Review: Joseph H. Lewis’s “Bombs Over Burma,” Starring Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong in
Anna May Wong in "Bombs Over Burma"

Generally considered the first Asian American Hollywood star, Anna May Wong rose to fame in the silent era, and continued to act all the way through the 1930s. But with Japan’s invasion of China in the late thirties, Wong decided to take a break from stardom to use her fame to promote the Chinese cause throughout America. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, suddenly Hollywood was willing to make films about these issues, and so Wong signed with the Producers Releasing Corporation to make two films about the Sino-Japanese War in 1942.1 The first of these was directed by Joseph H. Lewis, fresh off the cheap Universal horror movie The Mad Doctor of Market Street. Much like that film, Bombs Over Burma is a B movie that can’t overcome its low budget, but at least features a compelling actor in the lead and showcases occasionally interesting ideas.

In “Burma”—filmed in what is clearly California—Japanese bombers continue to sabotage a road and the trucks on it delivering supplies to allied forces. Wong plays a Chinese teacher who helps investigate how the Japanese get information to stage their attacks. When her bus breaks down, she and the other passengers end up stranded at a monastery. From there the film becomes a flimsy, conventional whodunit, as she tries to figure out which of the passengers is aiding the Japanese.

The rote mystery takes up most of the film, but one early sequence hints at a far more interesting perspective on the war. Bombers attack the city of Chungking, and Lewis has us watch the strike through the eyes of a child, who plays along with the planes, pretending to shoot at them—until they shoot back. It’s an effective commentary on the innocence of children and their perception of violence, as well as the only time the film is remotely engaging. Bombs Over Burma shows us just how cheap it is in an early shot, wherein the child actors turn and clearly look at the camera. Time for a second take? Not on this production.

Where to Watch

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For More on Bombs Over Burma

Read the review in The New York Times

Read Brian Taves’ essay “Joseph H. Lewis, Anna May Wong, and Bombs Over Burma” in The Films of Joseph H. Lewis

References   [ + ]

1. Brian Taves, “Joseph H. Lewis, Anna May Wong, and Bombs Over Burma,” The Films of Joseph H. Lewis, 119-120.