Representations of Asia in William Wyler’s “The Letter”
Asian culture and environment have always attracted film directors, offering an opportunity to explore oriental traditions. The movie The Letter, directed by William Wyler and debuted in 1940, is a perfect example of a motion picture that represents the aspects of Malaya culture. Based on a real-life story that originally took place in Kuala Lumpur, the storyline follows Leslie Crosbie, who is involved in dramatic events occurring in British Malaya (Wyler, 1940). As the plot develops, the audience learns more information about the Asian culture, its traditions, and the residents’ way of life, which are depicted in numerous scenes throughout the film (Miller, 2013). As such, the sequence at the very beginning of the movie and the scene in the home of Hammond’s widow excellently represent Wyler’s understanding of Asian culture and environment.
The starting scene of The Letter portrays the environment in which the drama will be taking place, allowing the viewers to get acquainted with the local atmosphere. The surroundings of a small Malayan rubber plantation are the first elements of the scenery presented to the audience, and their visual depiction plays a significant role in understanding Wyler’s portrayal of Asian culture (McGuire, 2012). As such, although the movie is black-and-white, the setting is clearly lush with greenery and palm trees. The plantation bungalow that appears in the scene and the barracks of the Malayan workers seem to reside in a tropical landscape which is an aspect of Malayan geography.
However, the sequence also depicts Malayan laborers, who are stationed in overcrowded, cage-like barracks comprised of light wood. The workers are clearly disadvantaged, having to live in small enclosed spaces with numerous other laborers, lacking any comfort (Miller, 2013). This aspect of Malayan life might hint at the fact that Malayan people were forced to work at the plantations, trying to survive under harsh conditions (McGuire, 2012). In this regard, not only do the workers have a low financial standing, but they are also presented as individuals of a lower social class, dependent on the British (McGuire, 2012). Although some Malayan representatives occupied more beneficial positions, which allowed them to work with the British representatives, the majority of the Malayan population remained employed at the plantations.
Another sequence that illustrates the characteristics of the Malayan culture occurs in the middle of the film. In this scene, Leslie arrives at the home of Hammond’s wife, a Eurasian woman who possesses the letter that Leslie must retrieve. As the protagonist and her companions enter the bungalow, the viewers are presented with the imagery of a Malayan home (Wyler, 1940). Although Hammond was British, his widow appears to be of Asian origin, and her cultural roots become evident when the audience observes the house décor (Miller, 2013). After entering the lodging, the characters see a middle-aged Asian man smoking a long pipe; his behavior and clothing are highly distinct from those of the British individuals and create a significant contrast (Wyler, 1940). Even though the man is said to know English well, he speaks in short phrases, with the words poorly connected and mostly consisting of verbs and nouns. This aspect demonstrates that the majority of Malayans were thought to barely know English, and those who did were still not fluent.
As the characters go further into the home, the viewers can observe the inner décor of the living quarters. Multiple windchimes hang from the ceiling, and the walls are decorated with Malayan art. The overall atmosphere hints at the idea that more well-endowed Malayan residents lived in a traditional manner, maintaining the connection to their cultural values. This aspect becomes highly evident when Hammond’s widow enters the room through a curtain made of rows of beads. The woman is dressed in a black dress illustrated with traditional patterns, her hair made into an Asian-style bun (Wyler, 1940). Furthermore, the widow is wearing multiple pendants, bracelets, and rings, which also manifest her connection to the Malayan culture and traditional lifestyle. Considering that the protagonist is wearing bright white clothing which covers her body and her head, the contrast between the widow and Leslie becomes even more apparent (McGuire, 2012). Through this distinction, the audience can observe the juxtaposition between Leslie, who represents the British residents, and Hammond’s widow, who is a part of the Malayan population.
To conclude, the two scenes from The Letter described in this paper perfectly portray how Wyler viewed the Malayan environment and population, offering the viewers the possibility to get acquainted with the movie’s surroundings. It is evident that the Malayan representatives are mostly shown as plantation workers who live in poor conditions and are significantly disadvantaged in comparison with the British. The limited use of English, lack of comfort, and the connection to traditional ways of living are the core characteristics of the Malayan environment. Additionally, the scenery of the film is also congruent with the idea of tropical Asia, a location covered by greenery and palm trees. Overall, these elements allow the audience to capture the atmosphere of Malaya, which surrounds the events of the film.
McGuire, J. T. (2012). Rending the veils of illusion: W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter” and its two definitive film interpretations. Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, 53(1), 7-21.
Miller, G. (2013). William Wyler: The life and films of Hollywood’s most celebrated director. University Press of Kentucky.
Wyler, W. (1940). The Letter. [Film]. Warner Brothers Entertainment.