Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939)

Sometimes you wonder just why you do a certain thing. As I write this, for example, I have just spent most of last week in a make-shift dojo, training ju-jutsu at the annual Swedish summer camp. I was very much out of practice before the week started, and come Friday I felt like I was going to die, or at least fall apart.

Ju-jutsu (which can also be spelled “jujitsu,” “jiu jitsu”, or a great many other variants; but never “jujutsi” or “jui-jitsu”) is a martial art that had its peak way before the martial arts became popular on film in the 1970s. Consequently, there are only a handful of movies where ju-jutsu is an important element. Mostly it is only mentioned in passing in dialogue.

Such mentionings can be very interesting, however. They tell us something about how ju-jutsu is and has been perceived in popular media. It turns out that the most common movie usage of the word “ju-jutsu” (regardless of spelling) is to explain someone’s expert fighting skills, but it is almost as common that another martial art is mistakenly identified as ju-jutsu (implicitly suggesting the other art’s superiority). The oldest example I have found of this latter use is in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in this piece of dialogue after having rescued a man from being beaten up:

“I’m deeply grateful. It was wonderful!”
“Being very simple. Judo, often miscalled by foreigners ‘jiujitsu’.”

Peter Lorre and Robert Coote in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto was originally a character in a series of novels. In the 1930s, the character became a series of films, although quite different from the books. Peter Lorre, an excellent actor who was often given roles much below his ability, here plays a Japanese agent of the International Police – an early James Bond of sorts. Caucasians who play Asians are very rarely convincing, but Lorre does a good act.

The film begins as Mr. Moto arrives at Port Said, Egypt. He soon becomes involved in trying to reveal a plot to start a world war between England and France(!). The story is full of logical holes (in particular in the light of later historical events), but thanks to good dialogue, some charming supporting characters and Lorre’s splendid acting it nevertheless turns into a pleasant little mystery, well worth watching if you enjoy 30s mystery films. (But of course you do!)

The martial arts in the Mr. Moto series should not be compared with those seen in the later martial arts boom, or in more recent high-budget ventures such as The Matrix (1999). It consists chiefly of spectacular but poorly executed judo throws such as seoi nage, tomoe nage, or the odd kata guruma (see the image below).

So what about other uses of the word “ju-jutsu” in films? Turns out there are very few. I have seen a couple of cases where it is used to emptily boast that someone is a good fighter, and once as a deliberately bad pun (Not Another Teen Movie (2001)). On film, ju-jutsu is essentially only available to the good guys. The only exception to that rule that I am aware of is in the strange and unique propaganda movie Stage Door Canteen (1943), wherein we find the following wonderful line:

“They can talk all they want about the Jap jujitsu, but a marine will tell you it doesn’t work against a roundhouse right to the jaw.”

Concerning Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, this film is best enjoyed if you have an hour and a quarter to kill and need some light entertainment.

Peter Lorre's stunt double executes a kata guruma in Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939)

Mr. Moto’s Last Warning
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Norman Foster
Stars: Peter Lorre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (505 M)

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