic grappling still in use today, from the films of Steven Seagal (e.g. Above the Law, Marked for Death, and On Deadly Ground) to the Bourne trilogy and Donnie Yen’s Flash Point among innumerable others (see my “Action Aesthetics” essay for a more detailed discussion). ‘G’ Men thus exemplifies an element of martial arts cinema history lost to the passage of time but available to us today to be restored to its rightful place.
Blood on the Sun
Ten years after Cagney first showed off his martial arts prowess in ‘G’ Men, he would once again incorporate the martial arts into one of his films, this time in a political thriller entitled Blood on the Sun. For years prior to (and for years after) this film, Cagney practiced Judo in his day-to-day life. His instructor was a former LAPD officer named John Halloran, who also appears in the film as the villainous Captain Oshima with whom Cagney battles in a climactic fight scene near the end of the film (Halloran appears in yellowface the offensiveness of which is hopefully mitigated by Cagney’s pragmatic decision to cast a known Judo expert and someone with whom he was very familiar for the sake of the integrity of the fight scene similar to the decisions made by Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan to cast real martial artists like Bob Wall, Chuck Norris, and Benny the Jet in their films).
Even though ‘G’ Men includes sequences of martial arts action, Blood on the Sun is the film with the best case (although, if anybody knows of other candidates, I would love to hear about them) for claiming the distinction of being the first American martial arts film (with Cagney thus having the best case for claiming the distinction of being the first American martial arts star). The plot of this film involves Cagney (here playing an American newspaperman in 1920s Japan) stumbling upon an evil plot by the Japanese military to take over the world (the story was inspired by the infamous Tanaka Memorial).
Blood on the Sun was one of a number of films (including, among many others, Dragon Seed, The Purple Heart, and the film I will be discussing next, Behind the Rising Sun) made in Hollywood during World War II which encouraged a pro-American sentiment against the evil machinations of the Japanese. However, despite its reactionary politics, Cagney strove to be pro-America without being too anti-Japan, and his disciplined practice of Judo gives his character in the film sympathy for and insights into Japanese culture distinct from most treatments of Japanese characters and culture from that era. I feel I should also call attention to the fact that the trope of an American mastering a martial art and, by extension, learning about and appreciating the culture responsible for the art has, of course, since become a hallmark of American martial arts movies, which is yet another plus for Blood on the Sun and its heraldic position in the history of martial arts cinema.
In any case, while I believe the politics in this film and the cultural representation of the Japanese are far from indefensible, my interest here is not to defend the film on political grounds. Rather, I am more interested in Cagney’s continued efforts to push American cinematic representations of the martial arts forward. It is interesting to note that (in a move that points towards the way Seagal would introduce himself in Above the Law) Cagney’s character is first introduced while he attends a Judo class.
This introductory scene serves a number of different functions. First, it introduces us to Cagney; second, it introduces us to Cagney as a Judoka; and third, it introduces us to Cagney as someone familiar with and respectful of Japanese culture and customs. Despite being an American, Cagney is by no means an outsider in this country/culture, and the key to his survival over the course of the film is his reliance on both his cultural and martial savvy. A good example of this is in a scene where members of the Japanese police (led by Captain Oshima) have entered his home in search of the film’s version of the Tanaka Memorial and intend to take him in for questioning. Aware of the fact that the police will not hesitate to turn his place upside down and inside out looking for the document, Cagney hides it behind a picture of the Emperor, which he knows is the one thing the police would dare not disturb in their search.
Added to which, when Cagney realizes the seriousness of the situation, he is prepared to fight and takes on a number of police officers in a fight scene that anticipates many later scenes from the likes of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, and their martial arts movie peers. Half a century before Austin Powers, the all-powerful “Judo Chop” also appears as the technique that ultimately brings Cagney down, with the dastardly Captain Oshima showing his masterful skill by virtue of his ability to incapacitate Cagney with a single strike. Cagney would get his revenge, though, in the climactic one-on-one showdown
Today, this fight scene appears rather crude, but the ambition is commendable. Firstly, there are a number of skillfully sutured sequences of grappling, in particular the early sequence of Oshima countering an attempted punch from Cagney with a throw. Also of note beyond the standing throws and the martial suture is the choreography of the groundfighting. A lot of films even up to the present day have struggled to depict groundfighting in a manner both realistic and exciting (a dilemma discussed by Paul Bowman in his recent excursus on groundfighting), but Blood on the Sun is remarkable for its willingness to experiment with an aspect of cinematic martial arts still troubling to contemporary filmmakers.
Early in the fight, Cagney scores a big hip toss on Oshima and lands in kesa gatame (an alternative side mount position also known as the scarf hold). This sequence of action may be familiar to MMA fans who witnessed Ronda Rousey defeat Alexis Davis at UFC 175:
Cagney is able to keep Oshima pinned while the latter struggles to strike Cagney with his free arm, but eventually, Oshima hits an escape by bringing his hips in tight to Cagney’s body, grabbing him around the waist (sometimes referred to as a “seatbelt grip,” although this is not quite the grip used by Oshima here), and rolling him over in the opposite direction with the added leverage and momentum created.
Back on the feet, Cagney hits another takedown and then goes for a straight armbar. Oshima’s ability to kick Cagney in the face to escape the armbar is questionable at best, but lazy counter aside, the presence of an armbar attempt in the first place highlights once again the sophistication of the grappling choreography on display here. They continue to struggle, and in a scramble, Cagney dives for Oshima on the ground and manages to take his back. Cagney is only able to get one hook in, though, and while Oshima is fighting to escape the position, Cagney is struggling to secure a one-arm lapel choke from the back.
With reference to MMA again, this submission attempt on Cagney’s part calls to mind Royce Gracie’s victory over Remco Pardoel at UFC 2.
All of the throws and groundfighting, despite a certain aesthetic crudeness, speak to a choreographic sophistication decades ahead of its time. Added to which, Cagney’s ability to mix punches and kicks in with his takedowns and submissions is what enables him to ultimately overcome Oshima, who is unable to deal with Cagney’s combination of striking and grappling. Not only was Cagney a movie martial artist before Hollywood knew of such a thing, he was a mixed martial artist, at that. Still known as one of the great actors and icons of the classical Hollywood cinema, Cagney deserves far more credit than he has received for his pioneering efforts in the realm of movie martial arts.
Behind the Rising Sun
Shortly before the release of Blood on the Sun, famed filmmaker Edward Dmytryk (at the time an unknown B-movie director who would go on to achieve fame for his low-budget film noir classic Detour as well as more prestigious films such as The Caine Mutiny and Raintree County) released a film entitled Behind the Rising Sun. Compared to Blood on the Sun, Behind the Rising Sun is decidedly more ambitious with its politics; whereas the former was content to focus primarily on the crime and thriller elements of its plot, the latter by contrast focuses entirely on the political atmosphere in Japan immediately before and then during World War II. Like Blood on the Sun, though, my interest in this film is less to do with its politics and more to do with its inclusion of the martial arts. In fact, Behind the Rising Sun is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen in terms of American representations of the martial arts in classical Hollywood, as it features a bona fide “style-versus-style” match-up between a Japanese representative of Judo and an American representative of boxing.
Of course, the style-versus-style conceit is familiar to anyone who knows the history of the UFC, but even before the first UFC in 1993, style-versus-style match-ups had been fought by the likes of Benny the Jet, Gene LeBell, Helio Gracie, and innumerable others. Indeed, martial artists have for ages pitted their styles against the styles of others. Behind the Rising Sun warrants attention due to the new visibility it gave this martial tradition, and although the context of this propagandistic narrative not surprisingly allows the American boxer to vanquish the Japanese Judoka, there is still an abundance of combative salience throughout the scene.
Upon entering the gym where the fight is to take place, the Americans are told of the proposed rules for the fight where it is suggested they either fight to one fall or best two out of three. To this, the boxer (played by film noir legend Robert Ryan) exclaims, “I’m no wrestler. I’ll fight any man hand-to-hand, but I’m no grunt-and-grapple guy.” Contrary to ‘G’ Men, where wrestling is used as a positive point of comparison with Jujitsu, in Behind the Rising Sun, both wrestling and Judo are equated with an inferior, less “manly” form of pseudo-fighting. The combative distortion in the name of patriotism was hardly unfamiliar at the time; however, as Joseph R. Svinth noted in an essay entitled “Judo Battles Wrestling”, such nationalized martial arts matches, while based on real events during the war between Americans and Japanese, actually led to the incorporation of Judo into U.S. Navy and Marine training as early as 1944.
A different narrative trajectory is seen in the fight in Behind the Rising Sun, however. After expressing his disdain for the “grunt-and-grapple guy,” the American boxer receives a rude awakening to the strength and skill of the Japanese Judoka. The actual choreography leaves much to be desired, and the Judoka’s strategy of engaging in a slug fest (or, more accurately, a chop fest) with the boxer rather than just moving in for clinches and easily taking him down (which he does on several occasions) raises a few eyebrows, but it’s easy to forgive these aspects of the fight considering how ahead-of-its-time the sequence is in other respects, in particular with the various grappling techniques. At one point, the Judoka hits a scissor leg takedown which Dmytryk visualizes with a skillful editing pattern in line with martial suture, while at another point, the Judoka attacks the boxer with a proper rear-naked choke (even going so far as to sneak the far hand behind the head to keep the opponent from pulling down on the hand and alleviating pressure on the choke).
In the end, the boxer emerges victorious, and unlike Blood on the Sun, it is entirely due to his boxing prowess as opposed to the fluidity of his attacks between striking and grappling (though it’s worth noting that, right before he delivers the knockout blow, he traps one of the Judoka’s arms to allow the administration of a flurry of punches, perhaps highlighting a certain in-fight adaptability). Even so, this fight is remarkably prescient vis-à-vis the boxer showing up to a mixed-style fight wearing his gloves (though it must be stated that the boxer in this film fared much better than Art Jimmerson did when he showed up to fight Royce Gracie at UFC 1) completely ignorant to his opponent’s style as well as the frequency with which the combatants hit the ground and are forced to scramble for positions rather than contesting a straight-up brawl.
While the late-20th/early-21st Century explosion of MMA into the popular consciousness would change the texture of movie fight scenes and see the incorporation of far more groundfighting, Behind the Rising Sun is yet another example from the era of classical Hollywood where styles like Judo had already started to change the way Americans conceptualized and experienced hand-to-hand combat.
Like other Hollywood stars such as Cagney, Cary Grant, and Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart did not serve his country in World War II in military combat (it was reported at the time that he tried to enlist but was turned down because of his age, although he did still go to Africa with the USO) and instead served in cinematic combat by using his star power to fight celluloid bad guys in such films as Across the Pacific, Action in the North Atlantic, Sahara, and, of course, Casablanca. In my opinion, the most interesting film of Bogart’s that deals with World War II is the post-war occupation film Tokyo Joe. Set during the American occupation of Japan in the immediate post-war years, Tokyo Joe is an astonishingly blunt treatment of American involvement in the reconstruction of Japan.
Bogart’s character in the film is the former proprietor of “Tokyo Joe’s,” a famous nightclub (similar to the immortal “Rick’s” from Casablanca) that operated in the heart of Tokyo prior to the outbreak of World War II. Similar to Cagney’s character from Blood on the Sun, Bogart’s character was completely at home with the Japanese culture and customs, but returning after the war, he finds that American-Japanese relations have been transformed. Early in the film, he meets up with his old friend and business partner (played by Teru Shimada) in what used to be Tokyo Joe’s. They are thrilled to see each other after so many years, and in their interactions, there does not appear to be any cultural divide much less a cultural hierarchy. Yet, when Shimada realizes he is being observed with Bogart by other Japanese, he reverts to a stock deferential disposition. Bogart is confused by the change in attitude, and in an effort to break through the cultural barrier that seems to have been erected in his absence, he reminds his old friend about the bond forged over his teaching Shimada “the best Brooklyn English” while Shimada taught him Judo.
The sparring session that follows is vastly inferior to Cagney’s efforts (indeed, Bogart’s health would not permit him to do much of the Judo, so much of the sequence features a horrendously obvious stunt man doing the lion’s share of the work) but its role within the narrative is salutary nonetheless. Pushing things even further than Cagney’s participation in the Judo class at the beginning of Blood on the Sun, Bogart’s horseplay with Shimada (during which they also have a conversation where they get caught up with what they have each been up to in the intervening years) transcends combat itself and becomes the means by which they reinstate their friendship.
By learning Judo, Bogart came to know another person; beyond the nationalistic pride to be felt by witnessing American representatives like Cagney and Ryan defeating Japanese Judoka in Blood on the Sun and Behind the Rising Sun, there are no propagandistic stakes in Bogart’s and Shimada’s encounter. The stakes are entirely interpersonal and the emotional tenor is friendly rather than competitive. Rather than a means by which to assert American supremacy over the Japanese, Judo is used in Tokyo Joe to counter precisely that kind of cultural logic. Similar to the bonds that would be forged in the student-teacher relationships depicted in, among innumerable other films, The Karate Kid, Kickboxer, and Only the Strong, the relationship between Bogart and Shimada points towards the possibility of mutual acknowledgment and friendship between America and Japan, a possibility that necessarily begins on the personal level in interactions with those who are different but not necessarily evil.
Pat and Mike
The final film I would like to discuss is one of the famed pairings of the real-life couple and super-acting duo Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Made in 1952, Pat and Mike (the seventh of an eventual nine pairings between Tracy and Hepburn) is a romantic comedy set in the world of female athletics. In the film, Hepburn plays Pat Pemberton, an exceptionally skilled athlete who, at the start of the film, is working as a physical education instructor at Pacific Tech in California. Engaged to a man who serves as the embodiment of old-style patriarchal rule, Hepburn is struggling to find avenues to express herself athletically. In an effort to get out from under her fiancé’s thumb, she impulsively enters a women’s golf tournament. She nearly wins, and were it not for her fiancé being in attendance, she would have won. Even in losing, she has the good fortune to meet up with Tracy’s character, Mike Conovan, athletic manager and promoter extraordinaire and the man with the potential to foster Hepburn’s athletic expression.
Over the course of the film, Hepburn’s character shows off her talents in golf and tennis while also boasting expertise in skeet shooting, archery, basketball, baseball, and even boxing (strictly 16 oz. gloves, though, as she specifies to the astonished Tracy). In fact, during one scene where two of Tracy’s less scrupulous business partners are trying to “convince” him to fix a golf tournament by having Hepburn lose (the first of whom is played by George Mathews and the second of whom is played by a young Charles Bronson, here credited under his real name, Charles Buchinski), Hepburn even shows off her martial arts prowess.
The two scenes in the above clip, first with the fight and then with the reenactment at the police station, offer a different take on the martial arts compared to most of the previous films I’ve discussed (in fact, Pat and Mike connects back to ‘G’ Men in an interesting way). Here, the martial arts have taken the form of athletic exercise and self-defense. Indeed, Pat and Mike actually anticipates the cultural status of the martial arts in America today where they’re predominantly culture-less. If, for example, someone in the U.S. wants to study Aikido, they can learn from anyone who has a gym, and instructors are not only frequently not from Japan, their “lineage” also frequently has nothing to do with any Japanese “roots.”
Furthermore, the connection between the martial arts and American athletics and self-defense anticipates the myriad cardio kickboxing and women’s self-defense classes that became such a huge industry in American martial arts, combat sport, and fitness circles. Indeed, it’s rather telling that, when asked where she learned to fight, Hepburn doesn’t respond with a story about how she visited the mysterious Orient and learned the secrets of the Shaolin monks or about how some old-school master taught her his deadly stuff in a Pai Mei scenario. Rather, she simply replies that she’d “been around physical ed. for years.” No Asian masters or cross-cultural literacy are required here. Just homebred American athletics.
As for the choreography, Hepburn eschews any flashy kicks or big throws. Instead, she is very direct and pragmatic with her attacks. She initially moves in behind Bronson, who is taken by surprise as Hepburn lifts him up by his pant legs and sends him crashing to the ground. She then strikes Mathews in the back of the neck with a backhanded Karate chop, grabs his collar and chokes him with a modified lapel choke, and then takes his glasses off and throws them away. Lastly, when the recovered Bronson comes in with a blackjack, Hepburn uses a forearm block to deflect the incoming strike – a defensive technique also favored by Seagal:
After blocking Bronson’s incoming strike with her forearm, Hepburn proceeds to secure his wrist, disarm him, and then strike him with his own weapon. As it happens, Seagal is also fond of disarming people and then using their own weapons against them:
The fighting in Pat and Mike may seem decidedly unspectacular even when compared to some of the other fight scenes I’ve discussed in this post (to say nothing of the more recognizable fight scenes of the Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal variety) but it’s precisely the quotidian nature of the combat as just another element of American sports and fitness that confers upon the scene its interest in light of subsequent developments in the American reception of the martial arts.
It goes without saying that my remarks over the course of this post by no means exhaust what can be said about these films and their depictions of the martial arts. Far more can be said about the aesthetics of ‘G’ Men and Blood on the Sun, about the cultural implications of the scenes in Behind the Rising Sun and Tokyo Joe, and about the gendered nature of the scenes from Pat and Mike. My efforts here have been solely to introduce these films to fans and scholars of martial arts cinema and to put them on the table to be opened up to further, more detailed discussion. In the interest of providing accurate historical assessments of the American reception and mediatization of the martial arts throughout history, I believe classical Hollywood cinema has much to offer historically-inclined fans/scholars interested in the history of American media representations of the martial arts, and the films that I’ve discussed here provide merely an introduction to previously uncharted territory in the vast and complex transnational history of martial arts cinema.