The General Died at Dawn is a spy thriller that is, sadly, totally lacking in thrills. Made by Paramount in 1936, it rather neatly encapsulates every mistake you can possibly make when doing a thriller.
The pace is glacial, there’s virtually no action, what little action the story does contain is constantly interrupted by boring speeches, the characters are cardboard, the dialogue is pedestrian and the politics are clumsy and naïve.
The background to the movie is the warlord period in Chinese history, when rival generals set themselves up as military dictators of various provinces.
O’Hara (Gary Cooper) is a courageous American who is working with the forces trying to liberate the noble and oppressed peoples of a Chinese province that is currently under the control of a wicked warlord, General Yang. The people fighting against General Yang are noble and brave. O’Hara is noble and brave as well, and is also idealistic and much given to tedious speechifying about the struggles of the oppressed masses.
He is sent on a mission to buy guns but is betrayed by a woman. The woman Judy (Madeleine Carroll), is being manipulated by her weak and cowardly father who is working for the wicked General Yang. After betraying O’Hara she has second thoughts. Possibly she was impressed by his speeches about the oppressed masses, or perhaps she just thought he was cute.
Judy’s father is then supposed to take the money to buy guns for General Yang but he decides to keep it. Several plot twists later no-one knows where the money is and General Yang is about to start having people shot if he doesn’t get his money back.
A spy thriller should have some excitement, or at the very least some tension, but this movie contains neither.
Screenwriter Clifford Odets was a communist in the 1930s and his script is filled to the brim with crude propaganda about the class struggle and the glorious struggles of the oppressed masses. The opening scene sets the tone for the movie. A British colonel and his wife are making jokes about General Yang’s brutality in collecting taxes. As representatives of the reactionary imperialist capitalist ruling class they are naturally indifferent to the heroic struggles of the workers and peasants to free themselves from their oppressors.
With such an inept script there is little the actors can do. Gary Cooper could usually make even such an irritatingly noble figure as O’Hara likeable but there is no way he can make O’Hara’s speeches interesting, and he struggles even to make him likeable. Madeleine Carroll was a fine actress but she is floundering here, let down by the script which fails to convince us of her change of heart.
Akim Tamiroff as General Yang is an unconvincing cartoon villain. The support cast is unimpressive, with all the supporting characters being dreary clichés. Special mention must be made of Dudley Digges’ supremely irritating performance as Mr Wu, one of the leaders of the opposition to General Yang.
Lewis Milestone made some good movies but this is not one of them. It’s much too slow and there is a complete lack of dramatic tension. It’s also much too talky.
On the plus side Victor Milner’s black-and-white cinematography is nicely noirish.
This movie is included in the otherwise excellent Gary Cooper Franchise Collection DVD boxed set from Universal. The transfer is an excellent one. The set is highly recommended, but don’t waste your time on The General Died at Dawn.