Roll Over McFly

Offhanded aggression in “Back to the Future”

Chuck Berry slowly replaces the handset on its cradle and stares dazedly at the phone for a long minute. He springs to his feet and digs through his bags for the notebook he uses to jot down ideas on the road, leafing through it to the right page. He looks down at his song. It’s eerie someone managed to come up with something so similar (identical?). He had had a feeling when he penned it, it was a good one; another follow up to “Maybelline”, the crossover hit he was currently riding high on.

But now, hearing some suburban kid playing it, it was clear it was too old school, already mainstream and square. It was time to get out of his comfort zone and come up with something new to really shake things up. It’s ironic Marvin had thought Chuck was looking for a new sound when he wasn’t and now he needed to, because of that call. He tears the page out, crumples it, and tosses it in the direction of the trash basket. He shakes his head: that was a close one.

We all know the scene. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is playing guitar on “Earth Angel” with Marvin Berry (Harry Waters Jr.) and the Starlighters for the Enchantment Under the Sea high school dance. But after that, he decides to bust out an “oldie from where he’s from” and slays “Johnny B. Goode”. The crowd goes wild.

The movie is sloppy with its 1955 facts across the board; IMDB’s “Goofs” page is immense.¹ And sure, it was harder to do research when the film was made, you had to actually relocate your physical body to an inconveniently situated locus known as a library, and find books made of paper whose contents could not be easily searched, rather a crude, almost necessarily erroneous device—the index—had to be consulted. Today, we have facts at our literal fingertips and can find out what the popular songs and movies were at any given date nearly instantaneously.

And also sure, the film is a comedy; not to be taken too seriously, but the science fiction elements, and specifically that of time travel, mean the entire premise is closely connected to an accurate depiction of a suburban California town in November 1955. It’s not: IMDB lists 14 anachronisms, and it’s pretty far from exhaustive. And no, I’m not going to fix IMDB.

Turning just to Marty’s performance with The Starlighters, there are several such problems, which are worth mentioning as they go to overarching issues: That guitar did not exist then, that amp did not exist then, those effects did not exist then.

The song as well as the guitar are clearly meant to allude to Chuck Berry, but he played a Gibson ES-350T, which was his trademark until the manufacturer discontinued it in 1963. Only then did he switch to the ES-355. No one in the ’50s had a red guitar either—most of them were some kind of sunburst. You can see below, Chuck is bucking the trend by going with either plain blond wood or white. Red didn’t happen until the ’60s.

The gag line on which all of this hangs comes when Marty is soloing and the injured frontman finds a phone:²

Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this!

As I’ve already indicated, Chuck was not looking for a new sound, as Marvin would have known. “Maybelline” was already a huge hit. It had sold over a million copies and hit number one on Billboard’s R&B chart and broke into the overall US chart as well, reaching number five only a few months previous to the movie’s timeline, and had stayed there.

Furthermore, the film is set in November 1955, with little left of the year in which Berry is known to have written the song, so that’s another likely miss historically. Indeed, Berry was to score nine more R&B-charting singles, as well as five that crossed over into the US chart as well before the release of “Johnny B. Goode”. Two of these, “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell)”, and “Sweet Little Sixteen” charted higher in both categories: “School Day” reached number one R&B, number three US and “Sweet Little Sixteen”, number one and number two, compared with “Johnny B. Goode”’s performance of number two and number eight. The actual songwriting of “Johnny B. Goode”, rather than being a “new sound” was very much a rocked-up country blues song (as many were) exactly along the lines of “Maybelline” and these other hits.

I’ll note despite the awkwardness of the throwaway laff line, the movie did introduce a new generation to Chuck Berry’s musical genius; a silver lining.

Elvis Presley is commonly thought of as the personification of the white appropriation of rock and roll and the subject of Sam Phillips’ declaration,³

If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.

And again, the film misses the boat as Phillips and Presley had already done this, rerecording Arthur Crudup’s R&B hit “That’s All Right” in July 1954. And even Elvis was also far from the first, despite what Phillips thought.

Then we come to the actual influences on the song the film attempts to efface: the opening riff is a note-for-note copy of the intro to Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five’s song, “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman (They’ll Do It Every Time)” from 1946, well predating the fictitious McFly performance.

As for the guitar sound, if that was what Marvin meant (sans effects), Berry’s inspiration for that, as it was for many rockers before and since, including Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, was not only not white but also not male: “Godmother of rock and roll” Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

The real shame of Marty teaching Chuck his business is it abrogates Tharpe. Listen to a few bars of her song “That’s All”, originally recorded in 1938, and you’ll hear the guitar sound that actually inspired Berry—it’s unmistakable.

And this is where the real problem arises. The filmmakers think about (or at least portray) rock and roll as being born suddenly in the mid-’50s. Check the date for Tharpe’s song again—1938. Elements recognizable as characteristic of rock and roll actually began to appear still earlier, in the blues of the ’20s. There is debate about which song is the proper one to cite, but I’d offer Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Shake That Thing” of 1925 as a notable paterfamilias, despite his use of a banjo guitar; a six-string banjo using guitar tuning. Uncoincidentally, Jackson was one of the earliest black musicians to have his work covered in recordings by whites, as The Allen Brothers did with his “Salty Dog Blues” in 1926.

Mainstream culture seems to think rock and roll’s history begins more specifically, at the point of its becoming white, making it possible for a Marty to deracinate it at that time, but you’d actually have to go all the back to around 1670 in ports like Ouidah, and through them into the whole of what once was the Slave Coast of Africa, to reach what’s ultimately being whitewashed.

That the history of black American music begins in Africa (apart from the obvious) is attested in the English words associated with it, like the Kikongo meanings, if not etymologies, for words like jazz and funky. The concept of “cool” which has become integral to American culture, and perhaps even the world’s, is distinctly African, embodied in words like Yoruba itutu “(aesthetically) cool”, and the Fɔngbe phrase é na fa, “it will be cool”, which carries the exact same connotations on both sides of the Atlantic.

The whole reason rock and roll is the music of rebellion is deeply embedded in its history, which is also why it appealed to white teens in the conformist America of the middle of the last century. As Berry said of “Maybelline”,⁴

It came out at the right time when Afro-American music was spilling over into the mainstream pop.

Again, the history of black entertainers performing for white audiences goes way back, with venues like the Cotton Club strictly adhering to this format, beginning in 1923. They also required dancers and chorus girls to be light-skinned, as their advertising stated:

Tall, Tan, and Terrific!

The Brown Paper Bag Test was a common measure for “acceptable” skin color. These women also had to be at least five-foot-six and under 21.

The whole point of having Marvin’s band play in lilywhite Hill Valley is to try to be cool, though Marvin should have been able to land way better gigs just on the basis of being the cousin of an already huge star. Marty playing with the Starlighters, however, would be problematic as it makes them a miscegenated band.

When Rosetta Tharpe was backed by white performers, The Jordanaires (who would also later be used by Elvis), they could not stay at the same hotels or eat in the same establishments and many Southern venues simply refused to let them play. Certainly California would have been somewhat less strict, but the entire issue is glossed over, despite 3-D and Skinhead (yes, apparently that’s the character’s name) calling one of the Starlighters “spook” and the whole group “reefer addicts”, respectively. And, in fact, the lazy stereotyping of the film does have the band smoking pot.⁵

As for Marty himself, he is a deeply flawed character. Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), a teacher at his high school characterizes him, not incorrectly, as a “slacker”: he lies to his parents, his audition tape is rejected, he’s frequently tardy to school, not especially bright, overly concerned with his physical appearance, and wantonly destructive of Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd)’s personal property. All of this is useful to the film as it makes him a highly relatable everyman for the audience, as well as being an effective driver for the plot as he bumblingly and repeatedly creates temporal issues he must then strive to correct.⁶

His performance of “Johnny B. Goode” is the penultimate such event—his note to Doc about his being shot in 1985 being the final one—but which apparently has no consequences other than Doc not dying. In the middle of “Earth Angel”, he is hovering on the brink of nonexistence, his hand becomes transparent, he ceases to be able to play, he is being unmade. Then the tide turns, his future parents dance and fall in love and he revives. He has literally just finished fighting to reverse the disruptions his trip into the past has caused, when with absolute disregard for how he created the problem that has just been solved, he attempts to erase the genius of Berry, presumably a hero of his, in order to claim it for himself.

As for Marty’s portrayer, the performance was not Fox at all: Mark Campbell did the singing and Tim May played the guitar. Mojo Nixon took issue, singing in 1987’s “Elvis is Everywhere”,

Michael J. Fox has no Elvis in him.

Asked why he cast the film star as an “Evil anti-Elvis”, Nixon is unrepentant, refusing to dial back his criticisms based on Fox’s being “sick”—Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991 and has been semi-retired since 2000—and it’s also worth noting Nixon has also accepted the revisionist idea of white rock and roll:⁷

In Back to the Future and in that terrible Paul Schrader movie with the Springsteen song, Light of Day, Michael J. Fox desperately wanted to be a rock-and-roller. He’s not! He is an evil yuppie twit, and he always will be an evil yuppie twit. He can’t be a rock-and-roller.

In the end, Marty breaks rock and roll. Even discarding the classic grandfather paradox he has created, performing a song he learned from Chuck Berry for Chuck Berry—so he wouldn’t have written it for Marty to learn it so Marty could never have performed it. ’Cause Chuck Berry never would have borrowed anything from a nerdy suburban white boy, no matter how good.

In the new timeline he has created, in the future he returns to, white rock and roll will have been what black musicians will have had to create a counter-culture to even sooner, which will then have been co-opted by mainstream culture. In Marty McFly’s new 1985, being a guitar hero, no matter how skilled, will have been made passé, irrelevant. Popular music will have either gone retro, led by banjo or accordion, or new, unheard of instruments will have been invented—almost anything but guitar, bass, and drums.

Read Addenda to This Article

The Immaculate Miscegenation

Appropriating a Missing Past


  1. “Goofs”, Back to the Future (1985), IMDB.
  2. Back to the Future, 1985. 
  3. Quoted in Jerry Hopkins, Elvis: The Biography, 1971, though it is disputed.
  4. NBC Evening News, March 18, 2017.
  5. Back to the Future, 1985.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Tom Murphy, “Mojo Nixon “un-retires” with Whiskey Rebellion”, Westworld, April 2012.

Japan’s Turbulent Taishō

Echoes of a fourteen-year failed revolution

I have long been fascinated by Japanese history, but it has not been the tales of the daimyō battling to become shōgun in the Sengoku period, nor the flowering of Japanese Buddhism and aesthetic culture in the Heian period, embodied in works like The Tale of Genji that caught my particular attention. Rather it was the all-but unheralded Taishō era (大正時代 1912–26), wedged between the better-known rapid modernization of the Meiji era and the period of Japan’s imperial ambitions in East Asia, which ultimately led to WWII in the Pacific, the Shōwa.¹ I should also note that properly Taishō is when the stage was set for Shōwa’s belligerence.

I became interested in the era when I first lived in Tōkyō. In 1988, the Tōkyō Metropolitan Art Museum (東京都美術館) had an exhibition called simply “1920年代日本展” or in English, “The 1920’s in Japan” [sic]. The artifacts featured were interesting mainly because of the sheer variety appearing. I purchased, and still possess, the catalogue of the show, which resembles nothing so much as a telephone book in size. The foreword gives some idea of the scope:

Included in this show are more than 400 exhibits; paintings, sculptures, photographs, architectural and urban design plans, plans for stage sets, films, products of industrial and graphic design, and related works of reference.

More than 150 artists are represented here. Some were active in a number of fields; many influenced one another; they all in one form or another expressed some aspect of the spirit of the age.

And it’s additionally worth noting that not all of these artists were Japanese—the influence of Western art was at a zenith, and so pride of place in the book is given to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and in particular the second Imperial Hotel. This Wright edifice was built 1919–1923 near the Imperial Palace grounds in Tōkyō.

So how did a period that only lasted 14 years under an emperor whose neurological conditions left him unable to carry out public functions produce such a wealth of art? The mental state of Emperor Taishō (大正天皇), whose personal name was Yoshihito (嘉仁), is perhaps best summed up in the last of his rare public appearances, where he famously rolled the speech he had prepared for the opening of the national legislature into a tube and peered through it at the assembled dignitaries it as if it were a telescope.

Although the culture mainly is what interests me it’s impossible to talk about it without discussing the intertwined political and economic histories of the period. The event that really defines it is WWI: Japan joined the Allied Powers near the close of the conflict in somewhat opportunistic fashion, and indeed the resulting economic boom was characterized by historian Jeffrey Hanes thus:²

[World War I] sent Europe to its knees and brought Japan to its feet.

Firstly, with Germany focused on the war in Europe, Japan swooped on their territories in East Asia as an occupying force. When they declared war on the side of the Allied Powers, their new friends were happy to legitimize these annexations. The collapse of Imperial Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution also removed a key rival from contention for hegemony over the Far East. Japan joined the League of Nations as one of the “Big Five” members of the new international order.

Towards the end of the conflict, and with the resources of the other allies greatly depleted, Japan was increasingly called upon to fulfill their needs for the wide variety of materials needed to continue to prosecute the war. This allowed Japanese industry to both diversify and expand rapidly. The Nishihara Loans (西原借款), of which there were eight totaling ¥145M, were made mainly to the Chinese government in 1917 and 1918. These moved Japan from debtor to creditor status for the first time. In return Japan’s claims to the formerly German Kiautschou Bay concession in Shandong were confirmed, control of the railways in Shandong Province was granted, and their rights in Manchuria were extended.

This meteoric rise left rural regions hollowed out as young men and women migrated into the urban centers where work in factories and offices was plentiful and high-paying. There was also runaway inflation that peaked immediately following the war and led to rice riots in 1918 (米騒動). Rice, a major staple in Japan then as now, had a government-fixed low buying price from farmers, but the selling price to consumers was allowed to spiral out of control. Though perhaps innocuous-sounding, these riots included strikes, looting, bombings of official buildings, and armed clashes between protesters and police. During the three months in which the riots took place, there were 417 separate incidents involving more than 66,000 dissidents, of which 25,000 were arrested, and 8200 convicted of crimes for which the punishments meted out ranged from minor fines to executions.

Meanwhile the newly citified class was able to achieve an unprecedented degree of financial independence regardless of their class or place of origin. Furthermore this included not only men, but also women. Although these new urbanites were a necessary ingredient in the nation’s economic growth, they also represented a source of great political tension.

The men were a problem because the group often leaned farther Left than the Taishō Democracy (大正デモクラシー) was willing to bend. Initially, their vote was limited based on taxation but after various groups, including students and laborers, united to demand liberalization of the vote, full suffrage for males beginning at age 25 was granted under the General Election Law (普通選挙法) of 1925. However, this was somewhat mitigated by the fact that these mobo (モボ, an abbreviation of モダンボーイ: “modern boys”) were likely to be under control of the institutions of the military or the workplace, which could therefore sway their votes. As for their female counterparts the moga (モガ, from モダンガール: “modern girl”), however, social conservatives found their fun-loving, financially and sexually independent Westernized brand of womanhood threatening even in spite of their ineligibility to vote.

The various coalition governments of the period turned the public’s focus toward the sentimentally emotional issue of the plight of the farmers both to attack opponents and to gain votes. Although the rhetoric of contrasting these “real Japanese” with degenerate urbanites was effective, it was pure lip service as no action was ever taken by the central government to actually aid impoverished farmers.

In our own time and place, nothing has changed: coastal elites is a dog-whistle term for an essentially similar group to the urban Japanese. Perhaps our version has an extra soupçon of racism and/or antisemitism absent among the largely homogenous populace of Japan. New York values, and cuck are some still newer, and more specific flavors of this disparagement. Sarah Palin expressed the opinion that many conservatives hold (or at least represent themselves as holding to their red-state constituents) about this rural-urban divide:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.

Returning to the mobo and moga, the terms referred to trendy, fashion-conscious city dwellers in the ’20s and early ’30s. They were portrayed as superficial, luxury-addicted, and corrupt, indeed besotted with the values of the West, and Westerners were similarly characterized. The modern lifestyle was painted as posing a threat of destruction of the “Japanese spirit”.

It is a matter of some irony given the above labels that the terms also eventually became associated with Marxism. This is a tipoff that the state was happy to tie whatever ethics it was hostile toward to this group.

Mobo was essentially an updating of the term haikara (ハイカラー: “high collar”), popularized in the previous era, Meiji. According to Jason G. Karlin,³ the term, originally referring to a specific kind of shirt,

[M]igrated to become a marker of novelty, fashion, and consumption in late Meiji discourse. In short, it came to exemplify the ephemeral and transitory qualities of modern culture.

The Western-inspired dandyism the term implies was an outward sign to the world of economic success and social status. This was what made the group represented by the term so easy for politicians to steer public wrath toward: they were easy to identify and objects of jealousy.

The moga were still more reviled. Many conservative social critics perceived them as a threat, not just because of the issues ascribed to moderns of both sexes, but in particular because of their independence, and the perception that they were eschewing traditional social and gender roles. Indeed, the overall feeling was that moga were becoming more masculine while dandified mobo were adopting feminine traits.

An opposing notion, bankara (蛮カラー: “barbarous-collar” was opposed to haikara, developed by social critics, particularly the satirical magazine, The Tokyo Puck (東京パック). Karlin describes it thus:

The bankara man was an anticonsumer who rejected materiality and the lures of Western culture. The term bankara carried associations with stoic sincerity and a conservative resistance to novelty expressed through an unadorned and rugged appearance […]. Just as the high-collared shirt was the defining emblem of the high-collar gentleman, the bankara man was identified by his tucked up sleeves, exposed forearms, and dark complexion.

Furthermore, he notes,

[T]he bankara man is portrayed as a vigilante who protects the weak and defenseless […].

In the Taishō era, this role in particular is continuously expanded and mythologized in various forms of fiction and nonfiction, extending to the idea of protecting the entire Far East against Western aggression. The rural Boy Scout movement came to embody these ideals, rapidly becoming highly militarized.

Ultimately Taishō was a failed revolution, since the result was increased authoritarianism and imperialism. The draconian Public Security Preservation Law of 1925 (治安維持法), put in place only two months after universal manhood suffrage, marked the biggest reversal of the Taishō Democracy. It was intended to suppress political dissent, specifically targeting socialism and communism. Under the law an Orwellian thought police was formed, the Tokubetsu Kōtō Keisatsu (特別高等警察: “Special Higher Police”, often shortened to Tokkō), whose mandate was the criminal investigation of political groups and ideologies representing a threat public order. They arrested over 70,000 people during the time the law was on the books, from 1925–1945.

But the close of the era of the moderns really came with the devastation wrought upon the Tōkyō-Yokohama metropolitan area by the Great Kantō earthquake (関東大震災) and subsequent firestorm in which roughly 100,000 people were killed in 1923. Junichiro Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎) who had been part of the Bohemian lifestyle of Taishō and whose home in the area was also destroyed, reacted:

I felt a surge of happiness which I could not keep down. ‘Tōkyō will be better for this!’ I said to myself.

His enthusiasm for the West was discarded, with his focus shifting instead toward Japanese aesthetics and culture. Religious leaders echo these sentiments still, declaring the destructions, specifically of urban centers, to be “God’s wrath” because of their debauchery. Pastor John Hagee named Hurricane Katrina such an event, citing the city’s level of sin, specifically homosexuality, as the reason:

What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God, in time if New Orleans recovers and becomes the pristine city it can become it may in time be called a blessing.

Regardless, the heyday of Taishō had passed. Such heady times were not to return to Japan until the asset price bubble of the ’80s (バブル景気, baburu keiki: “bubble condition”). The curators of the Tōkyō Met intended their show to inspire change, if not to gently warn against getting too carried away with superficialities in such economic high times:

[In the ’20s, Japan] underwent rapid processes of urbanization, industrialization and internationalization. The period was in some ways analogous to our own; and it was, in fact, then that the prototype of our contemporary environment was formed. “The 1920’s in Japan” tries to illuminate the age by looking at the art it produced. […]

We sincerely hope that visitors to “The 1920’s in Japan” will listen and respond to—in the spirit of this age—these young voices of around 60 years ago.

Sadly this wasn’t to be. Lacking moral direction and feeling complacent in their country’s economic dominance, the Japanese of the close of the Shōwa period spent their days as cog-in-a-prestigious-machine sararīman, their nights drinking mizuwari (水割り: whiskey mixed with water) and singing karaoke, and their weekends in nonstop shoppingu. And then the economic bubble burst and the chance was squandered for perhaps another 60 years; maybe forever.

Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 2A: Epochal Architecture

Part 2B: When Tokyo Moved West

Part 3A: Asakusa Movies

Part 3B: Asakusa Opera

Part 4: The Mysteries of Zūja-Go

Part 5: How “Alice” Grew Big in Japan


  1. Lots of references in the first paragraph here, so I thought Id de-clutter it by moving them to a note: daimyō (大名), shōgun (将軍), Sengoku period (戦国時代, 1467–1600), Heian period (平安時代, 794–1185), The Tale of Genji (源氏物語), Meiji era (明治時代 1868–1912), Shōwa era (昭和時代 1926–89).
  2. In “Media Culture in Taisho Osaka”, Japan’s Competing Modernities
    Issues in Culture and Democracy, 1900–1930
    , Sharon A. Minichiello, ed., 1998.
  3. In “The Gender of Nationalism: Competing Masculinities in Meiji Japan”, The Journal of Japanese Studies, 2002.

Jack Burton: Anti-White Savior

The unlikely journey of “Big Trouble in Little China” from box-office flop to cult classic

I saw Big Trouble in Little China (BTiLC) upon its original theatrical release in 1986. The critics did not like it. Roger Ebert wrote:¹

[S]pecial effects don’t mean much unless we care about the characters who are surrounded by them, and in this movie the characters often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds […] straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.

What the ever-perverse Ebert saw as one of the film’s strengths, its special effects, were actually pretty cut-rate. Boss Films contracted to do the work for less than $2M. As a comparison, Ghostbusters spent more than double that, $5.7M on SFX with Boss two years earlier. This made for some pretty cheesy effects, notably a D&D Beholder-type animatronic, and a demon-ape suit, both of which stood out as the dismally floppy latex creations they were. The animatronic was actually fairly sophisticated, apparently, operated by several puppeteers and using dozens of cables controlling its facial expressions and there was also a specially designed matte system used to film it. All of which sounds like a massive waste of money, since it was on screen for only a few minutes and didn’t look at all good. Still, Ghostbusters’ Slimer was similarly cheesy.

As to Ebert’s claims about stereotypes, a boycott of the film as a “white man’s product” in which Asians’ roles were minimized was also called for, seeming to agree with his point.

Nor was Newsweek’s David Anson a fan:²

[O]ne can’t help feeling that Carpenter is squeezing the last drops out of a fatigued genre.

This falls even farther from the mark: BTiLC was the first of something brand new. A big-budget Hollywood martial arts film had never been made previously and contrary to Anson’s gloomy predictions, many have been made since. Indeed, one of BTiLC’s troubles was it was rushed in order to not be eclipsed by another American chopsocky flick, The Golden Child, which, with Eddie Murphy’s star power, was expected to dominate Christmas. The Golden Child was the eighth-largest grossing film of the year, raking in $79.8M in domestic BO. The film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is 26%/ 47%, so one can see how big a factor Murphy’s draw was on the release, even though it was clearly not very good.

Meanwhile, audiences seemed to have validated the criticisms of BTiLC; it grossed only $11.1 million in North America, failing to earn back even half of its $25 million budget. It had seemingly been relegated to the trash heap of history.

Director John Carpenter was quite annoyed with all of this as well as the lack of marketing support from the studio (Fox) who he said “didn’t get it”:³

The experience [of BTiLC] was the reason I stopped making movies for the Hollywood studios. I won’t work for them again. I think Big Trouble is a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of it. But the reception it received, and the reasons for that reception, were too much for me to deal with. I’m too old for that sort of bullshit.

So just to quickly recap: the effects were cheesy, it included dubious “Chineseness”, it had been rushed to market, and it was disliked by both critics and audiences. I liked it immediately.

For some reasons why let’s back up, way up: I was a kung fu kid.

It probably started with The Monkey King (《西遊記》). The title is typically translated as Journey to the West, but the book from my childhood was named for the main character. My copy, which I still own, is a weird one: it’s a massive quarto not likely intended as a kids’ book. It was (I later learned) required reading for a class my mother took on Asian Literature. It’s an Anglo-Czech effort, translated into Czech by Zdena Novotná (credited as editor), and then into English by George Theiner, with Chinese-esque woodblock-esque illustrations by Zdeněk Sklenář, and published in 1964. But when I read its title, even though it sat high on the top shelf, I was intrigued—what or who is this king of monkeys?

All this happened before I had mastered reading—the title was about the limit of my abilities—so I demanded it be read to me.

And what was inside was something new. Although I was a big fan of several kinds of mythology, I could tell this was different. Sun Wukong (孫悟空), with his glittering eyes, magical staff, and mischievous personality, eating the peaches of immortality, roasting in Lao-Tzu’s (老子) furnace, rebelling against heaven, including a battle of transformations similar to Loki’s in Norse Gods and Giants, fighting demons, and walking on clouds—all this was, if not already up my alley, my new alley forever.

Today my bookshelf boasts not only that original volume but Arthur Waley’s Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, and two different nicely illustrated versions of the quelling of the White Bone Demon (Monkey Subdues the White-Bone Demon, by Wang Hsing-Pei, and Monkey and the White Bone Demon, by Jill Morris), as well as a silver-and-cloisonne statuette of old Sun I found in Hong Kong. I also originated a design for a game based on the book, which did get made, though I can’t speak for the results as I had moved on by then.

Returning to my childhood, in the early ’70s, I saw The Magic Serpent (怪竜大決戦) on TV by chance some Saturday morning at my grandmother’s house. I don’t think I immediately associated the two experiences, but now I was seeing things that looked like what was in the book: dudes hiding in trees and underground, flying through the air, transforming into giant monsters—oh yeah!

I wanted more. On weekend mornings and evenings, when I had access to a TV, I’d troll the UHF dial, and when video rental places started appearing, I’d search their Action sections for anything even vaguely Asian—with many disappointments. There were also some bright spots, like when I was in high school and WGN showed Five Deadly Venoms (五毒)—you could tell who the cognoscenti were: the ones trying to imitate the moves of Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad in the halls. And eventually there was Samurai Sunday, which showed different martial arts movies weekly on Channel 66.

When I was a student at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I discovered a run-down theater a few blocks away called the McVickers that showed these films back to back to back all day long for a buck. Every time I had a break between classes, it was the best dollar I could ever spend.

Built in the early ’20s, the McVickers was once a lovely neo-classical building with live theatrical performances. When I went there, it was barely ahead of being shut down in 1984, and then demolished in 1985. Its fluted columns were overshadowed by a rundown, garish, tacked-on marquee with two-foot-high red letters blaring titles like 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Fistful of Talons, Shogun Assassin. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had stumbled across a rare, authentic, classic kung fu palace grindhouse.

Hollywood producer and Chicago native, William Horberg recalls the place thus:⁴

It was like a rock concert with the audience of mostly drunk or homeless people shouting out to the screen as if they were interacting live with the characters in the movie.

The floors were sticky, the films were dubbed and subbed in a variety of languages from the familiar to the obscure, the seats threadbare or just plain broken. I’d generally end up seeing the end of one movie and the beginning of another, so I often had no idea what was going on. None of these things mattered; it was glorious. Later, another US wuxia (武俠) flick, The Last Dragon, captured the kung fu palace grindhouse vibe in its opening scene. My brother made the connection and took to calling me Bruce Leroy for a while. As a note, wuxia is a film genre similar to kung fu, but with fantasy elements instead of the grittiness usually associated with the latter.

I studied Asian martial arts: Kenjutsu (剣術), Northern Sil Lum Kung Fu (北少林), Wushu (武术), Eskrima, and Ninjutsu (忍術), but gravitated toward esoteric “internal” martial arts like aikido (合気道), t‘ai chi ch‘üan (太極拳), hsing i ch’üan (形意拳), and pa kua chang (八卦掌). I’ll apologize for this mishmash of Mandarin and Cantonese forms, as well as varying Romanizations—I’ve used the names by which I learned them. They were hard to find at first, and honestly, one of the things that attracted me to San Francisco. Not that I’ve ever used it particularly, apart from occasionally abusing tiles in Hongdae (홍대)—that’s not even the point. One of the reasons I enjoy fencing is it’s a martial arts-based sport where you can go all out and no one dies.

Turning back to BTiLC, its Rotten Tomatoes score is 82%/ 83% despite initially bombing at the BO. When it was released for home video, it slowly began to find its audience. In 2001, a special two-disc special DVD set was released to reasonably positive reviews. Entertainment Weekly particularly favored the:⁵

[P]itch perfect Russell and Carpenter commentary, which delves into Fox’s marketing mishaps, Chinese history, and how Russell’s son did in his hockey game.

Its cult status has seemingly only increased since then. 2012 saw the creation of a parody of “Gangnam Style”⁶ featuring BTiLC’s antagonist, “Lo Pan Style”, racking up over a million views. In 2015, Funko released a line of vinyl figures of characters from the film and in 2016, BOOM! Studios marked the film’s 30th anniversary by launching a comic book series and a pair of books, The Official Making of “Big Trouble in Little China” and The Official Art of “Big Trouble in Little China”, which have to have set a record for time between a movie’s release and the publication of such matter. Entertainment Weekly noted in an article about the former book,⁷

It’s interesting how, one by one, all of John Carpenter’s commercially disappointing films are being elevated to the status of beloved cult classics.

And even though, as one of the authors, Paul Terry, responded, “Oh, man, he is the master”,⁸ BTiLC was a tough one for even the master to tackle.

Novice screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein originally envisioned the piece as an oater set in turn-of-the-last-century San Francisco: the protagonist’s horse was named Porkchop, which was to morph into Burton’s truck, The Pork Chop Express. Carpenter and Fox saw promise, but knew changes needed to be rung. W.D. Richter, known for The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a cult classic in its own right, was tapped for the rewrite. Even though he is only credited with having “adapted” the script, he set in place the major elements of the work as filmed, and continued on as Carpenter’s script doctor during filming.

Carpenter took his own editing pass through the script, aimed at removing material offensive to the Chinese, as well as playing up the screwball comedy he saw among the characters:⁹

The characters are offbeat, nutty. They remind me of the characters in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks people.

His approach to the wuxia fantasy elements was, naturally, influenced by his experience of the genre (even though he misidentifies it):¹⁰

I saw my first kung fu movie in 1973. It was—what the hell was the name of that thing?—Five Fingers of Death! It was truly an astonishing film. There was an innocence to these movies and a joyousness that I loved. I wanted to bring all that to Big Trouble.

He cast some of the biggest names in the Asian acting community: Dennis Dun and Victor Wong, both of whose work in Year of the Dragon had impressed Carpenter, James Hong, who had been acting since the ’50s with a credits list as long as your arm, and then Carter Wong with over 60 martial arts films under his belt, as well as a who’s who of Asian martial arts actors including Jeff Imada, James Lew, George Cheung, Al Leong, Gerald Okamura, and Dan Inosanto.

I’d say BTiLC was to Asian actors what The Blues Brothers had been to Black musicians; if anything, even more so. Hearing the rumblings from the Asian community about how they assumed a Caucasian director was going to handle Chinese themes and roles, Dennis Dun said:¹¹

I knew I had a responsibility, being an Asian-American actor. I talked with John Carpenter, and you could tell that he didn’t want a disparaging image of Asians. I’ve been on sets where you go there and you feel like you’re a second class citizen sometimes. But on that set you felt like you were part of the team.

And Dun said of the cast:¹²

I’m seeing Chinese actors getting to do stuff that American movies usually don’t let them do. I’ve never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film.

Black Belt magazine, covering a cast reunion in 2015, reported Hong said:¹³

[T]he filming of Big Trouble in Little China will always be near and dear to his heart because it marked the first time in his 60-plus-year film career that he’d been part of a (practically) all-Asian cast in a big budget American movie.

As Hollywood no doubt required, Carpenter cast Anglo leads—exactly three non-Asians, and that’s all: Kurt Russell (Jack Burton), Kim Cattrall (Gracie Law), and Kate Burton (Margo). Burton commented:¹⁴

Kurt Russell, and Kim Cattrall, and I were [virtually] the only non-Asian actors in the movie. I was aware at the time that it was pretty extraordinary.

And even these roles are far from traditional. Burton’s is a minor role, Gracie is a lawyer, and Margo, her friend, a journalist. Cattrall was also pleasantly surprised her character wasn’t a damsel in distress:¹⁵

I’m not screaming for help the whole time.

Russell’s character, rather pivotally, was not intended to be the hero riding in to save the day. Instead, Carpenter wanted to reverse the traditional roles of white protagonist and minority sidekick. For all his swagger, Jack’s actually a blunderer, and often requires saving himself. His catchphrase is, “What the hell?!” and not in the devil-may-care sense, but in the I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-on one. And indeed he has far more questions than he does answers. Wang Chi (Dun), on the other hand, is shown as quite skillful and heroic, apart from a minor lapse at the start of the film when he fails to cut a bottle in half with a knife, which is important in getting the film’s plot rolling.

Russell was very clear on who the hero was:¹⁶

The real lead was Wang.

Carpenter concurs:¹⁷

Jack Burton is a guy who is a sidekick but doesn’t know it. He’s an idiot-blowhard. He’s an American fool in a world that he doesn’t understand.

Meanwhile, Dun was worried about his role and his inexperience:¹⁸

It was only my second film. I was very nervous taking a part like this. John Carpenter always said, “Don’t worry, you’re fine, just be a hero, don’t worry about it.”

There’s a great supercut on YouTube of all the questions Jack asks in the film—the upshot is there are a lot. He’s a stand-in for the uninitiated American viewer, and even for Carpenter himself: he’s not here to explain the genre, nor to fix it, being no more competent than any other roundeye in this regard, instead just being true to it and presenting it to the best of his ability.

When Burton says “I don’t get it”, Lo Pan responds:

Shut up, Mr. Burton! You were not brought upon this world to “get it”!

SFX guy Steve Johnson said Carpenter threw him off the set for repeatedly ruining takes because he couldn’t stop laughing at this line.

And on set, the process was highly collaborative, with actors ad-libbing a great deal of the action. Carpenter relied on them to help figure out what worked. Russell came up with knocking himself out by shooting out a chunk of ceiling, and Hong also recalled:¹⁹

The director did not really know exactly how we should portray the battle scene between [Victor Wong] and I. But Victor and I had seen all these old Chinese films, where the two opponents would fight each other with this hand magic, where things would come out of their hands. That’s an old Chinese fable-type of magic-fighting. So, Victor decided to throw balls at me of fire, and I invented that I would cross my little fingers and little rays would come out. And Carpenter put that in the film.

After the good guys have won, and Jack is preparing to ride off into the sunset, he says to his companion:

We really shook the pillars of heaven, didn’t we, Wang?

And they all did, in a film that reversed typical roles, the first-ever presentation of a US wuxia with a huge Asian cast and a big Hollywood budget. Dun was hoping this is what his career was going to be like:²⁰

[M]aybe […] I’ll keep getting more interesting roles that are beyond the stereotypes of Asians. But it didn’t happen.

Even though Hollywood didn’t change—hasn’t changed—and things went back to how they normally were, BTiLC did indeed rattle the firmament. Wang responds,

No horseshit, Jack.


  1. Roger Ebert, “Big Trouble in Little China”, Chicago Sun-Times, July 1986.
  2. David Ansen, “Wild and Crazy in Chinatown”, Newsweek, July 1986.
  3. “Timecode Classics: Big Trouble in Little China”, Comix Asylum Magazine, July 2014, quoting a Starlog interview I couldn’t find.
  4. William Horberg, “The Lost Movie Theaters of Downtown Chicago”, William Horberg (blog), February 2011.
  5. Marc Bernardin, “Big Trouble in Little China”, Entertainment Weekly, May 2001.
  6. PSY,〈강남스타일〉(“Gangnam Style”), 《싸이6甲 Part 1》(Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1), 2012.
  7. Clark Collis, “See exclusive behind-the-scenes photos from ‘The Official Making of Big Trouble in Little China’”, Entertainment Weekly, May 2016.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lee Goldberg, “Big Trouble in Little China”. Starlog, May 1986.
  10. Clark Collis, “Big Trouble in Little China oral history”, Entertainment Weekly, July 2016.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Lee Goldberg, “W. D. Richter Writes Again” Starlog, June 1986.
  13. Jason William McNeill, “Big Trouble in Little China—The Reunion”, Black Belt Magazine, August–September 2015.
  14. Collis, July 2016.
  15. Goldberg, June 1986.
  16. Collis, July 2016.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.