The port city of Bristol, England, in the 1800s is home to Java Head, a sailing ship company run by affable Jeremy Ammidon (Edmund Gwenn). His seafaring son Gerritt (John Loder) is in love with Nettie Vollar (Elizabeth Allen) whose overbearingly religious father (Herbert Lomas) forbids them from marrying on account of a long-running feud with Jeremy. After sailing around the world for a year, Gerritt returns home and immediately scandalizes the conservative town with his new bride, the beautiful, noble Chinese princess Taou Yuen (Anna May Wong).
Adapted from a novel written by Joseph Hergesheimer, Java Head initially intrigues as a seemingly revisionist period drama attacking bourgeois and religious hypocrisy but most potently, racism. It remains fascinating to see Chinese-American screen icon Anna May Wong headlining a British period piece that strives for a similar style of rich characterisation and evocative detail as a vintage Dickens adaptation. A comparatively lavish production set beside Tiger Bay (1934), this surrounds Wong with a starry cast of British talent both in front of and behind the camera. David Lean handled the editing (and was no doubt responsible for the lively montage illustrating Gerritt’s seafaring adventures around the globe, with some racy gags at the expense of one amorous sailor) while Carol Reed served as second unit and assistant director. Alongside Edmund Gwenn and Elizabeth Allen, the film features a young Ralph Richardson as Jeremy’s other son William who inflicts further woes on his family when he is revealed to be smuggling opium. Strict censorship requires the film dance around the opium subplot somewhat, though it remains evident the story is as concerned with the clash between traditional values and modern greed as it is with racial tension.
Top-billed Wong enters almost thirty minutes into the plot, but her impact is immediate. Evil gossip spreads around town about this “heathen from China” while churchgoers look on aghast when she attends Sunday mass wearing traditional dress. Refreshingly, the local vicar proves far more welcoming and rather than decry Taou Yuen’s beliefs, mentions he has studied the teachings of Confucius. Although the Ammidons are initially every bit as hostile as their friends and neighbours, the women in the family warm to Taou Yuen’s grace and decency. Particularly Jeremy’s granddaughter Laurel who rather sweetly dons Chinese garb and declares herself proud to be the only girl in Bristol with a Chinese aunt. Wong rises above her mannered dialogue (scriptwriters Martin Brown and Gordon Wellesley also overdo the nautical analogies) with her usual commanding charisma, but the film is riddled with mixed messages.
Nettie’s orientalist uncle Edward (George Curzon) is an odious slimeball and an opium addict out to possess Taou Yuen for himself, while nice guy Gerritt deplores her “barbaric” rites. The implication is that Chinese culture is itself a kind of drug, similar to opium, that inflames the senses and stirs unnatural desires. Far from encouraging understanding between East and West the film seems to believe some things should stay separate. Even this does not adequately explain why, after emphasising Taou Yuen’s compassion, nobility and spirit, the film does an inexplicably about-face and has her revert to caricatured dragon lady type, as she tries to smother an injured Nettie to death. The closing scenes end things on a sour and frankly insulting note that undoes almost all the positive aspects that came before.