Sunday, April 01, 2012

WWII In the Philippines

This is where the class I am taking has gotten to - the Philippines, maybe the center of the American war in the Pacific. It's where the first extended fighting took place (for Americans) - scene of the biggest American disaster, at Bataan - and the key to driving the Japanese back, when the war turned our way. So it's gotten an extended treatment - a couple weeks, a couple films - it's a big deal.

The problem is, the films in class have been American films, and alas, pretty mediocre one at that. So Proudly We Hail is a 1943 film about nurses on Bataan - it has the merits of the times - it's a solid studio production, with a fine cast, and Mark Sandrich directing, and it even takes some effort to stay true to the nurses' story (which is pretty astonishing, when you get down to it.) Unfortunately, it couples this with a few bits of shameless melodrama, grafted on love stories, and a very dubious bit where Veronica Lake blows herself up to prevent capture by invisible Japanese. And - Sandrich doesn't seem to have the chops for it. He's a fine director when he has Fred Astaire to photograph - here, he seems pedestrian, and the film, though honorable enough, I suppose, feels awfully flat... The other film isn't much better - The Great Raid. This is the story of a raid by a Ranger company to rescue the last 500 or so prisoners at Cabanatuan POW camp - the last of the survivors of the Bataan Death March still in the Philippines, I think. It's a pretty astonishing tale - but the film manages to bloat it up and slow it down and sap most of the energy from it. Problem there is, it splits its attention between the rescuing Rangers, the POWs, and the civilians in Manila smuggling food into the camps. Particularly one Margaret Utinsky - a woman who definitely deserves her own movie, and a better one than this. The film works well enough when it sticks with the Rangers - but the camp scenes are sappy and predictable, and marred by an unjustifiable imaginary love affair - with the poor Miss U, whose 3 years of smuggling is compressed into the 3 days of the raid for no good reason. And that love story - sweet lord - what a cheap plot device!

It is a shame, I suppose, that no Americans have managed a great film about the war in the Philippines - it just so happens, though, that from the other side comes what is probably the single best film about any part of World War II - Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece, Fires on the Plain. This is set near the end of the war - on the island of Leyte, where the Americans landed before landing on Luzon (the main island of the Philippines, where Manila, Bataan, Cabanatuan are.) The film starts after the Japanese have been beaten on Leyte - the remnants are still there, some looking for a way out, some waiting to die. It follows one soldier, banished from his unit because he has TB, but banished from the hospital because he can still walk, as he wanders...

It's a death march to nowhere for Tamura and the others. It is strange how much the Japanese ended up reproducing the conditions they imposed on others. At the beginning of the war, they forced the American and Filipino prisoners from Bataan to march across Luzon, nearly starving to death - the Bataan Death March. At the end of the war, the Japanese soldiers were doing the same thing, on their own. That's what this film is - a death march - soldiers walk back and forth, a kind of quest with no purpose, waiting to die. Or more often - kill one another, to eat or be eaten.

It's important, though, that they do it to themselves - as much as they did it to their enemies. Behind it all is bad planning and bad tactics, and through it all, they are all at one another's throats. Ichikawa lays it on thick - these soldiers are constantly fighting themselves. From the very beginning - Tamura being slapped -

To the end (almost the end) - three soldiers killing each other -

The Japanese soldiers devour one another - figuratively as well as literally... I think this film is sometimes criticized for not taking sides - for not acknowledging the Japanese culpability in all this horror. But that doesn't seem fair. It's a film about soldiers, from the bottom up - politics would be out of place. I also think it reflects the divisions in Japan - it does seem that a lot of Japanese films about the war, at least the ones that come to the US, were made by liberals and humanists - the anti-war voices in Japan got to express themselves after the war. But while Fires on the Plain lacks the sometimes explicit criticism of Japanese militarism and its aftermath that can be seen in other filmmakers (Oshima and Kobayashi come to mind), it's hard to miss the way, even on its own terms, almost everything that happens to the Japanese soldiers is caused by Japanese actions. They all turn on everyone else, and Ichikawa, one of the great underrated craftsmen of film, shows it, all along:

They do run into the Americans, eventually - with disastrous results. And the guerillas - the fires on the plain... The Americans are dangerous - the Filipinos ruthless - but even here, Ichikawa leads us back to Japanese behavior. Maybe not directly, but indirectly, symbolically. Note that a total of 2 women appear in the film: one the Filipino civilian that Tamura shoots; one a Filipino guerilla who shoots a man trying to surrender. The latter may seem cruel - but the former reminds us who started that kind of thing.

And so - it is a great film. Brutal - harsh and sharp, devoid of sentimentality - strangely comic, but one of the most complete visions of human evil as there is. But not just evil. And all of it stunningly beautiful.

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