Not since John Wayne's The Barbarian and the Geisha has Hollywood indulged in any such celebration of Japanese culture as we get in The Challenge. That so many people should die in order to restore a centuries-old sword to its proper familial home will seem absurd to most viewers, but the Oriental passions exhibited in the film may do something to make it understandable, even if not believable. The theme of the sword, however, is only a string on which to hang a rather more interesting series of beads.
One bead has to do with the character development of the main figure (Scott Glenn) from a second-rate American boxer to a highly disciplined master of Japanese martial arts (with spiritual as well as physical training and discipline). There is a certain psychological interest in this development, along with numerous comic touches involving the juxtaposition of a Midwestern twang with the responses of the uncomprehending Japanese. (He sings "Deep in the Heart of Texas" as he is being disciplined by being buried up to his neck without food or water for five days.) Another is the growing respect for traditional elements of Japanese culture, usually through a series of self-discoveries on the part of the American hero. Still another is the conflict between two Japanese brothers, rivals in the same house. The viewer comes gradually to understand the sources of their antipathy toward one another; in this aspect the film is half psychology and half morality play. In the final scenes, the traditional conflict is enacted in a modern office complete with computers, and lest the viewer conclude that the traditional Japanese values are always best, the plot is manipulated in such a way that the victory of the good does not come about without the assistance of the American—not with swords or martial arts but with good old guns and bullets.
The film would be a flimsy one but for the touches conferred on it by director John Frankenheimer, who at his best (for example, Seconds) can direct films of great power but who in this one must be satisfied to turn a meandering and somewhat disconnected story into an unprofound psychological study of opposed temperaments and diverse cultures.
In philosophy courses there are still arguments about how we know whether, behind a person's behavior, there are real thoughts and feelings like our own; how do we know the person isn't a cleverly designed automaton going through all the motions of human behavior without actually experiencing anything? To be sure, if we find plastic tubes and wires permeating what we thought was a human body with blood and bones, that might provide some evidence, but what if the interior also looks like that of an ordinary human being?
In Blade Runner, the phony human beings are called "replicants," and the police in this futuristic fantasy are after them—it's not clear why, since they do the same work as real human beings and are to all intents and purposes the same. You could marry one and live with it for life without knowing the difference.
All except for one detail: replicants are constructed and thus don't have genetic histories. Discovery of family photo albums (if they're proved genuine) is used in the film to provide evidence that it's a real human being. But this raises another question: How could something behave and act like a human being and have no genetic history? For that matter, can we conceive of a God who has feelings, moods, and temperament without ever having had a childhood in which these features are rooted?
The film sidesteps all these philosophic issues. It goes on its own lethargic way with very little excuse for a plot. Boring, confusing, and totally humorless, and burdened with an atrocious script, this film is a waste of time.
It must have taken some courage to produce The Chosen, in the knowledge that it would have a limited audience. The film is nevertheless a very fine one that should not be missed. It deals with two rival Jewish groups, the Hassidic sect (represented by the patriarch, Rod Steiger, and his son, Robby Benson) and the "liberal" Jewish cause (represented by Maximilian Schell as a columnist) and their split over the formation of the Jewish state in 1948. The characters are powerfully drawn, and the conflict within the Jewish community, and how it affects their children, is wrenching to watch. For the first time in film we get an in-depth insight into the beliefs' and mores of the Hassidic sect, with many rich textural details, some of which do not materially further the story but all of which are fascinating to see. The drama is a powerful one, and watching it unfold is an enriching experience.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California. His recent books are Understanding the Arts and Human Conduct (2nd ed.).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".