Color, 1975, 99m.
Directed by Ken Annakin
Starring David Niven, Toshirô Mifune, Hardy Krüger, Ando, Irene Tsu, Jeff Corey, Patricia Donahue
Scorpion (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Poised somewhere in between the family-friendly adventure films cranked out by Disney and the violent combat films popular in the mid-'70s is Paper Tiger, an entertaining Bavarian production (shot in Malaysia) popularized by years of TV airings and an impressionable young audience. Not surprisingly, a former Disney director was selected for the film, in this case Ken Annakin (who had helmed Swiss Family Robinson and more than his share of war and adventure films). He was also reteamed with writer Jack Davies, with whom he collaborated six years earlier on Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies; however, this time the body count turned out to be much higher for a film that definitely earns its '70s PG rating.
The intrigue starts when Walter Bradbury (Niven), a stuffed-shirt Englishman, is hired to teach English to Koichi (Ando), the son of an important Asian ambassador (Mifune) for a country we're supposed to assume is Japan. The sweet kid is entertained by Bradbury's stories of combat heroism, all of which are completely fabricated to impress his young charge. Unfortunately fate forces his hand when they both wind up in the hands of revolutionaries who hold them captive out in a rocky, desolate terrain where the truth comes to light and both must fight for their lives.
The overall tone of Paper Tiger is fairly sweet and benign as it charts the friendship between Niven and his cute little student, but in a move not uncommon for the period, it's also peppered with some startlingly violent scenes in which dozens of extras are mowed down by machine gun fire. That odd mixture gives the film a strange but potent edge today, and the fact that most of the second half takes place among brutal radicals (including TV stalwart Irene Tsu as the more sympathetic Talah) probably accounts for why it stuck in the minds of so many impressionable viewers. Not to be overlooked is the strong action score by Roy Budd, best known for gritty fare like Get Carter, The Stone Killer, and The Black Windmill. The maudlin faux Mancini theme song is a bit much, but otherwise it can stand proudly among his other solid output from the period.
Avco Embassy released the film theatrically in 1975 with its video arm, just called Embassy, handling it on VHS for the following decade. After that the film fell out of circulation completely almost everywhere in the world, so it's nice to see it finally returning courtesy of Scorpion's 2014 release. The new anamorphic transfer looks great, not surprisingly, and blows away the old VHS by a huge margin. The source material seems to be in fine condition, and there's really nothing to complain about here at all. The first extra is a great one, a hilariously candid 22-minute interview with Tsu who runs down the making of this film and her impressions of the very quiet Annakin and the awkward dubbing slapped on her character; however, the real gold lies in her memories of other films like the notorious disaster The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go (directed by Burgess Meredith), during which she became close pals with Jeff Bridges and got to learn about his exploits at a local whorehouse, and Hot Potato, during which she learned the hard way why you don't touch a monk on the street. She also shows off a few cool production snapshots she took on the set of this film, too. Then producer Euan Lloyd gets his turn with a 17-minute chat in which he covers his history with the Rank Organisation, his hiring of Niven and Mifune (whom he admired from Kurosawa films and swore to never reveal he'd been dubbed during his lifetime), Ando's complete lack of English comprehension, and the film's casting and location scouting process. The theatrical trailer caps it all off along with bonus ones for Firepower, Space Raiders, Blood Feud, Force: Five, Saint Jack, Go Tell the Spartans, The Octagon, and The Dirt Bike Kid.