Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Chen Guoxing’s “Roaring Across the Horizon” roars across the screen with a hyped-up flag-waving spirit. An account of China’s entry into the nuclear arms race in the 1950s and ’60s, this is the type of highly nationalistic Chinese film that Western audiences rarely get to see. Pic offers an interesting look at Chinese party-line attitudes toward foreign (and, specifically, American) influences, but that attraction seems unlikely to carry it very far across the international moviegoing horizon. Still, situated in the proper historical context, pic isn’t entirely the piece of unchecked propaganda it at first appears.
The message of “Roaring Across the Horizon” (the film’s title comes from a poem by Mao Zedong) is that China would never have dreamed of building a nuclear bomb if it hadn’t feared an imminent nuclear danger from anti-Communist forces (led by the “imperialist” American “bullies”).
Following the end of WWII and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government’s expulsion to Taiwan, an opening newsreel shows an angry U.S. targeting China for nuclear annihilation. This might be slightly hyperbolic revisionist history, but as later-declassified military and governmental reports from both sides indicate, China had reason to fear the American nuclear program at the time.
Following the Korean War and the subsequent crisis in the Taiwan straits, the Eisenhower administration saw nuclear “deterrence” as an excellent way of stopping the spread of communism throughout Asia.
For this and other reasons, Mao initiated a nuclear project that, by the time of its completion in 1964, would dwarf the American Manhattan Project in sheer size and scope, a considerable accomplishment for an impoverished, technologically deficient nation recovering from a series of major wars.
Pic focuses on the stories of two individuals — the physicist Lu Guangda (Li Youbin), who leads the team of Chinese scientists charged with developing the bomb, and General Feng Shi (Li Xuejian), who heads the army brigade seeking an adequate nuclear test site.
Chen conceives the production on a massive scale and, particularly in pic’s first half, there are awesome, majestic shots of hundreds of Feng’s troops marching across the Gobi Desert. It’s visuals such as this which, far better than any of the film’s polemical dialogue, instill “Roaring Across the Horizon” with the patriotic fervor it seems to be after.
The search for the test site is harrowing, with Feng’s men nearly dying of thirst in the process. When a site is finally located, there’s a wonderful ground-breaking sequence, cut and choreographed like a musical number, with the soldiers singing a communist hymn in unison.
For the first half of “Roaring Across the Horizon,” Lu and Feng are followed individually; at mid-point, they meet. A series ofscenes between the two poet-warriors has an intimate, Hawksian quality– which Chen’s film could use more of. But “Roaring Across the Horizon” puts politics ahead of aesthetics and, after a while, becomes interesting only for what it tells us about the ways in which the West has been viewed, historically, by China.
Even with the focus on Lu and Feng, the film never seems very interested in human drama; like most propaganda, it is more about the cause than the individuals. There is, for example, a small subplot concerning Lu’s forced abandonment of his wife in order to work on the nuclear project, but by the time the two are reunited, the impact of the wife’s story has been lost.
Physical production is fine, and lead performances heartfelt. And there is at least one really delicious irony: The climactic detonation of the first nuclear test is choreographed to Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”