Harsh, arrogant, and woefully incorrect by today’s standards (the Germans were “huns,” Filipinos he called “googs”) Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell was the kind of general who fought almost as hard with friend as with foe. Some British troops wanted to shoot him. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, whom he called “Peanut,” eventually helped force him out of his command in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.
Yet Stilwell, as polarizing as George S. Patton in real life, may be just the figure to fill theater seats in both the United States and China—or so goes the thinking behind a new film project being backed by China’s Pegasus Media Group in partnership with the Hollywood producers Michael Shamberg and Alan Greisman.
On Thursday, Pegasus chairman Jianjun Sun is expected to join Shamberg and Greisman in announcing an agreement to begin work on an action-drama based on Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Stilwell and the American Experience in China. The book, which was first published in 1971, wrestled with the complexities of a military leader who trekked out of Burma to escape the Japanese, fought with underling Claire Chennault over the efficacy of his air war, and infuriated Chiang while winning enough loyalty among Chinese soldiers to be remembered today in China as a hero, with his own museum in Chongqing. (According to The New York Times, Stilwell, in the sort of tribute at which he excelled, once declared Washington to be “as big a pile of manure as Chungking was.”)
The project, which has yet to find its screenwriters, is among the first to tap a $100 million development fund recently formed by Pegasus and the China Film Group’s China Film Company unit. Han Sanping, former chairman of the China Film Group, will be an executive producer. Greisman, who is represented by Paradigm’s Bob Bookman, and Shamberg, represented by CAA’s Jonah Greenberg, will collaborate, after having worked together on films like Modern Problems and Heart Beat much earlier in their careers.
And, if all goes well, General Stilwell, as the project is titled, will eventually emerge as a Chinese co-production with an audience in the United States, access to China’s theaters without regard to that country’s import quota, and a story that will fulfill a key requirement of the new development fund, by matching Chinese and Western cultural elements—as vinegary as those may sometimes be.