Director John Sturges’ 1955 film Bad Day At Black Rock is a lot of things—one of the tautest action films made (with a brisk running time of only 81 minutes and not a single frame of film wasted); a movie with some of the finest acting from the toughest screen guys around including Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; but most of all—it’s probably the best film that Hollywood has made about Asian Americans that features no Asians in the cast. I make this last statement with all sincerity because I love Bad Day At Black Rock, but, as great as Tracy is in this, I also think it would have been a far more interesting film had his part been played by an Asian American actor.
The plot is simple—World War II has just ended and Macreedy (played by Tracy), a mysterious one-armed stranger, shows up in the small desert town of Black Rock looking for a Japanese American man named Komako. The locals, led by Reno Smith (Ryan), are none too friendly and try to run the stranger out of town. They claim there is no one named Komako, but Macreedy is suspicious, investigates and soon learns the town’s dark secret—after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Smith and his goons killed Komako in a fit of racist mob rage while the rest of the townsfolk turned their back and let it happen. When the bad guys realize that Macreedy knows the truth, they put a plan into motion to kill him too. We learn that Macreedy is a WW II vet and the reason he’s looking for the Japanese American man is because Komako’s son saved his life in the war and he has vowed to deliver the dead soldier’s medal of valor to his father. Here’s a short trailer that accompanied the film’s video release:
Imagine what a different movie this would have been if someone like James Shigeta had played the role of Macreedy:
(Shigeta, left, in 1959’s The Crimson Kimono)
This alternate version would go something like this: A Nisei WWII veteran comes to Black Rock to find the father of his best friend—a fellow Nisei soldier who sacrificed his life for him—to give the father his son’s medal. He learns the town’s racist thugs killed his buddy’s dad and are now after him—a Jap like Komako, but one who has the knowledge to expose all of them. You wouldn’t have to change hardly a single word in the script—the fact that the lead is now a Japanese American would bring a subtle, extra layer of depth and tension to the story.
Following is one of my favorite scenes from the film. Macreedy is trying to enjoy a quiet lunch in Black Rock’s lone diner when Smith and his men accost him—led by the big thug played by Borgnine. As you’ll see, Macreedy fights back with…karate. This was one of the first times martial arts was seen in a Hollywood production. It may look a little laughable to us now, but you have to remember that this style of fighting was completely new and shocking to the audience of its time. The implication is that Macreedy learned karate from his Japanese American friends in the military. Imagine how this scene would play had Macreedy been Asian. The only change you would have to make is to cut one word so Borgnine’s line calling Macreedy a “Yellow-bellied Jap lover” would now simply be “Yellow-bellied Jap!”:
But my favorite scene in the film takes place between Macreedy and Smith after Macreedy has figured out the truth and he has survived the first attempt on his life. I couldn’t find a clip of the scene online but I’ve excerpted the moment from the script below. The two men sit outside the gas station and have this exchange. Again, imagine how much more interesting an already great scene would have been had Macreedy been Asian with not a single word of this dialogue changed:
MACREEDY: What makes you mad, Mr. Smith?
SMITH: Me…? Nothing in particular.
MACREEDY (bemused): I see. You’re a big man, too. Only…the Japanese make you mad…
SMITH: That’s different. After the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor… after Bataan…
MACREEDY: …and Komako made you mad.
SMITH: It’s the same thing. Loyal Japanese-Americans — that’s a laugh. They’re mad dogs. Look at Corregidor, the death march.
MACREEDY: What did Komako have to do with Corregidor?
SMITH: Wasn’t he a Jap? Look, Macreedy, there’s a law in this county against shooting dogs. But if I see a mad dog loose, I don’t wait for him to bite me. I swear, you’re beginning to make me mad.
MACREEDY (calmly): All strangers do.
SMITH: Not all. Some of ’em. When they come here snooping.
MACREEDY: Snooping for what?
SMITH: I mean, outsiders coming around, looking for something.
MACREEDY (pressing): For what?
SMITH: I don’t know. People are always looking for something in this part of the West. To the historian, it’s the “Old West.” To the book writers, it’s the “Wild West.” To the businessmen, it’s the “Undeveloped West.” They all say we’re backward and poor, and I guess we are. We don’t even have enough water. But this place, to us, is our West. I just wish they’d leave us alone.
MACREEDY: Leave you alone to do what?
SMITH (coldly): I don’t know what you mean.
MACREEDY: What happened to Komako?
SMITH: He went away, I told you. Shortly after he left, a bunch of kids got fooling around out his place. They burned it down. It was one of those things — you know how kids are.
Macreedy laughs quietly.
SMITH: What’s funny?
MACREEDY: Nothing. Only — I don’t believe you. Any more than I believed you about the letters.
SMITH (smiling): You don’t seem to believe anything I say.
After some more dialogue, Macreedy pulls out wild flowers from his pocket that he found growing outside of Komako’s burned down house and holds them in front of Smith.
MACREEDY: See these wild flowers? That means a grave. I’ve seen it overseas. I figure it isn’t a man’s grave or someone would have marked it. Sort of a mystery, isn’t it?
SMITH: Sort of. Maybe you can figure it out.
I decided to write about Bad Day At Black Rock because my fellow Offender Justin’s recent post about remakes reminded me that this would be a potentially great remake–but do it right this time and cast an Asian American in the Spencer Tracy role. With the wars in the Middle East still raging, this is a timely moment for a fresh take on this story (if you wanted to make the metaphor more direct, you could set the film in the present day, make Tracy’s character an Iraq War veteran and Komako an Arab American). But I’m not the only one who shares this sentiment. Before he died earlier this year at the age of 92, I had the chance to have coffee with Bad Day At Black Rock screenwriter Millard Kaufman. I told him how much I loved his film and before I could say anything further, he told me how he wished someone would remake the movie with a Japanese actor in the lead. Any takers?