Dr. John Hathaway (Gregory Peck) is recruited by the CIA for a tricky undercover assignment in Red China. It seems the Chinese have almost perfected an agricultural enzyme that could allow crops to grow in hostile environments like mountains and deserts. Such an enzyme would allow China to gain absolute control of the world's mass food production market. Hathaway is a close friend of the man who invented the enzyme, revered Chinese professor Soong Li (Keye Luke). He is also considered by the Chinese as the one man who can help them to add the finishing touches to the formula. This is great news for the CIA, who need someone they can send into China to get close to those involved in the production of the enzyme without arousing suspicion. Hathaway agrees to do the job for them, and a microchip transmitter is implanted into his head which is capable of visually and aurally relaying everything he witnesses during his time in China. What Marshal Shelby (Arthur Hill) of the CIA doesn't tell Hathaway is that the transmitter in his brain is also wired up to a small explosive device, so that if the mission looks destined to fail or if it looks like he might fall into enemy hands his head can be blown off at any time simply by pushing a button!
The best thing about the film is Jerry Goldsmith's rousing music score, which adds excitement to scenes that actually, on most occasions, aren't very exciting. In spite of the fact that Peck is in continuous danger virtually every moment that he's in China, the film somehow slackens the suspense when it should be tightening it. Long periods of the film are tedious and uninvolving. Peck gives a passable performance as the unsuspecting "walking bomb", even though he's not really the right actor for the role, while Arthur Hill's eye-patched official overseeing the operation might have stepped right out of a book of spy movie clichés. In the finale, Hathaway flees for the border with the Chinese army in hot pursuit, while Shelby's finger hovers perilously over the all-important bomb button. It's a reasonably taut climax, but comes too late in the day to save the film as a whole. In summary, The Chairman has a few highlights but generally speaking it's one of those films that could have, and should have, been better!