Introduction to YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985) delivered at Widescreen Weekend, Picturehouse at Science & Media Museum, Bradford UK – October 13th 2018 (70mm screening).
Welcome back, if you were here in Pictureville just now for that fantastic screening of Joel Schumacher’s Flatliners and if you’ve just joined us a simple “welcome.” If you’ve just woken up, I’m Dr Williams and we’re moving on to another cult director and one of his most notorious works: Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon.
Cimino was a great widescreen director, shooting six of his seven features in the anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio. Born in New York City in 1939 he studied fine art at Yale before becoming one of Madison Avenue’s top commercials director. Moving to Hollywood in 1971 he said that the only way to become a director was to own a script that a star wanted to do. Clint Eastwood bought Thunderbolt and Lightfoot intending to direct and was so impressed with Cimino he let him work on the script for Magnum Force. Eventually Eastwood handed over the directing reins on Thunderbolt, propelling Cimino to the A-list.
By the 1980s, however, Cimino had ended the New Hollywood era of American auteurs with Heaven’s Gate going several times over budget, taking years to complete and becoming a box office disaster that nearly bankrupted United Artists. Between 1981 and 1984, Cimino was attached to several projects including Footloose, which he envisaged as a musical Grapes of Wrath, causing Paramount to panic and replace him with Herbert Ross.
Cimino has been likened to directors such as Howard Hawks, John Ford, King Vidor and Roberts Altman and Aldrich, for whom myth often comes before psychology. One critic compared Year of the Dragon to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the great American hero is forced to act irrespective of whether he gets any credit. Easy Riders Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind called Cimino, with his themes of what it means to be an American, “our first home grown fascist director, our own Leni Riefenstahl”.
Dubbing Cimino’s eventual comeback “Hell’s Gate” Nick Roddick wrote in the March 1986 Cinema Papers that it was “amazing Cimino was able to make another big budget film post Heaven’s Gate. Less surprising that it is under the aegis of Dino DeLaurentiis, who has the gambler’s instinct of a true impresario.” Principal photography started on 27th October 1984 on an immaculate recreation of New York Chinatown at the DeLaurentiis studios in North Carolina, one of the largest street sets ever built. Director of photography Alex Thomson operated his own camera, shooting mainly handheld in Joe Dunton’s anamorphic process J-D-C Scope. Cimino reportedly brought the production in on time and on budget.
When completed, the film’s politics immediately came into question. Cimino said Year of the Dragon had “been described as a sort of sequel to The Deer Hunter, as if Robert De Niro’s character were 8 years older and had become a New York City cop”. Finding its place amongst the movies of the time that had sparked huge outrage, Year of the Dragon was quickly nicknamed “Rambo in Chinatown.” As Mickey Rourke’s character, Captain Stanley White, says in the film: “This is Vietnam all over again. No-one wants to win this thing.”
Picket lines formed in Hollywood, Washington, Boston and Detroit. Protestors distributed leaflets. Press conferences were held in New York and San Francisco. Outside Loew’s Astor Plaza in Times Square over 200 demonstrators announced the boycott. The Coalition Against Year of the Dragon had formed between seven bodies including the Organisation of Chinese Americans, the National Asian-American Telecommunications Association, and the Chinese Benevolent Association. Feelings were strong about the tide of anti-Asian movies such as First Blood Part II and Cimino’s own Oscar winner, The Deer Hunter. Soon Year of the Dragon screenwriter Oliver Stone would spearhead a new cycle of films about the Vietnam war which would last at least half a decade and include entries by filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick, and Brian DePalma. The deranged Vietnam veteran became a “thing” in action movies like Lethal Weapon. “I was in ‘nam, man” became the 80s equivalent of a meme.
Robert Daley, whose novel had been greatly altered, issued a statement against the film: “I deplore the violence and racism in the film. I tried to show that the Chinese were as good as any other human beings, who suffer, and care, and bleed like anyone else. This portrayal is horrible.” When Year of the Dragon opened in Manhattan on 16th August 1985 it was top of the box office. Playing in 982 theatres, it took over $4 million in its first 3 days. John Lone, alumnus of the Peking Opera, defended the film, comparing it against the Suzie Wong and Charlie Chan depictions of old.
MGM/UA issued an unsigned statement reading: “We believe the claims made against the film Year of the Dragon are without validity. Regardless of our opinion, however, we encourage members of the Asian community to view the film and make their own judgement”. Within a week the coalition represented fifty organisations and had some demands: “MGM/UA should provide employment for Asian-American actors in movies that portray Asians with accuracy and sensitivity. The price of employment in this movie is the perpetration of destructive and demeaning stereotypes.” Variety reported that, ironically, the production had provided work for more Chinese actors than any American film in years.
August 24th was designated a national day of protest. The New York Times, the New York Post, CNN, Variety and Entertainment Tonight all reported on the 1,000 protesters in San Francisco and the symbolic coffin that was carried down Hollywood Boulevard and burned in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where Year of the Dragon was playing. Within three week the Coalition had shut the film down in 36 cinemas, and the initial box office success quickly waned. On August 28th Frank Rothman, CEO and Chairman of MGM/UA, announced that a disclaimer would be added to the nearly 200 prints circulating in New York and Los Angeles. The disclaimer read “This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian-Americans. Any similarity between the depiction in this film and any association, organisation, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental.” Cimino claimed in interviews that his films portrayed Vietnam veterans he had known as a Green Beret, but fact checkers disputed this proving his only experience was six months training at Fort Dix and Fort Sam Houston in 1962, well before US troops were sent to Vietnam en masse. Cynics questioned the release of Final Cut, Steven Bach’s essential book on the making of Heaven’s Gate and the collapse of United Artists, at the same time as Cimino’s new film.
Frank Rothman offered to give a portion of the profits from Year of the Dragon to an Asian-American community project or support the development of Asian-American led stories and projects. Michael Woo, the first Asian-American council representative in Los Angeles got a lot of credit for his part in the protests, but some organisations remained dissatisfied with a seemingly glad-handed resolution. Year of the Dragon closed in the US after 5 weeks having recovered only 8 of its $18 million budget.
Robert Daley said the film “grossly distorted the public’s perception of Chinese Americans during a time of great misunderstanding and anti-Asian sentiment”. The changes to his novel were significant. Stanley White was called Arthur Powers, Stanley White being the name of a real-life cop Rourke had shadowed during research. Powers wasn’t Polish nor his lover Chinese. The Powers character had no military background. Some of the violence against women does not happen.
Year of the Dragon opened in London on 10th January 1986 at the Warner West End and ABCs Shaftesbury Avenue and Fulham Road, one of ten DeLaurentiis pictures picked up by Thorn-EMI-Screen Entertainment just before they were taken over by Cannon whose big box VHS release contributed to its cult status. The Financial Times observed that British critics were raving about it, but most drew attention to Mickey Rourke’s improbably greyed hair, just as they did to his new chin for Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man 6 years later.
Rourke acknowledged that he was “10 or 12 years too young to play a police captain” while Cimino argued that a lot of guys in their early 20s came back from ‘nam grey. Cimino only directed three more movies: Mario Puzo’s The Sicilian, a remake of The Desperate Hours and Sunchaser, which went straight to video in the US. All three were troubled productions, but all three warrant a revisit. Maybe another year. And while 2018 is actually the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac, here at Celluloid Saturday it’s time for Year of the Dragon.