For their third and final collaboration director J. Lee Thompson and Gregory Peck made The Chairman, a spy thriller about an anti-violence academic sent to Communist China to steal a plant enzyme. It is just exactly as exciting as that sounds.
Peck plays John Hathaway, a Nobel Prize-winning professor who used to do a little espionage on the side. He gave that and violence up altogether when his wife died in a car crash that caused him to realize all life is precious. But when the President calls asking him to go to China because they’ve developed a secret enzyme that allows crops to grow anywhere, under any condition, he can’t say no. Big bad China, you see, will use these super crops to take over the world. Or something. Or maybe they’ll just make a lot of money from it, and they shouldn’t do that because they are Commies! Don’t those red bastards know making billions on the backs of the impoverished is America’s job?
Before he leaves, the government implants a device inside his head which is so improbably dumb even Ian Fleming has to blush. It acts as a GPS and a transmitter so that they can hear everything he says. It can also monitor his vitals and blow his head off in case he is captured.
He flies to Hong Kong and sneaks into the mainland without a visa. A big deal is made out of this fact. If he is caught without a visa, he will be arrested. Or so they say. But as it turns out the Chinese officials want him there because while they have invented this super enzyme they have yet to figure out how to mass-produce it and need Hathaway’s help. They send a girl over to seduce him but before she can get his clothes off (and let's pause right here to notate that while I’m fine with Gregory Peck as a romantic lead, the thought of Atticus Finch being a sexy James Bond-esque player is somehow grotesque), some guys bust in and attack. The seducer then hits Hathaway on the head, knocking him unconscious. Why they send a girl to seduce him and a gang of ruffians isn't explained.
They take him to play table tennis with Chairman Mao who declares that China will, of course, share their secret sauce with the world and end hunger. The Americans (along with the British and the Russians because what’s a spy film made in the 1960s without those two?) debate whether to set off the bomb in Hathaway's head then and there as it might also kill the Chairman.
They decide against it, and Hathaway pretends to work with the Chinese while secretly stealing the formula. This leads to a desperate run across Mongolia to the Russian border all the while a literal ticking time bomb scenario runs down (for reasons that defy all logic except movie logic in order to detonate the bomb inside his skull a clock must tick down 30 seconds). I’ll let you figure out whether or not Gregory Peck survives the ordeal.
Peck is a fine leading man and a great actor, but he makes for a lousy action hero. He’s just not built for it. He has too much gravitas. You have to take him seriously, which is death for a movie about a school teacher playing ping pong with Chairman Mao while the government debates whether or not to detonate the bomb inside his skull. Thompson is a fine director and he’s able to create some real suspense, but he also plays it too serious for material that just doesn’t deserve it.
It works well enough as a lazy weekend afternoon movie where you can enjoy the light suspense, silly plot shenanigans, and the pretty, decidedly not Chinese scenery (it was shot on the Wales countryside) as long as you don’t expect much else.
Twilight Time presents The Chairman with a 1080p transfer and an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Extras include an isolated music track (the music was written by Jerry Goldsmith), an audio commentary with film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Lee Pfeiffer, a mini-film featuring various outtakes, and two alternate scenes from the International Version.