The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.

 

Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up – Szegénylegények (1966)

The Round-Up

I suppose when you’ve seen quite a lot of the well-known prisoner of war films and are fond of the genre, you’ll come across Miklós Jancsó’s The Round-Up aka Szegénylegények sooner or later. Not only is it an unusual example of a POW movie, but it’s considered to be a masterpiece of European filmmaking and was highly influential.

Miklós Jancsó is a Hungarian film maker. He started out with documentaries before he moved on to movies. He’s made a few famous films – The Red and the White – My Way Home and many others. The Round-Up was the movie that made him famous and is still considered to be his most important film.

The Round-Up is set in a prison camp, on some God-forsaken stretch of land on the Hungarian Plain (Puszta). It’s the mid 19th century and the Austrian hegemony has just been re-established after the unsuccessful revolution of 1848. The men who are held in this prison camp are suspected to be followers of the leader of the revolution Lajos Kossuth. There is still a lot of guerilla activity going on and the Austrians, helped by their Hungarian counterparts, try to find out who are the guerilla leaders. Most of them are suspected to be among the prisoners and the guards use perfidious and sadistic techniques to find out who they are. 

What we see applied in this film is psychological torture. People are promised not to be executed if they can find others who killed more people than they did. Or the guards pretend that a guerilla leader will be pardoned which makes his followers cheer. Of course they have been set up and that was a means to find out who they are.

Humiliation is part of the tactics used. We see how one officer is stripped of his rank, how the guards rip all the insignia from his uniform and while they do not harm him, it feels extremely violent. We later realize that this was foreshadowing as other suspects undergo a fate that’s similar but even worse. One girl is stripped and whipped until she dies. Watching the whipping of the girl triggers a flood of suicides. Later men are stripped too.

Torture is always humiliating but this subtle use of psychological torture is, although less violent, just as effective in that regard.

I have to be honest, I personally didn’t like this film, although it has a lot of poignant scenes, which I’m not likely to forget, but overall this isn’t my type of movie. It’s visually expressive but there isn’t much plot and hardly any dialogue. I don’t need action or plot but I like more atmosphere and dialogue. The Round-Up is all about forms, shapes, space and minimal movement. Plus it’s set in the type of flat landscape I’m really not keen on. That doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the film, I just couldn’t relate to it much. But it’s an important movie if you are either a cinephile or a war movie completist. I’ll watch The Red and the White and My Way Home next.

You can watch the whole movie on YouTube

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Empire of the Sun

I’ve read J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World and in his afterword he mentions his childhood in China, which reminded me that I still hadn’t watched Empire of the Sun, which is based on his childhood experiences.

Empire of the Sun is set in Shaghai, in 1941 and tells the story of a young boy. Jim’s (Christian Bale) parents, like so many other of the rich Brits living in Shanghai, didn’t react in time to the aggressions of the Japanese. Many thought that they wouldn’t risk anything as they were not Chinese; they believed they were protected by their status as foreigners and their money. But they were wrong. When the Japanese troops finally invade, it’s too late. Most of them try to flee, leaving behind their houses and all of their possessions.  In the general chaos, Jim loses his parents and has to fend for himself. At first he returns to their beautiful mansion, but the food is soon gone and he starts roaming the streets until he meets Basie (John Malkovitch). Basie is an expat just like Jim’s parents were but he’s a very different kind. A hustler, a thief, someone who lives from hand to mouth. He sees that Jim is from a rich background and decides to look after him. Whether there is some genuine kindness or pure calculation isn’t so clear at first. What is clear is that they get along like a house on fire. Jim is a precocious, extremely intelligent and crafty kid – also terribly annoying – and they complement each other perfectly.

When they are finally arrested by the Japanese and brought to a POW camp, they survive doing what they know best, dealing and stealing, and making money out of everything. The time at the POW camp is one of great liberty for Jim. He’s soon known by everyone and while he’s an obnoxious kid, they also like him and find him very useful.

Despite of the danger and captivity Basie and Jim are doing great for themselves, help each other out, or rather profit from each other. Still, the war leaves traces and when they can finally leave the camp, they are both altered.

I loved the beginning of this film, the cinematography is amazing and the story is fascinating. Basie and Jim are larger-than-life characters, the kind you admire and despise at the same time. At least I did. Christian Bale did an amazing job at portraying Jim. What an annoying kid that was. He talks and talks endlessly and while he’s crafty, he never knows when to stop or give it a rest. Basie is ingenious and maybe, he means well at times, but mostly he’s the type of character who will always be able to make money, preferably even through selling out others and profiting from their misery.

There are a few tense moments, but overall we often get a feeling that this is less a POW camp than a summer camp. I was wondering if that was because Spielberg tried to stay true to the boy’s point of view or whether these camps for civilians were not that bad.

It’s a highly watchable movie and one I will certainly watch again, but unfortunately, the film has a lot of typically cheesy Spielberg moments, which annoyed me. I still think it’s a beautifully filmed movie and a great story. I liked it, but  didn’t love it because I hate it when director’s manipulate us. Spielberg always does that, that’s why I don’t really like Schindler’s List and even think Saving Private Ryan could have been much better than it is.

Colditz (2005) British TV Miniseries

Colditz

Often when you expect nothing you’re in for a pleasant surprise. I’d read a few reviews that were critical of the 2005 miniseries Colditz and I expected it to be quite bad but must honestly say, I enjoyed it. Although, truth be told, for the wrong reasons. While the title may give the impression this is a POW series, that’s not the case, the POW part is only one story line. The other is clearly a romance. While the POW part didn’t work all that well, I liked the romance, or rather the tragedy.

At the beginning of the series we are introduced to the four main characters: Nicholas McGrade (Damian Lewis), Jack (Tom Hardy), his girlfriend Lizzie (Sophia Myles) and his friend Willis (Laurence Fox). Jack, Nicholas and Willis escape from a POW camp together. Willis and Jack are captured but Nicholas can make it to Switzerland. Before they are recaptured, Jack tells Nicholas to go and find Lizzie in London and tell her that he is alive. Jack is obsessed with Lizzie and the only thing he regrets is that he was too shy to ask her to marry him before he went to war.

While Nicholas is sent back to England, Jack and Willis are sent to Colditz castle which is said to be escape proof. Prisoners who frequently escaped from other prisons are brought to Colditz. In Colditz the two men meet the Canadian pilot Rhett Barker (Jason Priestley) who trades with different of the German guards. He will help them to escape, buying the silence of some of the guards.

Meanwhile Nicholas who has arrived in London has found Lizzie who is working as a nurse. He knew from Jack’s descriptions that she was a looker but he didn’t expect to fall for her. But he does.

The movie switches back and forth between the two settings. The prisoners make one attempt at escaping after the other and Nicholas tries to win Lizzie’s heart, only she loves Jack and wants to wait for him.

But then Nicholas has a shrewd plan how to win Lizzie despite her love for Jack. I can’t reveal more or it would be pointless to watch the movie.

I like Damian Lewis a lot and I think that’s to a large extent why I liked this series. But I also thought that Nicholas was a great, tragic character. He did a really bad thing and he paid for it but in a way, I think, most people can understand what he did and why he did it. I found it very touching.

The Colditz parts, as I said before, are much weaker. There are many reasons for that but one is certainly Jason Priestley. He’s just not a good actor. This is too bad because Tom Hardy and Laurence Fox are quite convincing.

Watch it if you’d like to see a tragic war romance, stay away if you want to see a movie focussing on Colditz only. Still, there is plenty of action and drama in the Colditz sequences too and interesting war related bits in the London parts. Overall it’s very watchable. Not everyone may like it as much as I did but I’m sure many will appreciate it. It is quite entertaining.

Sisters of War (2010 TV) The True Story of the Australian POW Nurses and Nuns

Sisters of War is an Australian TV movie based on the true story of Lorna Whyte and Berenice Twohill, a nurse and a nun who were held captive for several years by the Japanese during WWII. The film looks a bit “made for TV” but other than that I liked it. There are so many of these forgotten stories and it’s great when a director decides to bring them to our attention.

1942, Vunapope, Papua New Guinea, an Australian hospital camp and mission. Nurses and nuns help the wounded alongside the army doctors. When the troops withdraw, the doctors follow them to help them and, to everyone’s dismay, decide to abandon the nurses, nuns and the wounded. Some of the troops remain hidden in the surrounding forest.

The remaining sisters scan the horizon daily, hoping for the Americans to come to their rescue. When they see boats land they are at first extremely happy until they realize their mistake. The landing troops are Japanese and their mission is soon turned into a prison camp. In this mess and confusion two women, the nurse Lorna whose fiancé is among the troops hidden in the forest and the devoted sister Berenice become close friends and are a moral support for each other.

The months that follow are hard. The American bombard the mission thinking it is Japanese, while the Japanese rule with a fierce hand, punishing everyone who doesn’t comply and torturing and executing all the soldiers they capture. It’s particularly harrowing for Lorna when they capture her fiancé.

The food is scarce and the few buildings they have are constantly bombed. The mission has to be abandoned in the end. Bishop Scharmach decides to send the nurses away. They suspect that they have been sold as “comfort women” to the Japanese. This isn’t true but the plans the Bishop had, to have them exchanged against Japanese prisoners of war, doesn’t work and the nurses are sent to a labour camp in Japan.

I thought the movie was quite well done, not too sentimental and managed to show a forgotten story and is also a testimony to the great strength and courage of those nurses and sisters. As we are told in the closing credits, those nurses, as they were mostly not military nurses, didn’t get any recognition until quite recently.

It’s a nice touch that we see the real Lorna Whyte and Berenice Twohill, now elderly, sit together on a bench and chat at the end of the movie.

I really wonder how this could have happened, that the whole military, especially the doctors, just left those women on their own. They knew so well how the Japanese treated prisoners. At first I thought that the depiction of the Japanese soldiers was overly negative but towards the end, the portrayal is balanced.

The only instances in which you can see that it must have been a low-budget production is the make-up. They all look pretty odd but if you can forgive that, it’s a highly watchable movie, quite tragic but suspenseful and fascinating too.

Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010)

I wasn’t aware of this movie despite the fact that Peter Weir is one of my favourite film directors. I’m glad that The War Movie Buff told me about it.

Even though I like some of Weir’s older movies and also Master & Commander a lot, I didn’t expect anything before watching The Way Back. I’m glad I didn’t, I think I would have been very disappointed if I had.  I’m afraid it is Peter Weir’s weakest film ever. The story, based on true events, had a lot of potential, the actors were mostly well-chosen, the cinematography is stunning, the score is convincing and still…. There is something missing. I couldn’t help comparing it to another POW movie, also starring Colin Farrell, namely Hart’s War. While Hart’s War focuses on how the prisoners escape from the camp, The Way Back shows their long journey from the Siberian gulag to India.

The movie starts in Poland in 1941. Janusz has been captured. His wife denounced him under torture. He is a spy and sentenced to spend the next 20 years in a Siberian gulag. He’s a strong young man, optimistic, kind and resourceful. He makes friends in the camp, some tell him that it is possible to escape. He chooses a few who will follow him, they prepare their escape and one night they do it.

It’s a small group of seven people, headed by the spirited Janusz (Jim Sturgess). An American (Ed Harris), a Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), a Polish priest and others. One dies in the early days. The hardships of their journey are unimaginable. First they walk for weeks from the camp to Lake Baikal, then to Mongolia, the Chinese wall, across Tibet and into India. They cross the mountains and deserts, almost die from cold, hunger and thirst. After a few weeks, they are followed by a young girl who finally joins them. Some make it, some don’t.

On their way, each time they cross the border of a country, they see how far Communism has advanced. Since they escaped a gulag, they have to get to a country that is free of communism. The moment they enter Mongolia and then China, they know, they have to make it to India.

I’ve seen my share of POW movies. The Way Back is one of the weakest, it’s more a survival story that is told in a boring way. The fact that Colin Farrell was in Hart’s War (which I think was a bad movie here is my review) and in this one, made matters worse. One cannot help comparing those two movies and also see parallels between the choice of Ed Harris in this one and Bruce Willis in the other.

I guess you gathered that this movie left me pretty unfazed. It’s not bad it’s just lacking something.

If you want to watch a truly good newer POW movie watch Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (here is my review). Of the older ones I like The Colditz Story best.

La Grande Illusion aka Grand Illusion (1937) The Classic French WWI Movie

What took me so long to watch La grande illusion one of the greatest masterpieces of French cinema?  Jean Renoir’s black and white movie is simply one of the best movies I have ever seen, regardless of any genre. It combines so many elements, to enumerate them all would make a long list. Compared to La grande illusion every other POW movie seems to be just a remake. Every element of later films is already there but the message is a different one. This is a movie that probably wouldn’t have been possible with the same core message after WWII. When Renoir shot his movie, there was still ample room for positive German figures. We don’t see any nasty or cruel guards.  La grande illusion is a work of poetical realism. The two points of view go hand in hand.

The central story is the story of two officers Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a simple mechanic, and de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocrat, shot down together over Germany. They are brought to a prison camp where, thanks to the food parcels of one of their rich Jewish fellow officers, they live relatively luxuriously while the German guards eat cabbage day in and day out. The people they are sharing a room with have been digging a tunnel for weeks. While waiting for the tunnel to be finished, they spend their days rehearsing for a theater play, dreaming of women and civilian life. When Maréchal announces that Douaumont has fallen, they all sing the Marseillaise together. Maréchal is locked up for this act of instigation and almost goes mad in isolation.

Before they can put the tunnel to use, they are all sent to another camp. After different attempts to escape, Maréchal and Boeldieu are brought to burg Wintersheim. Officer von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) whom they have met before is in charge of the burg. Von Stroheim as Rauffenstein is one of the most memorable war movie characters. He has fairytale like, fantastic aspects. Von Rauffenstein has been badly wounded, his spine has twice been broken, he has silver plates in his body and wears a corset. He looks like an artificial being. He is an aristocrat through and through and recognizing the same background and upbringing in Boeldieu he takes an intense liking to him. Boeldieu, even though, stiff and formal as Maréchal often says, feels closer to the simple officers and wants to transcend the class differences. Even though he likes von Rauffenstein a lot, he still helps the other prisoners in their attempt to flee. Maréchal and Rosenthal make it and find refuge on the farm of a German widow (Dita Parlo). They cannot stay but Maréchal and Elsa still dream of meeting again after the war.

Renoir chose deliberately to show no violence. The war is spoken of, we never see it. His aim was to show a world that transcends differences. This is socialism of the purest kind, the one, that unfortunately only ever existed as an idea. Renoir wanted to show in how many ways people of different classes and nationalities are alike. The French prisoners make fun of the Germans’ constant repeating “Das ist strengstens verboten (strictly forbidden)”. It’s like a running gag all through the movie. A ritual. The Germans try to coerce the French and the French in excahnge make fun of them. Contrasting the attitudes of France and Germany towards obedience is one that we find in many older movies. It is also symbolised in all the interdictions that we see in the movie and in the barbed wire and fences. It’s a very funny movie at times. Fun that stems from the contrasts of the different classes and their use of language. The late, great Jean Gabin was always an outstanding actor, but here, as Maréchal, the simple mechanic, born in the 20th arrondissement of Paris (pure working class), he surpasses himself.  I really don’t know how they did the subtitles for this movie as they speak rapidly (I did watch the French version). Judging from the trailer, parts of the dialogues have been left out, nuances have been flattened. That is a pity. The use of dialogue and languages throughout the movie is a very realistic one. Germans speak German, French speak French, English speak English. Working class people speak like working class people, and the aristocrats like aristocrats.

As I said before, I don’t think a movie like this would have been possible after WWII. The illusion that everybody is the same at heart was shattered by then.

The illusion in the title apparently refers to the illusion of the class system. But I think there is another interpretation. Towards the end Maréchal says “We have to finish this war and hope that it was the last one” upon which Rosenthal utters something like “That is just an illusion, old man”. In 1937 is was already obvious that peace wouldn’t last forever.

La Grande Illusion is a movie that every cinephile needs to watch and possibly re-watch as it is multilayered and full of symbolism. Truly a work of art.