Malaya (1949): Thorpe’s Fact-Inspired Adventure, Starring Tracy and Jimmy Stewart

Richard Thorpe directed Malaya, a fact-inspired adventure tale, set in colonial Malaya during WWII, co-starring Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart.

The film was based on Manchester Boddy’s plan to get rubber out of Japanese-held Malaya after a fire destroyed large part of the US government’s supply of raw rubber at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company in Fall River, Massachusetts.

The film, originally titled Operation Malaya, was developed by Dore Schary at RKO, but when Howard Hughes rejected the idea, it moved to MGM.

This was the first time James Stewart worked with Spencer Tracy since his debut film, Murder Man, in 1935 in which he had a minor role (sixth billing).

In January 1942, a month after the US entered World War II, reporter John Royer (James Stewart) , goes to see his friend, newspaper publisher John Manchester (Lionel Barrymore), about a scheme to smuggle rubber out of Japanese-occupied Malaya.

Though selected by the government to deal with the rubber shortage, Manchester needs to be convinced by government agent Kellar (John Hodiak).

Royer needs the help of his old friend, Carnaghan (Spencer Tracy), who is in Alcatraz (where Royer’s newspaper exposé had landed him). They slip into Malaya and contact Carnaghan’s associate, the Dutchman (Sydney Greenstreet, in his last screen role), who recruits a gang of cutthroats from customers in his saloon, including Romano (Gilbert Roland).

Carnaghan also renews his acquaintance with the saloon’s singer, Luana (Valentina Cortese) from Italy.

Using money and intimidation, they succeed in purchasing all the available rubber, but eventually the Japanese commander, Colonel Tomura (Richard Loo), finds out.

On the last trip to transport the remaining rubber belonging to part-German plantation owner Bruno Gerber (Roland Winters) to a freighter, Carnaghan senses an ambush. Royer decides to try going around the ambush, but is killed by the waiting soldiers.

Tomura says would be willing to look the other way and let the rubber go in return for gold. Despite the Dutchman’s certainty that Tomura is lying, the cynical Carnaghan takes him up on his offer. The Dutchman is right; Carnaghan is captured by Tomura.

He takes Tomura to where the freighter lies hidden, but when a Japanese warship arrives, it is met by PT boats, which sink it with torpedoes. Carnaghan shoots the soldiers guarding him, then Tomura, but he’s wounded.

When Malaya is liberated by the Allies, Kellar tracks Carnaghan down to an island, where he has settled down with Luana, to give him a medal. Carnaghan refuses the medal, and tells Kellar to give it to the Dutchman.

The movie was moderately successful at the box-office.