Major Bradbury (David Niven) is jetting into a country in the Far East to take up a teaching position, for he has been handpicked by the Japanese Ambassador (Toshirô Mifune) to tutor his young son Koichi (Ando) over the time they will be staying there. While he’s on the flight, Bradbury regales two American tourists with his tales of past derring-do and they are suitably impressed: when on the bus to the airport, they inquire about his bad leg and he replies he got it in a crash during the Le Mans 24 hour race, but before he can launch into further reminiscences the vehicle stops abruptly. The police have created a traffic jam since they are concerned about terrorist activity in the area, and with good reason…
Ever since that boy cried wolf there have been compulsive liars popping up in various stories, possibly before that too, and here was one from the nineteen-seventies, the tale of Major Bradbury who embellishes his wartime experiences so much that it has become a way of life. Our first hint that he is a big fibber comes when he admits to the Ambassador that he was stringing the American tourists along, but we suspect rightly he is doing the same to his new boss, though he seems perfectly competent as a tutor for little Ando. When he is exposed, we wonder if there will be a “major” revelation as to who or what his actual identity is, yet the film wasn’t particularly interested in that.
It was more interested in a redemption for Bradbury, who far from being a brave warrior, old soldier and adventurer is really a meek and mild soul who talks big to hide his deficiencies – the bad leg may be part of that inferiority, we surmise. To do that, those terrorists we saw at the beginning, or ones belonging to the same organisation at any rate, are brought into play when a kidnapping is staged on Ando and his tutor is bundled into the back of the car too as he had seen the face of one of the kidnappers, Talah (Irene Tsu). This also brings up a dilemma in that the film couldn’t make up its mind whether this was the Major’s story or the boy’s, and a compromise was not quite satisfyingly achieved.
Certainly the two actors had a fairly allotted amount of screen time, especially when they end up in the same hut in the forest while their captors try to sort out some deal for ransom with the Ambassador. In spite of a promising scene where Mifune picks up his samurai sword once again and busts a few moves, that was about as close as he got to the action, and given he was also blatantly dubbed by a pseudo-Japanese accent from an English actor, presumably because he wasn’t as understandable as the producers would have liked, this wasn’t exactly the great star’s finest hour and a half. His cultists who need to see everything he did may be intrigued to watch him opposite Niven, however.
But even then they didn’t share that many scenes, as it was mostly the relationship between Bradbury and Ando that concerned us, and how the former discovered he was braver than he thought while the latter proved more resourceful than he ever imagined he would be. After a heart to heart in the hut, Bradbury admits he’s not the man he’s been building himself up as in the child’s mind and is appropriately shamefaced, but with perky encouragement – a little too perky for some as director Ken Annakin overdid it on the supposedly cute factor – he finds he can step up to the mark and become the hero he always wanted to be. There were a fair few action sequences no matter that this was meant to be a drama with a moral, with Niven throwing himself into various stunts (as was his stuntman, to be fair) like a man half his age, so much so that when he’s climbing a cliff at the end you feel rather worried for him. For all its muscular tone, Paper Tiger was really a cosy, pat movie at heart. Music by Roy Budd.