BOOTLEG FILES 327: “China: The Roots of Madness” (1967 made-for-television documentary).
LAST SEEN: Available in its entirety on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There is a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R version available from the National Archives.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Lack of a commercial release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Highly unlikely.
Time has been exceptionally cruel to the 1967 documentary “China: The Roots of Madness.” While hailed in its day and honored with an Emmy Award, it now comes across as representing the very worst of nonfiction filmmaking: a pompous, condescending examination of a serious subject that conveniently leaves out large slices of important information while casually denigrating its subject.
“China: The Roots of Madness” was the creation of Theodore H. White, one of the most distinguished journalists of the 20th century. White was Time Magazine’s China correspondent during World War II and he was well acquainted with the nation’s major political figures, including Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. White wrote the screenplay for the documentary and served as on-screen commentator throughout the production.
Yet White’s view of China comes across to the contemporary viewer as being astonishingly callous and condescending. In his view, China had no history prior to the Opium War – there is a brief mention of the “tyranny of Confucius” (huh?), but beyond that the film gives an impression of an anarchic and chaotic environment. White even had the gall to ask about ancient China: “Was it really a nation or only a geographical experience?” Even worse, he claimed that that 20th century China was “looking for some entry into the modern world, and nothing in their ancient culture could give them any guide.”
To its credit, “China: The Roots of Madness” serves up some of the most amazing newsreel footage on the subject. Included here is very rare film showing U.S. soldiers playing broomstick polo during the period of the Boxer Rebellion, the filmed record of Sun Yat-sen’s funeral, the wedding of Chiang Kai-shek to Soong Mei-ling, and glimpses of pre-war Shanghai and wartime Chunkgking. The film briefly details the exploitation of China by European and American interests, and Joseph Campanella’s narration sneeringly refers to the denigration of the Chinese people by recalling their servitude to “Master and His Missy Lady.”
“China: The Roots of Madness” also calls on a number of experts and observers to talk about the subject. Nobel laureate Pearl S. Buck waxes approvingly on Chiang by claiming, “He might have been a great emperor.” Several former military officers provide insight on Chiang’s pitiful military response to the Japanese invasion and the stealthy rise of Mao’s Communist army from a ragtag force into a genuine militaristic threat.
However, no Chinese person is interviewed in the film. White speaks of his own conversations with Chiang and Mao, and a 1930s newsreel features Madame Chiang speaking English while her husband’s comments are translated through an interpreter. Otherwise, Chinese history is presented without any input from the Chinese.
Yet throughout the film, the Chinese are rudely dismissed with name-calling. The Emperor Dowager Tzu Hsi is identified merely as an “ignorant” woman, while the laborers who kept the country functioning are noted for their “animal energy.” White makes a specific point of detailing a minor faux pas regarding Mao’s knowledge of when electricity was invented, and post-1949 Chiang is simply written off as a “pawn to American policy.”
The film abruptly stops after the 1949 Communist takeover. There are fleeting mentions of the Great Leap Forward and the rise of the Red Guards, and very brief footage (its source is not identified) shows glimpses of then-current China. White bemoans a lack of Western insight regarding the Maoist regime by claiming, “We don’t know what they’re struggling about.”
“China: The Roots of Madness” was produced by David L. Wolper and directed Mel Stuart. (Some Internet sources hint at Central Intelligence Agency involvement, but that cannot be independently confirmed.) The Xerox Corp. sponsored its syndication on independent U.S. television stations, and it played on 101 channels in 41 states between January 30 and February 5. The program was well received by critics and White’s screenplay received an Emmy Award in the documentary category, which was an unusual accomplishment for a non-network program
The status of this film is difficult to ascertain. The film carries a 1967 copyright through Wolper’s company and I don’t believe it is in the public domain. Yet the film is offered through the National Archives in Washington, D.C., as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R title. I don’t know if Wolper donated the film to the National Archives – it might make sense, since the film has very little reissue value today. Nonetheless, there is no need to purchase the title since the full version can be seen on YouTube.
However, “China: The Roots of Madness” should only be seen as a historical curio rather than a genuine source of information. Fortunately, documentary filmmaking has evolved over the years, and there are numerous works of superior quality that provide a more mature insight regarding China’s violent and dramatic history.
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