THE 7th DAWN. United Artists, US/UK, 1964. William Holden, Susannah York, Capucine, Tetsurô Tanba, Michael Goodliffe, Allan Cuthbertson. Director: Lewis Gilbert.

   There’s a scene in the latter part of The 7th Dawn in which William Holden, along with two traveling companions, slog their way through the humid Malay jungle in a near futile attempt to reach the city before a prisoner they hope to save is hanged. As they swing their machetes to and fro, hoping to take down trees and brush that obstruct their path, you just sense how trapped these characters feel. Most of all, you feel the slowness of it all, the overpowering sense of how little time seems to be elapsing despite their valiant effort.

   Call me overly critical, but that’s essentially how I felt watching this turgid cinematic adaptation of Australian novelist Michael Keon’s The Durian Tree (1960). Although filmed on location in Malaysia, which admittedly does provide the viewer with some captivating scenery, the film never really makes a solid case for itself. William Holden is the star. He portrays Ferris, an American rubber plantation owner caught up in the power machinations of both sides during the Malay Emergency. He is a one-note character, a committed bachelor and political maverick, loyal to no side but compelled, like so many other characters in novels and movies before and since, to live in exotic non-Western locales.

   When the British detain his long time mistress Dhana (Capucine) for terrorist activities, he’s forced to make decisions that will impact not just his own life and fortune, but also the future of Malaysia and its people as they seek independence from British rule. He soon is forced to reckon his own desire to stay aloof from politics with the knowledge that Ng (Tetsurô Tanb), a comrade in arms from from the Second World War and the fight against the Japanese occupation, is leading the violent, pro-Soviet insurgency against the British. Added to the mix is an unlikely – and frankly unconvincing – platonic May-December romance between Ferris (Holden) and Candace Trumpey (Susannah York), the daughter of the newly appointed British Resident in Malaysia.

   For a movie that appears to have been promoted as both an adventure film and as a romance, The 7th Dawn is a shockingly dull motion picture. While there are a few somewhat exciting moments scattered throughout the film, none of them, save an overwrought scene in which British soldiers torch an insurgent village, are particularly memorable. And that one was cheap, clearly designed to pull the heartstrings of theater audiences and to build a moral equivalency between the British and the Malay communists.

   Perhaps that’s part of what made watching this movie such a slog. When all is said and done, you just don’t feel particularly keen on either the British or the Malay insurgents. Why make a movie with a plot that continually raises the stakes and gives the audience no one to truly root for?