It’s pretty much common knowledge that the role of Indiana Jones was originally offered to Tom Selleck. However, due to his commitment to his series Magnum P.I., he had to turn it down. Enter Harrison Ford, and the rest is history. After “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was such a huge hit, there were, of course, other films that had similar adventure themes. It only makes sense that one of them ended up starring Mr. Selleck. It was a 1983 film produced by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest Productions, “High Road to China.”
As the film opens we are introduced to Eve Tozer (Bess Armstrong), a rich young socialite living off her daddy’s money in 1920’s Istanbul. He carefree lifestyle is about to be disturbed, however, when she learns that her father’s business partner, Bentik (Robert Morley), is 12 days away from having her father, who has been away for years, declared legally dead. That will put Bentik in control of the business, and, to Eve’s dismay, all the money. She knows that daddy is around somewhere, but she needs a pilot to take her to his last known location, Afghanistan.
The only pilot she can find is a scruffy alcoholic American named O’Malley (Selleck). He and his mechanic buddy, Struts, (Jack Weston) bring in a small amount of money teaching flying lessons. At first, O’Malley is unwilling to take the job, but when he manages to get the price up to $60,000 he changes his mind. Now, as it turns out, Eve knows a thing or two about flying planes. So with her piloting one biplane, and O’Malley the other, they take off with Struts in tow.
After a brief stop at a British military base, they end up landing in the camp of a Muslim Khan (Brian Blessed). They almost get into trouble quickly as Eve can’t seem to keep her mouth shut and these are the kind of folks who believe women should not speak. But, the Khan warms up to them as he plans to use their airplanes to bomb the British camp. He also decides to throw off the travelers by telling them that he knows Eve’s father and that he is dead. But one of the Khan’s concubines, Alessa (Cassandra Gava), informs Eve that her father is not dead. So, O’Malley ends up fooling the Khan, dropping bombs on their own camp, before they escape with Alessa.
She takes them to her village, but dear old dad isn’t there either. However, a local holy man tells them that they can find him beyond the mountains in China. But there is more trouble to come, it seems that Bentik has sent out men to find Eve. One in a biplane with an itchy trigger finger finds them in the village and successfully blows up one of the planes. Now, O’Malley and Eve must leave Struts behind as they fly into the mountains. When they do find dad (Wilford Brimley), they learn that he is embroiled in a war, helping peasants defend themselves against a Chinese warlord.
The main similarities this film has to the Indiana Jones style adventure is the similar time frame (this is the 20’s, Indy was the 30’s) and that you have a handsome adventurer as the main character. This film does not have the same sort of complex action sequences that are an Indy staple, and that’s not necessarily bad. This just has a different approach. Much of the action in this film focuses on aerial sequence, and they are quite well done. There is some really impressive photography involving the planes and the panoramic scenery they fly through. There’s a lot of dropping bombs and explosions which make for some good action sequences, though the film is definitely lacking in the mano a mano department. I think giving Selleck’s character the chance to duke it out with some baddies rather than just drop things on them would’ve added a bit to his character.
Still, Selleck does a good job and makes for a solid hero. Bess Armstrong also makes a good match for him, but it does take a bit too long for the romantic sparks between them to start. The romance comes quite abruptly towards the end, yet there was ample opportunity to have it simmering as the film progressed. I also really enjoyed Robert Morley, the ultimate pompous Brit. His appearances in the film are brief, but very funny.
Though there are some missteps, it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. “High Road to China” may have come about as a reaction to Indiana Jones, but it manages to create a fairly interesting hero of it’s own.