High Road to China Blu-ray Review
There’s been some concerns expressed over this Region-A transfer of High Road to China. Comments have been raised about it looking ill-defined, murky, soft and coming equipped with very poor, hazy contrast. Well, the AVC encode is certainly all of those things, but I will wager that even as bad as this is, it is probably the best that we can expect from the original source … which was never a good-looker. One of the reasons why the film was no so popular was its unrepentantly dour appearance. This is not a colourful movie. It has no vibrancy and no lusty sheen to go along with the supposed adventure that we are on. Brian Blessed is certainly lusty enough, but even he cannot save the day with photography from Ronnie Taylor that, rightly or wrongly, opts to go for a more realistic and often glum, overcast and earthy aesthetic. Therefore, the film can seem quite grubby.
Grain is present and a film-like texture is consistently observed, but there are some interiors and nocturnal shots that look appalling – absolutely stippled with it and fluctuating with columns of wobbly contrast jitters. Print damage isn’t too much, but scenes such as those just described really look old and shabby and clapped-out.
Regardless of how the film was originally lensed this does not look like a hi-def image at all, I’m afraid. Hen’s Tooth were apparently not responsible for the transfer, but certainly cite the original camera negative as being the source that was used. The contrast is simply terrible. We have horrible high-lights shining upon faces, elements are continually mired in a soft, glazed-over frieze that is ill-defined and prone to much wavering in those darker scenes, and no visual integrity to speak of. Skin-tones are ruddy or anaemic and black levels are terrible. Folks, there comes a time when it is just not right to award marks to a transfer of a crap-looking film just because it is accurate to the source. Thus, my comments here are now primarily directed at the choices of the director and his cinematographer because we cannot blame the BD authors for the downright shoddy image that greets us on this disc. To my eyes, this is barely any better than any previous version I have seen, including VHS and old TV broadcasts, which all looked bloody awful as well.
You are making a high adventure in the vein of the cliffhangers from the thirties and forties, but unmistakably empowered by the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark and you are staging it in Afghanistan, India, Nepal and China (with a pre-war Yugoslavia standing in for all of those destinations) and yet you choose to have your film look as drab as a sun, rain and wind-worn dog-stain on the pavement? Okay, that’s your choice. But your film is going to look absolutely lousy, isn’t it? Yes. And indeed it does.
Coming in at 1.78:1, theatrically 1.85:1, the photography on show here is over-brightened and hugely lacking in detail right across the board. There are occasional shots – and I do mean occasional shots – when suddenly the image appears to offer a bit more resolution than throughout the majority of the film. Things like a view inside the cockpit at O’Malley’s leather jacket and belt, some interiors, such as the temple of the village shaman in Nepal, and the odd close-up (faces, stubble, eyes, the pattern on shirts etc). But this is not a transfer in which I can pick out anything of any real worth to comment upon. It is just too soft and indistinct.
Colours, as I have already implied, are not in abundance. What there is tends to be green, brown and bruised. Reds, however, seem bright and obvious, and we can see these in costumes, such as hats and scarves and belts and sashes, and one or two blood-splashes. But there is little else to punctuate an overall drab picture. When the plane (just one now, after the other one has been blown-to-hell) passes over the Himalayas, the sky is pink and casting lovely little glowing illumination upon the steep slopes. You’d think this would look beautiful, but with no detail or properly defined texture and the clouds reduced to a sickly, fuzzy-edged pink, the sequence is just a big disappointment.
There is a weird edit during the scene when the heroes arrive in Nepal. As O’Malley carries away Eve, who has just collapsed, the image freezes for a tiny, yet still noticeable second before making the transition to the next scene, almost like the old layer-change on a DVD. Hmmm.
Folks, this isn’t a bad transfer. It is actually a very solid one of a wretched-looking film. This said, a little restoration may have helped.
There’s no great shakes from the audio track either. In fact, this is pretty darn poor, as well.
The audio is in DTS-HD MA 2-channel mono, and it is brittle, crushed and muddy. Dialogue is never unintelligible but nor it is never clean and distinct. Sometimes there is a horrible burr and squawk to speech, especially during the finale when O’Malley and Eve sit in the field weighing-up their adventure. John Barry’s score really tries to take flight but it sounds hemmed-in and strained. I’m not aware if the film ever had a stereo track and, once again, as with the video, I don’t think that we can lay too much blame at the feet, or claws, of Hen’s Tooth because they are only putting out what they were given – which is the raw, unmolested source material. This said, I wish some effort had been made into cleaning up what is a track that does suffer from slight background noise and hiss, which is particularly noticeable when O’Malley and Struts go and visit the village shaman. And, no, it is not the sound of the river that we hear a couple of scenes later on.
Elsewhere, there is the whirring of the biplane engines, the scatter-shot sputtering of the Lewis guns, a whole load of explosions and rifle-fire and rows of mines going off. But none of this sounds very exciting. It is all subdued, damped-down and lacking in clarity, detail or bite. Even Brian Blessed, the man with the built-in subwoofer, sounds as meek as a kitten in this low-rent mix. The more boisterous things get, the more the track struggles with the lid cracking down on the good stuff until it sounds crispy and singed. Oh, there is something quite well rendered … and it sticks out like a sore thumb because it, alone, is vivid when nothing else is, and it is the whistling birdsong during the scene when whiny Armstrong argues with sulky Selleck about going into China. Well, that’s if you can hear it over the endless bleatings of “O’Malley” this and “O’Malley” that which make up the majority of the script!
Aye, I know … this all sounds pretty grim. Both video and audio struggle. But I should stress that, at the very least, this is a transfer that remains steadfastly accurate to the source, and has clearly not been manipulated or tampered with in any digitally disrespectful manner.
That said, some of you might wish that it had!
Oh dear, oh dear. We just get the film’s theatrical trailer … and it’s a bad one, at that.
There’s no doubt about it, High Road to China is a low-calibre adventure that lacks spectacle and excitement and plays like a bit of TV filler. I tend to think that it was made for all the wrong reasons and that the collective heart was not in the production right from the start. A final rush of action and romance is nowhere near enough to save this scrapheap challenge of a yarn from the doldrums of utter tedium.
The story, itself, is a poxy excuse to get us off the ground on a round-Asia tour, and the incidents and set-pieces that occur en-route to a pathetically corny climax are resoundingly dull, dull, dull. It’s a romantic action comedy that simply isn’t romantic, thrilling or funny. I like Tom Selleck a lot, and I think he can bring an enormous amount of gruff charisma to a role, but this performance is almost like the actor kicking his heels in the dirt and muttering under his breath, “It's not fair. I wanted to be Indy …” It is tired, sullen and totally lacking in heart.
Just like the overall movie. A sad final note to Brian G. Hutton’s career.
And with a BD that looks and sounds as poor as this, it is really only devout fans of the film that are going to appreciate the minimal rewards that its hi-def debut offers. Of course, it is important to state once again that I don’t believe the actual BD transfer is at fault here. It is just that a very shoddy-looking film has received absolutely nothing in the way of restoration, so it looks and sounds just as raw and gritty and murky as ever.
A poor film that offers nothing with its BD debut to sugar the pill.
One to avoid unless you are a fan, in which case, the minimal upgrade will still probably be worth the effort.
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