Director John Sturges’s (1910-92 emphysema) Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) was a film which helped introduce martial arts into mainstream American movies and it is also a film which looks at racism and xenophobia in a way that remains relevant in the United States to this day. Thankfully, to a lesser degree.
The film starts with a great shot of a train barrelling through the desert on its way for a quick stop at what we think is the town of Black Rock, although it remains nameless throughout the story. The train hasn’t stopped there since the beginning of the war four years earlier – this film is set in 1945 just a couple of months after the war ended. It is the beginning of the disillusionment of America when the film noir started to make its presence felt. This is a modern-day western noir.
The shot of the train was shot in reverse, so it would be safer for a helicopter to follow the train as it went backwards, rather than the chopper itself go backwards as the train moved forward. It was perhaps accidentally symbolic of America and its race relations in that you really didn’t know if the country had moved forward or if it was still going backwards in 1955. It was still a time of racial segregation in the States although the movie concerns racism against a Japanese man who was possibly murdered as a reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, something which had triggered the US entry into WW2.
While the film was shot in 1955, it is set in 1945, but there is a feeling that while we are going into the past, it is still the present, and the action of Bad Day at Black Rock could still be present day 1955.
A similar comparison could be made with the 1970s film and tv series M*A*S*H as it was set during the Korean War in the early 1950s but it was still relevant to the war in Vietnam which was still raging in the 1970s and people often forgot M*A*S*H was set in Korea. Note also that the segregation of black troops in World War Two had been abolished for the Korean War which ended in mid-1953… There is a sense of timelessness to Bad Day at Black Rock as if nothing has changed.
It is interesting to note that the train sequence was shot after director John Sturges had left the movie. This film noir western was perhaps too dark for some audiences with its thinly veiled anti-McCarthyism and racism which struck too close to home. The film tested poorly with audiences upon completion, so the train sequence was added and it immediately brought the movie to life, especially since it was in widescreen Cinemascope. The cost of hiring the train from the Southern Pacific Railroad for the movie was a reported $5500 or 265 return tickets.
Bad Day at Black Rock has a great cast which includes Spencer Tracy (1900-67 heart attack), Robert Ryan (1909-73 lung cancer), Lee Marvin (1924-87 heart attack), Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012 kidney failure), Anne Francis (1930-2011 lung cancer), John Ericson (1926-2020 pneumonia), Walter Brennan (1894-1974 emphysema) and Dean Jagger (1903-91 in sleep). It was Spencer Tracy’s last movie for MGM and he was a liberal – in the American sense of the word – at heart, along with his friend Katherine Hepburn (1907-2003 cardiac arrest) who had been outspoken about the persecution of suspected Hollywood communists during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s (1908-57 hepatitis possible cirrhosis) House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) witch hunt. HUAC was in decline in 1955 and seen as out of touch following journalist Edward R. Murrow’s (1908-65 lung cancer) tv investigation in March 1954 which caused a community backlash against it.
Bad Day at Black Rock appears to have been created in the wake of Murrow’s report and made with renewed artistic confidence in terms of criticism of HUAC or the House of Un-American Activities which McCarthy led until he was finally censured by the Senate in late 1954 for overreaching himself. For more on this subject watch Good Night and Good Luck (2005) directed by George Clooney (1961-).
John Sturges appears to have been a progressive Republican, although I cannot verify this, and the colour red appears in Bad Day at Black Rock at odds with itself as both a symbol of Republicanism, since Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969 congestive heart failure) was a Republican president at the time the movie was made in 1955, as well as Communism, or ‘those dirty Reds’ of the day, and the threat they allegedly posed within the US in the wake of the Cold War after the end of WW2 in 1945.
The notion of the poem on the Statue of Liberty: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses …” is also at odds with itself in a country where racism against immigrants and its own black people remained commonplace.
While the film is set in 1945, under President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972 pneumonia and multiple organ failure), who was a Democrat, the House of Un-American Activities was a committee formed by Congress under Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945 cerebral haemorrhage) in 1938 to investigate subversive activities in the United States and it possibly made some bad decisions concerning race during the 1940s…
Bad Day at Black Rock has Tracy turn up at the small town which hides a secret of a race killing. It was the Japanese father of the man who had fought beside and saved Tracy’s life during the war but who had also been bravely killed in action. Tracy just wanted to give the medal this man won for his bravery to his father but instead finds a hot-bed of so-called tough guys with a guilty secret.
It is interesting that the script was written by Millard Kaufman (1917-2009 after open heart surgery) who started out in newspapers before he served during WW2 – just like director Sturges also served. Kaufman lent his name to the script written by Dalton Trumbo (1905-76 heart attack) for the cult movie Gun Crazy (1950) after he was blacklisted in 1947 by HUAC and unable to work as one of The Hollywood Ten. See the movie Trumbo (2015) for more details.
So, it was an open secret within Hollywood in terms of socialist writers working together, just as in the town of Black Rock and its bad guys being a symbol of HUAC bullies opposed to change and their open secret amongst themselves about their racism… The bullies bait Tracy into fighting them when he comes closer to the truth … just as red-baiting was common in the 1950s, or the harassment or persecution of a person for their suspected communist beliefs… A person isn’t free to express their beliefs nor free because of their race or the colour of their skin so it would seem…
HUAC’s activities under the Democrats in the 1940s included floating the idea, which was then used, of interring Japanese American citizens in concentration camps in the American west upon the commencement of the war with Japan. One such camp used to be located near where the movie was shot at Lone Pine in California. The town was especially built for the movie although it’s long gone today. It’s estimated that around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were interred in the camps and that 62 percent were American citizens. It was in the interest of the country to take precautions against possible spies and terrorists of Japanese origin.
However, in 1946, after the war had ended, HUAC made what was perhaps their worst decision and declined to investigate the Ku Klux Klan and instead concentrated on Communists which led to the persecution of writers and film-makers in Hollywood. Talk about turning a blind eye to the problem of racism in America!
Bad Day at Black Rock looks at this decision by HUAC almost in hindsight but the bombing of Pearl Harbour set in motion what must have been common hate crimes against the Japanese and mixes the two elements. How many guilty little secrets existed in small towns as a result of that “date which will live in infamy” – named so for more reasons than one!
Once again, while there is no proof director Sturges was a progressive Republican as opposed to a conservative one, just note that he directed The Magnificent Yankee (1950) which was about progressive Republican Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935). The film won star Louis Calhern (1895-1956 heart attack) an Oscar nomination, just like Tracy got a nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock. Tracy won Best Actor at Cannes but lost the Oscar to Ernest Borgnine for Marty (1955). Tracy would get another Oscar nomination for working with Sturges again on The Old Man and the Sea (1958). It proved the director could get good performances out of his leading men and later he would make stars of Steve McQueen (1930-80 mesothelioma) and Charles Bronson (1921-2003 pneumonia and lung cancer) among others.
Whether Sturges liked a title with Magnificent in it or whether it simply related to a majority decision by the Supreme Court on some occasion (?!) – he also directed The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s (1910-98 stroke) Seven Samurai (1954).
What is interesting is that Kurosawa’s movie was released the year Bad Day at Black Rock was in production. It must have been the peak of Sturges’s period of fascination with the director and he may have been inspired by Kurosawa’s marital arts or judo movies Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and Sanshiro Sugata Part II (1945). They were both Japanese propaganda movies made during WW2 which showed Kurosawa’s instant grasp of the medium of filmmaking and Sturges, who also directed dozens of war documentaries, which could be seen as American war propaganda, showed respect for a former adversary in terms of filmmaking who was obviously also an inspiration. Sturges would later direct the A Girl Named Tamiko (1962) with its Eurasian protagonist which dealt with racism and the taboo of interracial romance set in Japan.
This respect between Sturges and Kurosawa was mutual, as it is reported in one of Sturges’s obituaries that when Sturges met Kurosawa, the Japanese director said he loved The Magnificent Seven and Sturges considered that moment to be the highlight of his career.
John Sturges was an outdoorsman with a no bullshit approach to film-making, He didn’t like joking and was uncomfortable among women. He usually made westerns in the 1950s and he was an avid scuba diver which would explain his attachment to the film Underwater! (1955) which inspired the movie The Deep (1977). Sturges said a director “finishes the film” and “a director is a doer”. Sturges also said he liked to make movies about “why our side won” (the war) and Bad Day at Black Rock is the perfect movie to put a question mark beside that very statement. It makes winning the war all seem so pointless. Men of war pursue a single objective and that is true of the men in Sturges’s movies, such as Tracy, as he is pressed further into action … I guess it’s not surprising that the director’s movies are incredibly male-centric action pieces with titles such as The Great Escape (1963) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), the latter with its all-male cast which apparently played on a loop in the projection booth at the home of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes (1905-76 kidney failure) in his final years. Anne Francis is the only woman in Bad Day at Black Rock and she seems to be shoe-horned into the proceedings as her character doesn’t quite belong. She even dresses like a man.
Novelist Wallace Markfield said of the director: “Sturges loved exploiting the plain, pure physicality of hard, marred men doing their jobs.”
Sturges’s casting of Eli Wallach (1915-2014 natural causes), as the Mexican bandit Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, a film which may have inspired the sudden explosion of spaghetti westerns in the mid-1960s, possibly also influenced Wallach’s later casting as ‘the Ugly’ in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
The movies of John Sturges are usually as good as their scripts, as he basically filmed the script he was given, and while he chose those scripts well, his cinematic work was not ‘artistic’ but it was put together seamlessly and with a workman-like dedication. He was a good studio man in other words. According to his biographer Glenn Lovell, Sturges said of the script for Bad Day at Black Rock: “It doesn’t get any better than that. The screenplay came to me and we didn’t have to change anything. It was perfect.”
Lovell said if anything was changed, it was that it was pared down to the basic characters, and there was no room for small roles, or even extras, until the film’s ending where the town is liberated from the corrupt mayor played by Ryan, and his cronies. The evil of the small-town mayor in Bad Day at Black Rock, is venal and far more immoral than the bent small-town politicians in the films of director Preston Sturges (1898-1959 heart attack), who was no relation to John Sturges by the way. The dark shadow cast upon the town of Black Rock contains a heinous black core more concentrated than any other small-town conspiracy shown in movies at the time. It’s pure film noir but this film is in colour as opposed to the usual black and white… Once more it is that collusion of the politicians of HUAC against the individual and their failure to address racism in the community.
Tracy plays a one-armed man who presents himself at the local hotel where we later learn that he might have gone there to drink himself into oblivion with a bottle of spirits he has stashed in his suitcase along with his friend’s medal. His arrival is mirrored by the ‘one-armed bandit’ of the poker machine which sits idly in the hotel lobby where Ryan’s goons and fellow conspirators also hang out. On the wall beside the hotel’s front counter there is a Christian quote by Methodist theologian John Wesley (1703-91), which seems to be a part of the disguise of this small town’s true nature. “Do all the good you can…” and the quote also symbolises Tracy. It’s just this town isn’t friendly at all and there doesn’t appear to be a good Christian in sight, and if they are, they are intimidated and discouraged through the isolation of their beliefs. The Wesley quote also shows a lack of Catholic guilt among the main conspirators and a heretical attitude towards the Methodist notion of abstinence from alcohol.
It was perhaps the ultimate role for Spencer Tracy to take on, as he was battling increasing alcoholism at the time and, like his character, he was on the wagon for the production of Bad Day at Black Rock and would drink 7-Up at the happy hours when the cast and crew would meet in their hotel after the day’s shoot. Tracy had to pull himself together for the shoot just like his character the one-armed John J. Macreedy must when he smells a rat in the small town of Black Rock. This is confirmed when he finds wildflowers growing on a possible unmarked grave at the burnt-out home of his Japanese friend’s farmer father Kimoko. The guilty secret of Black Rock is one of urban terrorism inspired by drunkenness.
When the secret is revealed, it is over alcohol, as John Ericson’s boyish character takes an unconvincing swig from a bottle and tells the tale to Tracy while the local mortician played by Walter Brennan is present. And it is water as opposed to alcohol which is the key. Kimoko had been sold his property by Ryan and found water in a well he dug in the desert where there was meant to be none. Fuelled by the fact that he was turned down by the army to serve, and by the attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour, a drunken Ryan and his cronies played by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine murdered Kimoko and burned his house down.
The idea of alcohol-fuelled violence is repeated poetically at the climax of the movie, with a Molotov cocktail using an empty spirit bottle from that night of terror being filled with petroleum and used to burn and quell a murderous Ryan who is once again on the rampage.
It is intriguing that the colour red, which I mentioned earlier, is used at cross purposes with Ryan wearing a red cap at the start of the movie which may symbolise Republican conservatism, or its perceived nemesis of communist evil. Red caps are also associated with The Liberty Cap which meant ‘freedom or death’ back in the days of the US colonies. So it is a doubled edged meaning once again with Tracy’s revolt against the authorities in Black Rock as the red cap is on the official seal of the United States Army for which he served. The notion of red and blue being Republican and Democrat respectively as a colour scheme was only formally introduced as recently as 2000 on television coverage of elections. The red being related to Republicanism or conservatism can be vaguely linked to the notion of ‘boss rule’ in Texas long ago when colour coding was first introduced on county election boards. Boss rule is where a certain person controlled a local branch of a political party. This is true of Ryan in Bad Day Black Rock.
Red was also originally associated with the Republicans back in 1904 when the Washington Post used the colour red for conservative states. If there is any link with Texas and the colour red of the period of the late 19th Century it is with Texas governor James ‘Big Jim’ Hogg (1851-1906 in sleep after railroad accident) who stood up against the corporations of oil companies and the railroads by introducing antitrust laws in Texas. Hogg was a respected man of the people and a populist. Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard tv series was possibly named after him as a mixture of boss rule and his name. The colour red seen as evil corporatism in Bad Day at Black Rock on the train and the petrol bowsers in opposition to the blue Democrat Hogg is tenuous to say the least. It could also relate to the socialist dream of public ownership or at least the fair regulation of privately owned companies. I’m getting there… as there is a point!
The Supreme Court upheld existing US antitrust laws in 1911 and helped bring about the end of Standard Oil and its monopoly and their conspiracy concerning the price fixing of petroleum. ‘Magnificent Yankee’ judge Oliver Wendell Holmes voted against antitrust laws for the railways in 1903 but it was passed by the court anyway. Holmes later joined the majority of the ‘magnificent seven’ judges whose decision against Standard Oil for their violation of existing antitrust laws led to it being broken down into companies such as Mobil gas. So a little history links Sturges as a progressive Republican to both the title of a couple of his movies and the colour red on the train and petrol bowsers. Perhaps it has a more liberal meaning after all and socialism isn’t that bad except that it was painted as red communism in the 1950s. Sadly, the fuel corporations have since more or less reformed as a monopoly under Exxon Mobil which is ironic. It shows a decision made for the people being eroded and conservative capitalism and big business once again in charge. But some people like it that way.
The scenes outside a fuel station with twin red Mobil bowsers which stand beside Tracy and Ryan as they speak to one another take on a bigger meaning in terms of conspiracy. It is also like they are the twin pillars of the polar opposite meanings to the colour red. And, its demonisation on the one hand!
It can also relate to Ryan’s twin personality as he is meant to be a pillar of society when he really is the antithesis. Tracy and Ryan are also both pillars at odds with one another. The town is trimmed in red around the edges of doorways and windows and just like the Wesley quote on the wall with its implied conservatism or respectable liberalism, when it really is a front for something more unspeakable. There is also a scene later in front of the bowsers where the caps of Tracy and Ryan are in black and white which is the reverse of the perceived classic colours of a good and bad guy. The idea that we are told black is white by the media is related to the fact that left-wing or socialist political parties in England and Australia unofficially adopt the colour red, just as the term liberal means the reverse of conservative in those countries. Red is the unofficial colour of the Republican Party and the film Bad Day at Black Rock may come down to black and white – but it is still in and about colour! Everything is wrong in the town of Black Rock but the situation will be reversed.
The symbol of the cross is never shown except in the town where the road and the railway cross one another. Ryan and his men talk there about the growing situation. It is more like X marks the spot where the crime still lives in the hearts of the men who committed it. Otherwise, the lack of a cross can be related to the martyrdom of the Japanese characters who, like Jesus, are present spiritually but not physically.
Further, the red threat, or the cleansing of the original premise of HUAC as a committee for the people in terms of a Democratic socialist ideal, comes through town at the beginning in the form of the red train and brings Tracy’s character as a kind of man with no name. He is the possible inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s (1930-) character in Sergio Leone’s (1929-89 heart attack) Dollars Trilogy and while Tracy’s name is revealed early on, his origins remain a mystery to the guilty townspeople until it is too late.
The xenophobia against the Japanese is obvious in the real world and it continued into the white bread Anglo Saxon days of Eisenhower’s mid-1950s, as there were few Japanese characters to be seen onscreen unless they were caricatured, something which reached its most profane with Mickey Rooney’s (1920-2014 complications of diabetes) appearance as Mr. Unioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Kurosawa’s films were still impressing the cognoscenti in America though away from mainstream cinema and it is ironic The Magnificent Seven came out the previous year.
There is a report, which I cannot confirm, that screenwriter Millard Kaufman was invited to Japan to receive an award for treating the Japanese people with uncommon dignity in Bad Day at Black Rock even though no Japanese appear in the movie. More irony.
The Japanese stand-in for the blacks in Bad Day at Black Rock – black is in the title – and HUAC, by seeming to turn a calculatedly prejudiced blind eye through their choice to ignore the Ku Klux Klan in favour of persecuting Communism, showed how intrenched xenophobia and racism still was in 1955 and that nothing had changed since the Allies won WW2. It was supposed to be a war about freedom for the entire world. The movie suggests that men of all colours fought, perhaps in vain, side by side during WW2 and Korea as a result. Millard and Sturges as war veterans forgive the Japanese people and are determined to celebrate the true victory of the non-toxic male individual in Bad Day at Black Rock as screenwriter and director. The world had paid its price.
It is those men who didn’t serve during WW2 who appear to not understand the nature of a man’s true courage and the meaning of male camaraderie and brotherhood. Instead, they use violence as a form of cowardice and their bond is no more than criminal.
The idea that a man like Tracy can take on the bad guys one by one, with one arm, or with one arm tied behind his back, due to his training in the martial arts, shows the poker machine is also a symbol of the odds appearing to be stacked against Tracy in the beginning… John J. Macreedy may appear passive at times, but he’s no pushover, and has right and might on his side. The fact he rolls with the verbal punches when the bad guys bait him to strike back in the hope that they can get away with killing him in self-defence… leads to the moment when judo or jujitsu is used, striking a decisive and symbolic blow for Japanese-Americans and others of that era who believed in the growing awareness of civil rights. It prefigures the riots of the 1960s when the black community felt it had been pushed too far… and is relevant again today.
Bad Day at Black Rock’s great ensemble cast and the nature of conservatism versus liberalism is also shown behind the scenes with the reported feud between liberal Tracy and conservative Brennan. Apparently, they weren’t talking in the end with Brennan shoving three fingers in the air at Tracy to symbolise the three Oscar’s that he had won compared to Tracy’s two. Their almost moving scene together, at the end of the film, seems to show this wasn’t the truth.
Innocents can be bullied by individuals and by governments, while others can fall through the cracks… No matter who they are! But the odds are that the, at times, slow wheels of justice will eventually turn and prevail and Bad Day at Black Rock has Macreedy leaving the ashes and dust of the town reinvigorated. But he knows the heroics and victory of World War Two was pyrrhic and hollow as he hands the medal of his friend to the mortician in new hope for the town.
He thought he’d seen the worst of human nature in the enemy at the front-line during wartime. Little did he know he would find an even worse enemy at home where individuals die unnaturally along with communities which also perish as a result of their apathy or their knee-jerk reactions caused by conditioned generational hate sometimes affirmed and encouraged by alcohol.
The events of Pearl Harbour and the chain reaction of events that occurred in the town of Black Rock showed the war hadn’t ended until Spencer Tracy’s Macreedy put an end to it… Or did he? It remains a mystery to ourselves at times what other people think in terms of the colour of another man’s race or colour… and red blood continues to be spilt.