Release Date(s)1962 (June 9, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
The Spiral Road (1962), an adventure drama starring Rock Hudson, Burl Ives, and Gena Rowlands, is a difficult film to review because, well, it’s more than a little peculiar, a real anomaly straddling two distinct eras of filmmaking. Partly it retains the genre conventions, production methods, and story tastes of producer Universal-International’s 1950s films, some of which starred Hudson, but it’s also straining to fall in line with larger trends of the early ‘60s toward more sociopolitical dramas that at once were bigger scale yet intimate and humanistic. In this case, the film is interesting but clumsy and even cringe-inducing at times; the cinematography is reasonably impressive, and there are a couple of intriguing set pieces, but most of the film just doesn’t work.
In 1936 Java, then a Dutch colony, atheist young doctor Anton Drager (Hudson) is one of a group of new doctors stationed there, Drager anxious to go to work under Dr. Brits Jansen (Burl Ives at his fattest), the secretive world authority on leprosy. Drager appeals to the head of the program, Dr. Kramer (Larry Gates), to let him to work under Jansen. Kramer believes Drager is passionate about medicine and learning from Jansen, but in fact Drager is mainly interesting in getting rich via Jansen’s unpublished cache of notes and diaries.
Jansen, is curmudgeonly and extravagantly autocratic, but deeply respected among the “natives.” He, along with Willem Wattereus (Geoffrey Keen), who runs a large leper colony that includes his own stricken wife, now in the final stages of the disease, are devout Christians insisting that, in the remote, solitary jungle, one can survive only with God’s help. (To its credit, the film does not insist that god be a Christian one; native and Muslim characters espouse similar views to universal non-believer Drager.)
The first two-thirds of the film resemble Akira Kurosawa’s great epic Red Beard (1965), in which a selfish young doctor goes to work for a forceful humanist senior doctor running a clinic for the poor. In The Spiral Road, however, Hudson’s Drager clings to both his atheism and self-centeredness until almost the end of the picture when, of course, he gets lost in the thick jungle and his lack-of-faith is put to the test.
The Spiral Road has many oddball or, at least, curious components. Though set in Indonesia in the Indian Ocean, location scenes were shot literally on the other side of the world, in Suriname, a South American country on the Atlantic. The sets and costumes appear authentic, though undermined by white European actors like Reggie Nalder and Edgar Stehli playing Javanese. It’s also clear that much of the film was shot on Universal’s backlot, though the integration is pretty seamless and unlikely to have been noticed by regular moviegoers.
On the other hand, some of the choices made were rather bizarre. For instance, Geoffrey Keen, the distinguished, dark-haired though balding British actor, wears an obviously phony white wig and an all-white uniform; as such, he’s the spitting image of Marlon Brando’s Jor-El in Superman (1978). When Drager is reunited with his fiancée, Els (Gena Rowlands), inexplicably they’re kept apart from one another, seated at opposite ends of a room where there’s a large dinner party taking place for the Dutch expat community. Weirdly, the party devolves into a Three Stooges-like melee straight out of Half-Wits Holiday, with food flying in all directions. This is not remotely funny and serves no clear purpose.
Even the filmmakers seem a little uncomfortable with the story, originally a novel by Jan de Hartog, that has strong religious overtones, like The Song of Bernadette, or maybe the religious aspects often awkwardly imposed into producer George Pal’s sci-fi and fantasy films. Likewise, the filmmakers don’t really know what to do with Rock Hudson’s character. He was, at the time, a top Hollywood star, but making him a selfish, atheist jerk would not have appealed to mainstream moviegoers, so the screenplay obscures these elements wherever possible, elements that unfortunately are the core themes of source material.
Likewise, despite a strong independence movement in Java at the time the film was set, The Spiral Road is way out of touch, even by 1962 standards, with its simple, compliant native peasants and benevolent, paternal colonist overlords, a relationship no one in the film questions.
Hudson, so strikingly handsome that his acting ability was greatly underrated during his lifetime, and obscured even more after his death due to AIDS, is mostly very good in the film, though the herky-jerky way the character is presented—partly as a star vehicle for Hudson, sometimes true to the novel, is something even he can’t overcome. Indeed, the scenes of him lost in the jungle border on the comical: his beard grows long and scraggly, his clothes become tattered rags (he resembles Henry Brandon in Universal’s “lost world” potboiler The Land Unknown) yet the pistol he holds onto throughout never fails to fire despite constantly getting wet and dirty, and he never seems to run out of bullets.
Gena Rowlands had recently been outstanding playing Robert Lansing’s deaf-mute wife, a semiregular role, on the TV series 87th Precinct and would have a better part in Universal’s Lonely Are the Brave, with Kirk Douglas, released earlier that same year. She has a couple of good scenes, but they’re a far cry from anything she’d later do in partnership with her director husband, John Cassavetes. Burl Ives is also okay, but he makes his part just a bit too cuddly; Toshiro Mifune’s similar character in Red Beard is much richer and more believable.
Imprint’s Region-Free Blu-ray presents The Spiral Road via a new 4K scan of the original negative, presented here in its original 2.00:1 cropped widescreen. There’s a lot of process work—director Mulligan favored dissolves between scenes, so many process shots are grainy—but the image is still very impressive at times. The LPCM 2.0 mono is fine, and supported by optional English subtitles.
Two new extra features accompany the disc. The first is a joint audio commentary by film historians Daniel Kremer and David Del Valle that’s rather underwhelming. Led primarily by Kremer, it offers the occasional interesting observation but it’s too laid-back for my tastes and, in Del Valle’s case, a bit too gossipy and name-droppy when it could have been a lot more informative. Better is historian Kim Newman’s video essay on Rock Hudson, with Newman packing a lot of insight into 17 minutes.
The Spiral Road is such an unusual production—in the same general vein as films soon to follow like The 7th Dawn and Hawaii but still too trapped in 1950s studio thinking to succeed—that it’s worth seeing once. But once will be enough.
- Stuart Galbraith IV