The television movie, "Nightmare in Badham County" or as it is titled here simply "Nightmare," drew fire from American critics when it was screened in the United States in 1976. It was called racially inflammatory and full of gratuitous violence. Some ABC affiliates refused to air it.
Chinese officials, however, while critical themselves of excessive violence in Americans films, have booked "Nightmare" into as many as 15 theaters at once in large cities like this one and accompanied the film with pointed commentary in newspapers and billboards.
"Is it a nightmare? No, it is a bloddy social reality," said a special commentary displayed outside the cafe theater where the movie was shown here recently. The commentary summarized for passersby the story of two American female college students who suffer false arrest, rape, imprisonment and murder in a small southern town, without even getting to make a phone call. a
"In some people's eyes, the United States is an ideal kingdom of human rights and law, but in the movie it is a human hell," said the commentary, drawing attention on one of Shanghai's busiest shopping streets.
China's rabid movie fans bought 29 billion film tickets in 1979. At least 100 million people are estimated to have seen "Nightmare," for more than the number of Americans who saw the original made-for-television movie in November 1976. It illustrates China's contradictory, but still determined campaign to blacken the popular image of U.S. society and thus inoculate its people against the lures of capitalist life. Yet at the same time, China's diplomatic and military ties to Washington grow tighter and its schoolars travel by the hundreds to the United States for advanced study.
A spokesman for ABC international films division in New York said, "I'm sorry to hear that is the way the Chinese are handling it." He said the details of the sale of the film were handled by a company representative in London.
The Chinese so far have only been able to obtain a handful of Western films because they have insisted on a maximum one-time payment of $10,000 rather than a share of the gate receipts. Even at an averge movie ticket price of about 15 cents here, 100 million movie tickets would equal $15 million.
In conversations with about 25 Chinese students and workers during the last two weeks in five different cities, only three have said they had not yet seen "Nightmare."
"I thought it was very interesting. Is that really the way things are in your country?" one student asked.
Americans here have found in the last few weeks that Chinese they meet are eager to talk about "Nightmare." Chinese movie theaters often are jammed, but it was still surprising to find a theater on Peking's outskirts almost full for a showing of the movie at 10:30 on Friday morning.
An American journalist invited to lecture on the U.S. court system to Chinese students at Peking's journalism institute two weeks ago found herself deluged with questions about "Nightmare." Peter Kwong, a State University of New York professor teaching this year at Fudan University in Shanghai, said, "I just hate to go see it, but my students all want me to go see it so they can discuss it with me."
In the movie, dubbed in Chinese, a white college student played Deborah Raffin and a black student played By Lynn Moody take a vacation drive through the South. They happen to make fun of a lecherous small-town sheriff, played by Chuck Connors. The sheriff arranges for their car to be disabled, arrests them on a trumped-up charge of camping illegally, and rapes the black student in her jail cell. The corrupt local judge, played by Ralph Bellamy, sends both off to a women's prison farm. Neither has any chance to call her family. The prison is strictly segregated, with white prisoners enjoying some privileges.
Both women are tortured and beaten by prison guards but finally escape. Raffin succeeds in telephoning her father, but Moody is shot and killed by Connors. Her body is secretly buried on the farm, along with those of several other missing prisoners.
The shanghai commentator noted that a message at the end of the movie said such happenings "had caused comment in judicial circles."
"Such a dark society and such a sinister system are only causing some comment," he said. "That means that there is no way for that society to solve its own profound sins."
"Nightmare" is the most widespread and influential of a number of efforts made by Chinese authorities in the past year to blacken the image of a society most Chinese perceive as much richer than and in many ways freer than their own. The public effort at the same time to improve trade and diplomatic relations with the United States has left Chinese confused and weakened the movie's message.
Steve Allee, an American researcher in Nanjing, said he told a Chinese friend who asked about the movie that such events may have happened. "But do you know what conditions are like in Chinese prison camps?" he asked the friend.
"No," the man said. "Do you think you'll ever see a Chinese movie about your prison camps?" Allee asked.
"I guess not," his Chinese friend responded.