CHAPTER 11

Circle of Fire

The Finland film's initial success was due in large part to its intense timeliness. We needed another timely film.
Every spare moment, especially during the free hours while traveling by train to engagements in Michigan, I was reading, studying, exploring and mentally reaching out in search of a new vital film topic.
My eyes and concerns, more and more, turned westward—so far westward that the area I was thinking of is called the "Far East. "
Europe, of course, was already deep in World War II but most of the Pacific areas and we in America were still clinging to a fragile peace. From my intense studies, I believed that peace in the Pacific was desperately unstable. Japan, in fact, was already engaged in a conflict with China which, for propaganda purposes, she referred to simply as the "China incident. "
Here, throughout the Pacific, was an area for the making of another motion picture which might well become as timely as our film on Finland. I determined to produce a major epic which would include Japan, China, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, Guam, Wake, Midway, and Hawaii. A few of those places, such as Wake and Midway, had at that time never been heard of by the average American, but they were on my itinerary.
Before setting out in May of 1940, I arranged to write regular reports of my experiences and observations for a number of newspapers in California and Michigan. The chapters which follow, through and including my experiences in Java and Bali, are—except for grammatical editing and a few omissions for the obvious sake of brevity—exactly as I wrote them for those newspaper reports. This was a year-and-a-half before the United States became embroiled in World War II.

Bordering the Pacific Ocean are some of the greatest volcanic regions of the earth. Extending in a vast circle from South and Central America, through Mexico, California, Alaska and the Aleutians, then on through Japan, the Philippines, and Java are thousands of volcanic peaks and islands. Many of the volcanoes are extinct, others dormant, but strewn throughout this area are scores which never cease to steam, which threaten violent and deadly eruption at any time. The most ominous are in Java and the Dutch East Indies, though the Philippines, Hawaii and Japan have craters and cones of awful power.
Within this same Pacific area, also, there smoulder other forces, which parallel in intensity the terrific hidden push of the volcanoes. I speak of the forces of economic need, national aggrandizement, racial tensions, imperialism, and armaments. Literally and figuratively, the Pacific area is a vast circle of fire.
Circle of Fire is the name of the motion picture which I am on my way to the Orient to film—a picture designed to portray and interpret these vast volcanic forces, both actual and symbolic. With the head having already been blown off the mountaintop in the other direction, over in Europe, I set off for my journey in May (1940) on the Empress of Russia from Vancouver, British Columbia.
The times were disturbed. In selling me a ticket, the Canadian Pacific company's representative in Los Angeles had not been permitted to reveal the exact date of sailing. No schedules were printed. "But," he had said, "it is good that you are going on a Canadian ship. If the United States and Japan suddenly got into war over the Dutch East Indies, it could be nasty enough to be caught on an American vessel."
Perhaps he was right. But he had neglected to tell me that the Empress of Russia had been turned into an auxiliary naval cruiser.
Fourteen years before, from Manila to Japan, I had taken passage on the same vessel, when my brother and I, between our sophomore and junior years in college, were completing a year's adventure journey around the world. At that time the ship had been white and lovely. So my first view of her at the wharf in Vancouver led me to rub my eyes. The entire exterior had been painted gray. The glass in every porthole and window was likewise coated over. At the stern was a cannon, turret-mounted, and with an antiaircraft gun above it. On the first day out, antiaircraft practice was engaged in by the crew. Canada, of course, as a part of the British Empire, was actually at war.
Throughout the voyage, a complete blackout was maintained. I had paid extra for an outside cabin, but the porthole window was painted over, inside and out. Special blinds were fitted to the windows of the dining salon and lounge. All navigation lights were doused but, as the purser explained: "So few vessels take this route, there is little chance for collision."
Even cigarette smoking was prohibited on deck after dark. But I doubt if anyone went to the decks at night—after the first time.
It had always been a habit with me on shipboard to take an evening walk. When I went out the first night, all was black as midnight. The wisdom of returning to the inside soon became apparent. So I sought the door. But where was it? There was nothing to guide me. Strange shapes seemed to be everywhere, with any number of obstructions to trip over. The wind was howling, making calling out of no avail. I envisioned a cold sleep on deck. After a desperate five minutes I blundered across an entrance. That was my last night walk of the voyage.
The passenger list of the Empress of Russia is small—some sixteen in the first class, twenty-eight in second, and three hundred Chinese in third. All of the Caucasian passengers are business executives, missionaries, or government attaches with urgent business abroad.
It was the third day out before we had world news from shore. Now we get brief bulletins daily. Radios for the passengers are not permitted. Messages cannot be sent from the ship, but the radio officer picks up dispatches and issues daily summarizations.
Last night as we all sat about the piano in the lounge, singing American plantation melodies, word came in that the Germans had taken the French seaport of Calais, with England just twenty miles across the channel.
I shall not soon forget that moment. No one said much, but the room vibrated with unspoken thoughts. At last a man spoke—a businessman from Shanghai. "I never thought," he said, "that I'd live to see a day like this."
These were nearly all English people. A threat to England was a threat to their empire. British defeat on the English Channel would rock the world. We had passengers from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya—all dependent for their existence on the stability and strength of the crown. If England fell, Hong Kong would be in danger, and so would extraterritoriality in Shanghai. Japan would see to that. Trouble in the Pacific might take ships of the United States fleet away from Manila; the American girl, who had a lover in the navy, was thinking of that. Trouble in the Pacific     Throughout the voyage, a complete blackout was maintained. I had paid extra for an outside cabin, but the porthole window was painted over, inside and out. Special blinds were fitted to the windows of the dining salon and lounge. All navigation lights were doused but, as the purser explained: "So few vessels take this route, there is little chance for collision."
Even cigarette smoking was prohibited on deck after dark. But I doubt if anyone went to the decks at night—after the first time.
It had always been a habit with me on shipboard to take an evening walk. When I went out the first night, all was black as midnight. The wisdom of returning to the inside soon became apparent. So I sought the door. But where was it? There was nothing to guide me. Strange shapes seemed to be everywhere, with any number of obstructions to trip over. The wind was howling, making calling out of no avail. I envisioned a cold sleep on deck. After a desperate five minutes I blundered across an entrance. That was my last night walk of the voyage.
The passenger list of the Empress of Russia is small—some sixteen in the first class, twenty-eight in second, and three hundred Chinese in third. All of the Caucasian passengers are business executives, missionaries, or government attaches with urgent business abroad.
It was the third day out before we had world news from shore. Now we get brief bulletins daily. Radios for the passengers are not permitted. Messages cannot be sent from the ship, but the radio officer picks up dispatches and issues daily summarizations.
Last night as we all sat about the piano in the lounge, singing American plantation melodies, word came in that the Germans had taken the French seaport of Calais, with England just twenty miles across the channel.
I shall not soon forget that moment. No one said much, but the room vibrated with unspoken thoughts. At last a man spoke—a businessman from Shanghai. "I never thought," he said, "that I'd live to see a day like this."
These were nearly all English people. A threat to England was a threat to their empire. British defeat on the English Channel would rock the world. We had passengers from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya—all dependent for their existence on the stability and strength of the crown. If England fell, Hong Kong would be in danger, and so would extraterritoriality in Shanghai. Japan would see to that. Trouble in the Pacific might take ships of the United States fleet away from Manila; the American girl, who had a lover in the navy, was thinking of that. Trouble in the Pacific would disrupt my plans. And the Germans had taken Calais, just twenty miles from England.
The importance and stabilizing power of the British Empire could never have been more eloquently revealed than in the minds of those ten or fifteen passengers sitting about the piano in the lounge of the Empress of Russia. Calais had been taken. Our vessel, in complete blackout, plowed on through the Pacific.

Through sea-lanes swarming with fishing boats and sampans, with great ocean liners, freighters, and warships crossing before and behind us, our Empress of Russia edged her way gingerly into Yokohama harbor. Three giant bombers roared out to meet us. All foreign ships are thus greeted and a careful watch kept for contraband which might be cast overboard before reaching shore. Doctors, immigration inspectors, and reporters boarded the ship at various points and I spent an hour running from one group to another, delivering the eleven different forms which it was necessary to fill out before landing. These ranged from currency declarations and a statement of all books I possessed, to vaccination certificates and a detailed list of my baggage.
And then to shore, and to Yokohama station. A swift electric train took me, in just forty minutes, to Tokyo. There were three stops en route and it was just by chance that I ascertained the correct station. Fourteen years before, when last visiting the city, I had found Japan to be almost a bilingual nation. Japanese signs and street names were accompanied almost invariably with their translation in English. But since then, Japan and Britain have had difficulties. An over-patriotic minister decreed that all English signs should come down. Now the foreign visitor sees only unreadable Japanese characters for station names, street signs, and notices of various kinds. No wonder John Gunther remarked that Tokyo is one of the world's most difficult cities in which to get about unaided.
A taxi, a 1936 Plymouth, took me to the luxurious Imperial Hotel. The fare was the equivalent of about six cents. My spacious room at the Imperial cost one dollar. Due to the disastrous exchange rate for the yen, I was in an inexpensive country.

Color Motion Pictures, or None at All

For the fifth consecutive day I sat in the office of Mr. Iwao Yokota, promotion chief of the government Board of Tourist Industry, and bit my nails. On the first day, after an exchange of genuinely pleasant formalities, he had told me how sorry it made him feel that I could not take colored pictures in Japan. There were now no facilities for developing them in the country, and undeveloped film could not be taken out. So sorry.
At that announcement I had raised heaven and earth. True, this had not been entirely unexpected. The Eastman people in Los Angeles had warned me that it would be useless to take colored film into the country. And nearly every day during my Pacific crossing, the officers of the Empress of Russia had cautioned against even carrying a camera into Japan. The chief steward had told me it would be playing with fire. The master-at-arms had stated bluntly that I would end up in jail. Every day during the voyage, they trotted out fresh stories of arrests, confiscations of equipment, and spy scares. It became my regular diet.
Still, I had entertained hopes. I would take colored pictures or none at all. For that reason, I did not even possess any black-andwhite film.
Securing a reporter's interview and a glowing write-up in the anglicized Japan Advertiser, marshalling every ounce of bravado at my command, I forced the issue. On the third day Mr. Yokota announced that, provided I was supervised at all times by a government agent, I might go ahead with some limited shots. They would be developed in America and censored by the Los Angeles consul—something unprecedented and "most unusual."
This was more to the point. I commenced to make pictures, with an interpreter and a government agent always at my side like overconscientious nursemaids. It was necessary for me to work fast, for the rainy season was close at hand with its weary weeks of overcast skies. For each movie view filmed by me, the agent would make a black-and-white "still," to be developed that night. By this neat method a continual check could be kept on my work. All was progressing well. Then suddenly, word came from the head offrsece—we must report at once.
I made my fourth visit to Mr. Yokota. So sorry. A terrible mistake. He had exceeded his authority. The police had made a report. If I wanted more pictures, it would be necessary to draw up a complete list of every shot I desired, then submit it for review and censorship to the State Board of Tourist Industry and the Department of Home Affairs. He was adamant. There was no alternative.
In a daze, as depressed as a church budget, I left the office with my interpreter.
"Just why," I plied him, "have things turned out this way?"
Slowly he shook his head. "No one will take the responsibility. They are booting it from one department to another like a football. As you Americans would put it—how does it go?—too many cooks burn the eggs."
That it not precisely the way we Americans would have said it but, to quote another saying of my interpreter, he had certainly "hit the nail on the hammer. "
I had to realize, of course, that red tape is a part of government, particularly when that government is directing a war. Of course, the Japanese refer to their three-year-old conflict in China, not as a war, but always as the "China incident. " But that deadly and expensive—and seemingly never ending— " incident, " combined with strained relations with my own country, was no doubt at the root of my difficulties in securing a permit to film.
All I could do was to try to unravel the red tape and doggedly pursue my goal.