Tag Archives: war movie

Admiral (Russia 2008)

Admiral Kolchak receives tribute from White Russian forces and proclaims himself 'Supreme Ruler'

Picked up by Metrodome for a UK DVD release, Admiral is an interesting example of the new Russian popular cinema that is now emerging in one of the fastest growing cinema markets in the world. This month Screen International has a feature in which analysts predict that the Russian box office will grow to as many as 300 million admissions by 2015 (from 165 million in 2010). If this happens it will see Russia as the fourth biggest market behind India, US and China. However, most of this growth is due to Hollywood blockbusters and local films still struggle to compete. Admiral has been the second most successful Russian film of recent years (taking $33.7 million in Russia) and it involves some of the same cast and crew as the other two most popular films The Irony of Fate 2 and Day Watch. The other important institutional factor to note is that the film is actually a 2 hour cut from a 10 hour TV mini-series. That’s an extreme form of compression by anyone’s standards.

Outline (spoilers – but this is a biopic!)

The Admiral of the title is Aleksandr Kolchak (1874-1920), an important historical figure in Russian history. Kolchak was first a polar explorer and then a hero of both the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the First World War naval engagements between the Imperial Navies of Russia and Germany in 1916. It is with these engagements that the film’s narrative begins. During celebrations of a naval victory, Kolchak meets and falls in love with the beautiful young wife of his friend and deputy. – much to the dismay of both his friend and his own wife. Following the Tsar’s abdication, Kolchak managed to retain his authority (largely through being sent to America to help the US Navy). He is able to return to the Russian Far East where he seizes control of the White Forces in the Civil War against the newly formed Red Army. Throughout this period his new love Anna attempts to be with him while his wife and son are in exile in Paris. The film narrative is book-ended by a scene set in the Mosfilm Studios during Sergei Bondarchuk’s production of War and Peace in 1964. Anna, who survived the Civil War but was then imprisoned, is now able to appear in public – but is a role in a ‘patriotic film’, even as an extra, appropriate?


An expensive production ($20 million according to Wikipedia) Admiral certainly looks the part – although it suffers like most modern ‘spectacular films’ from the problems of CGI battle scenes. Visually, it works best as a costume drama. The major problem is clearly the compression of the narrative which inevitably means that the story leaps about through time and space. I confess that apart from the two leads, I found it difficult to track certain characters through the narrative. Partly this was because of the strange experience of watching naval officers transmuted into army officers. If you don’t know the history of the Russian Civil War, I recommend at least an outline scan of events before watching the film. (The film does not purport to be an exact historical reconstruction.) It’s difficult to work out the extent to which the balance between the war combat/military planning narrative and the romance has been affected by the compression. I suspect that purchasers of the DVD expecting an epic combat film will be disappointed by the way in which the romance comes to the fore. The romance fails for me because Elizaveta Boyarskaya who plays Anna is certainly beautiful but appears to have little else in her performance that represents the passion the character feels for Kolchak. Konstantin Habensky who plays the Admiral is perhaps the most popular contemporary Russian actor and is believable as the central character, although he looks a little young. The obvious films that audiences in the West will use for comparison are Dr Zhivago (1965) and War and Peace (King Vidor 1956). Ms Boyarskaya doesn’t stand much chance up against Julie Christie or Audrey Hepburn.

For me the most interesting aspect of the film is its ideological work. It’s always an odd experience watching a film in which you find yourself being asked to follow the exploits of the enemy when your own side is not being shown. Not that this is impossible since I’ve never really had a problem with supporting Sergeant Steiner and his men in Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron even if they are part of the Wehrmacht fighting the Red Army. But that’s because they are professional soldiers simply trying to survive and ignore the Nazi officer who they distrust. In the case of Admiral, however, we are asked to support a man who became what some commentators have termed a proto-fascist dictator as ‘Supreme Chief of Russian Forces’. His own ideology seems to be church and ‘homeland’, expressed in patrician and aristocratic terms. The film makes no attempt to humanise the Bolsheviks and they are represented as little more than thugs in most cases – apart from some of the guards in the final sequence. I did quite like the ways in which the guards struggled to find different ways to address the Admiral in the new language of the revolution. ‘Mr Kolchak’ was the last one I think (according to the subtitles).

It’s a shame that the film doesn’t give us the whole story as Kolchak’s early life is intriguing. A character with more shades to his personal character might be more interesting. As it is this seems like a crude attempt to valorise a Putin-like figure. Channel One was a major funder of the film and I think this TV channel is still majority owned by the Russian state. Possibly the TV mini-series has more nuances and contradictions but if you want a corrective to this view of the Civil War I recommend Miklós Jancsó‘s The Red and the White (Hungary 1968). One last point – the image at the head of this post shows the British and American flags. There is, I think, little knowledge in the UK of the part played by Churchill in particular in sending British forces and encouraging other allies to support the Whites in 1918-9 and to try to strangle the Russian Soviets at birth.

A Russian trailer (with English subs):

The Eagle (UK/US 2011)

The 'Seal People' – from somewhere in the West of Scotland. That's Tahar Rahim under the white powder.

A beautifully photographed film with good central performances, The Eagle seems to lose its way in the final third. After being engaged fully up to this point I suddenly realised that I couldn’t imagine how the story could end without some kind of implausible outcome – and, of course, that is what we got. That’s a shame but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the rest of the film.

The Eagle is an adaptation of the first of the famous historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was written in 1954 and has since garnered a legion (sorry!) of fans both young and old. I didn’t read it as a child, but I think I’ve always known about the stories and this particular title. The premise is simple and concerns a Roman legion that appears to have disappeared somewhere in the North of Great Britain (i.e. the largest of the ‘British’ Isles) around 110 AD. The ‘lost legion’ brings dishonour to the family of Marcus Aquila, a young centurion who vows to find the lost standard of the legion and what happened to his father in the hope that this will restore his family’s honour. In the first part of the film he proves his valour in Britain but is injured and it is only later that he sets out north of Hadrian’s Wall with only his British slave Esca to search for ‘the Eagle’, the large bronze bird which topped the standard.

The problem for the script is that the original story appears to have included a great deal of detail about the routines of Roman military life. The film goes for a downbeat ‘realist’ look (which is nevertheless ‘stylised’, especially through lighting) photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle for director Kevin Macdonald. This isn’t the Roman world of the Hollywood spectacular or even of Gladiator (a film I thought was let down by its over-use of CGI).  Macdonald made his name as a documentary director and at times life in the fort felt like a documentary reconstruction – but there wasn’t enough narration or graphics (save the odd scroll map – in English) to help us ‘see’ how the Roman occupation worked. I think that the film falls between two contrasting aspirations. It isn’t an all-out entertainment film with bloody action and military plotting, but it also isn’t credible as a historical film about a specific period. It opts instead for the other conventional narrative of the son wanting to redeem the reputation of his father, so what we get is a character-driven film about heroism and honour. Perhaps a bit more attention to Kurosawa’s similar historical films might have helped?

Politics are very important in the presentation of the story. In a Guardian feature, it is conceded that Sutcliff’s novel was written when the UK still had an empire and somehow she felt able to side with a Roman character who seems to have a very ‘liberal’ relationship with a British slave. Since I didn’t have a classical education, the Romans for me are just imperialist invaders and I automatically side with the ‘Ancient Brits’ and especially the Celtic peoples of the North. Director Kevin McDonald has emphasised the possibility of this reading by casting Americans to play the Romans. This is an interesting ploy which reflects a more realistic view of which identity represents contemporary imperialism. Just an aside, but it is interesting that the Germans, the French under Napoleon (?) and the Americans have tended to adopt the eagle but the English have usually favoured a lion or John Bull – a way of refuting Roman influence? Anyway it is a nice change to have the Americans as the educated bad guys and the Brits as the guerilla fighters. It was an interesting idea too have the young Frenchman Tahar Rahim (from Un prophète) as a Celtic warrior but he’s hardly recognisable under the warpaint. The other quirk in the casting is that Mark Strong, a British actor, has to adopt an American accent to confirm that he is a Roman.

The ‘star’ of the film is supposedly Channing Tatum who is quite likeable but for me the completely wrong physical shape for a Roman legionnaire. He’s almost square in shape with a thick neck and upper torso that I presume comes from gym work but just looks wrong. Jamie Bell on the other hand looks wiry but muscular. I had my doubts initially but he convinced me over the course of the film. Besides the cinematography itself, the other ‘star’ of the film is the landscape. Budget considerations were presumably the reason why both Scottish and Hungarian locations feature with added CGI. Though it is possible to see differences between the three, overall I was impressed with the way landscape was used.

I haven’t yet seen Neil Marshall’s earlier take on the same story (Centurion, 2010) but it would be interesting to compare the two films. With the appearance of Valhalla Rising last year, action stories set in the British Isles seem to be in vogue. Perhaps somebody should think about a new ‘Hereward the Wake’ film – but not in the mode of Ridley Scott’s strange Robin Hood please.

Guardian editorial commenting on The Eagle

Official US trailer for the film:

What War May Bring (Ces amours-là France 2010)

Ilva (Audrey Dana) with one of her lovers, Horst, a German officer (Samuel Labarthe)

Back in 2007 UK independent distributor Revolver had a big hit with the French thriller Tell No One. Since then they’ve tried to repeat the process with varying degrees of success (i.e. the romcom Heartbreaker). Revolver’s initiatives are to be welcomed if only because they are looking at ‘popular’ French product that the more art-orientated independents ignore. What then to make of this DVD release of the 43rd film by Claude Lelouch? I mention the ’43rd’ tag only because Lelouch himself tells us this in his voiceover that accompanies the credits. We also learn that he’s been in films for 50 years. He’s something of a forgotten figure in the UK, remembered mainly for Un homme et une femme which was an international smash hit in 1966 – and an Oscar winner. Twenty years later he offered a less successful sequel but apart from that his films haven’t been particularly successful in the UK. In France his critical reputation has never been high but his films are usually well-produced and often with big stars. Somebody has been watching those 40 plus films, so Lelouch appeals to certain audiences. His last big hit was Hommes, femmes, mode d’emploi in 1996 and What War May Bring lasted three weeks in the French box office Top 20 in September 2010 making around $2 million.

Revolver are trying to sell this film as a ‘war epic’ and indeed there are some action sequences of the D-Day landings and the final allied push into Germany in 1945, but primarily this is a story about a woman who “loves too fast”. This quote from the film might have provided a better title (the French title is not easily translated, but the original English title ‘What Love May Bring’ would have worked). The woman in question is Ilva who arrives in Paris as an 18 year-old refugee from Italy in 1936. Ilva’s mother marries a cinema projectionist but then dies a few years later. The film’s narrative is actually presented as one long flashback and it follows Ilva through the war years and into the postwar world. She loves ‘quickly’ and dramatically five men against the background of war – and cinema. The cinema scenes are beautifully rendered and a character clearly intended to be Lelouch himself appears as a small Jewish boy being sheltered by the projectionist and his daughter (this is a rather wonderful ‘live-in’ cinema with an apartment in the same building). The same boy appears as a grown-up film student in the 1950s, like Lelouch travelling to Moscow to shoot footage secretly and provoking a bizarre montage of seemingly all the love stories in Lelouch films which is inserted into the narrative! In fact the film is stuffed with these kinds of inserts and jokes about the history of cinema as well as posters and dialogue references to important films. Lelouch would like us to think that this is his tribute to cinema – his response to Truffaut amongst others – as much as his own experience of it.

There are several pluses in the film. Audrey Dana as Ilva is always watchable and holds the film together through her performance. She looks right for the part, ages convincingly and I could certainly believe that the male characters would fall for her. As well as the magical scenes set in the Eden Palace cinema (very effective screenings of classics like Le Jour se Leve and Hôtel du Nord in a beautiful cinema) there is music running throughout the film offering a history of French popular and romantic music – some of it composed by Francis Lai who has worked with Lelouch since the 1960s and some by Laurent Couson who plays a pianist and one of Ilva’s love interests in the film. The DVD looks great in CinemaScope. IMDB suggests that much of it was shot in Romania and there are certainly some epic sequences which reminded me of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Great War story A Very Long Engagement (2004). However, . . . I’m not sure that it works as a whole. Lelouch presumably sees this as his swansong. The publicity tells us it has been 10 years in the making. The cast and crew include several members of the extended Lelouch family. The story is written by Lelouch with Pierre Uytterhoeven also with Lelouch since the 1960s and Anouk Aimée (star of Un homme et une femme) has a cameo role. The tone swings between war, sex/romance, comedy and music. I hadn’t realised that Lelouch is from an Algerian-Jewish background and he draws on this for the elements of the film that seem to refer to the recent surge in films exploring the French Jewish experience of German Occupation. But these elements are only marginal to the central story, as are the plotlines dealing with the Resistance. Lelouch tends to lose the emotional impact of these narrative threads in switching to add something else to Ilva’s story (including an extraordinary sequence set in Texas). Researching the earlier Lelouch films suggests that this does seem to be his method – film narratives with lots of characters and romance relationships dependent on twists of fate. In a sense What War May Bring is essentially that – how some survive war and others do not all filtered through music, cinema and romance.

In short, if you are a Lelouch fan you should enjoy this. If you are simply a film fan you’ll be interested in the filmic references. Those intrigued by the idea of ‘popular’ French Cinema may find the film attractive and enjoyable in parts but not totally coherent and if you are a French film scholar you’ll find it to be a strangely fascinating generic hybrid with a rather absurd postmodernist edge as the ‘author’ inserts himself into the story.

The UK DVD/Blu-ray is released on May 2nd from Revolver. It will also be available for rent and online download.

The UK trailer can be downloaded here. It gives a good view of the battle scenes but not the central romance (and love of cinema).

Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin (Germany/Poland 2008)

Nina Hoss is 'Anonyma'

This film seems to have gone straight to DVD in the UK. I would have liked the chance to see it in a cinema and I feel that some of its power is diminished on video. Based on diaries first published in book form Switzerland in the 1950s and then controversially in Germany in 1959 (after which the anonymous author withdrew the book until after her death) the stories finally re-emerged in Germany in 2003. The film details the last few days of war in 1945 when a Red Army company finds itself camped on the streets of Berlin. The soldiers don’t know why their commanders are holding them back from a final assault on the Reichstag, but in the meantime they take advantage of the local population – which means casual rape of German women. For the women, young and old, there are few options. ‘Fraternisation’ is not a moral choice but rather the only pragmatic course. ‘Anonyma’, an attractive younger woman who speaks Russian (and has worked in Moscow as a journalist), decides to seek out a Russian officer as a ‘protector’ rather than suffer continual attacks from soldiers. What will happen when the war ends?

Nina Hoss is terrific as Anonyma but there are other strong performances as well amongst a large cast playing the women and the Russian soldiery. It’s one of those films which ‘humanises’ war and its effects. Anonyma is certainly a patriotic and nationalistic German, if not a fascist (she refuses to directly answer the question “Are you a fascist?”). Her husband goes to the Russian front with the SS in 1941. But despite this we feel for her and the actions she takes. Similarly, the film shows the brutality of the Russians, but also discusses the atrocities they have suffered at the hands of the Wehrmacht and particularly the SS. The Russian soldiers and their officers become individualised. The casting offers us a variety of Soviet ‘types’ from the grizzled officer through the Mongolian soldier to young blonde men and women (we learn that there are over a million women in the Red Army). Quite noticeable too is the surprise that the older Germans show when they realise that the Russians are not ‘beasts’ and their slow understanding that the Russians were forced into a war to defend themselves. On the other hand, it is not all friendly discovery and there is tragedy as well. The film is a challenge for women in the audience since the Russian men view rape as relatively trivial compared to the atrocities they have seen and suffered (and committed).

What interests me most is that director Max Färberböck and co-writer Catharina Schuchmann have so deftly blended several genres and somehow caught the contemporary mood – that sense that a younger generation now wants to explore many of the stories of the 1940s in Europe before the last survivors of the action are gone. In this sense the film sits alongside well-known titles such as Der Untergang (Downfall) (Germany/Austria/Italy 2004), Sophie Scholl: The Last Days (Germany 2005), Flame and Citron (Denmark/Germany/Czech Republic 2008), Black Book (Netherlands/Germany/Belgium 2006)  Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009), Fateless, (Hungary/Germany/UK 2005), Defiance (US 2008), Max Manus (Norway 2008), Un Secret (France 2007), L’armée du crime, France 2009) etc. – all released in the last few years. Most of these films have been big popular hits in their domestic markets. Anonyma has been turned into a TV series in Germany this year (which reminds me of the UK TV series Tenko which involved a group of European women put into camps by the Japanese in 1942 after the occupation of Malaya and Java). This is quite surprising since the Lumière Database suggests only a modest performance at the German Box Office.

The fate of women in Berlin in April/May 1945 has appeared in other films. The two I remember are Carl Foreman’s The Victors (US 1963) which ends with a fight over a woman between a Russian and an American and Fassbinder’s wonderful The Marriage of Maria Braun (West Germany 1979) – the metaphorical tale of a woman standing alone in the rubble of 1945 and what happens to her in Adenauer’s West Germany. (There is a brief moment in Anonyma when two Germans discuss the future they hope to see when the war finally ends.)

But whereas Maria Braun escapes the rubble, a whole genre of films developed in both East and West Germany in the months and years following the final days of war in Berlin. These were trümmerfilme or ‘rubble films’, the most famous of which is Die Mörder sind unter uns, the first post-war film in East Germany which deals with the problem of identifying former war criminals now living in a new society. Anonyma hints at this and raises questions about how she will survive. The most harrowing rubble film was arguably not German at all but Italian – Roberto Rossellini’s 1947 feature Germany Year Zero. One other point to make is that the contrast between the sunny (even when smoke-filled) streets outside and the dark and dingy rooms in which the women, children and old men hide recalls the high period of Hollywood film noir. Hardly surprising since this was the film noir period worldwide, both in terms of style and thematic. I was reminded of similar Japanese films set in the rubble of Japanese cities in the immediate aftermath of the war – both made in the late 1940s and in the 1960s – such as Suzuki Sejun’s lurid and delirious Gate of Flesh (Japan 1964). That would make an interesting contrast with Anonyma: Prostitutes in garish one-colour outfits versus the subdued realism/naturalism of Anonyma.

Lebanon (Israel/France/Germany 2009)

The view from the tank in Lebanon

This is the third highly celebrated Israeli film set during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to have appeared in recent years. It follows Beaufort (2007) and Waltz With Bashir (2008) and in 2009 it won the Golden Lion at Venice, the biggest prize so far for the ‘new’ Israeli Cinema.

This seemed to me to be the ‘hardest’ of the three, the most focused on ‘war really is shit’ and the least compromised by Israeli ideologies. It’s unfortunate then that a) I had to watch it during another week when the Israeli Defence Forces have killed Palestinians and aid volunteers on a Turkish ship in international waters and b) that it found itself at the centre of the boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival’s ‘Tel Aviv focus’ in 2009 (a boycott which I would have supported). Lebanon should be judged on its own merits even if the overall Israeli government policy should be condemned.

The film is unique in that apart from the opening and closing shots, the narrative is presented as either taking place inside a tank or as viewed through the tank driver’s or commander’s eyepiece. This intensely claustrophobic location is an important element in the story. Writer-director Samuel (Shmulik) Maoz was himself the gunner in a tank like this during the invasion and it has taken him more than 25 years to tell his story. Waltz With Bashir was made on a similar basis, but compared to Lebanon seems almost lightweight. I’m sure it isn’t, but in cinematic terms that’s how the comparison feels to me.

The plot outline of Lebanon is very simple. A tank with its crew of four – three who know each other and a new guy – is ordered to advance into Lebanon and join a small group of paratroopers. The paras officer is in overall charge and he leads the combined group into a village which has been bombed by the IDF (the ironically named Israeli ‘Defence’ Forces). But something has gone wrong in the planning and instead of a few Lebanese villagers, the group meets fierce resistance from Syrian soldiers. Can the Israelis extricate themselves – with the help of a couple of Phalangists (Lebanese Christians allied to the Israelis) as guides?

What follows is hard to watch but never less than engrossing. Conditions in the tank are awful but are made worse by the conscripts’ lack of discipline and professionalism. These films generally get criticised for their portrayal of young Israelis under pressure and the absence of any detailed representation of the Arab ‘other’ they are fighting. I don’t think that charge stands against Lebanon. We feel for both the solders inside the tank and those killed or made homeless by its actions. The ‘view from the tank’ becomes a powerful device on at least two occasions – the first when an elderly Arab man stares defiantly straight at the camera in close-up while next to him his companion at a café table lies with his head in a pool of blood and the second when a woman staggers out of a building and comes up to the soldiers. I confess at this point that I wondered if she was suddenly going to plant a bomb on the tank. The film teeters on the edge of a Hollywood-style narrative and a realist humanist representation. The latter wins out and the finest moments are those when the confines of the tank force actions of humanity onto the soldiers – such as helping a shackled prisoner to pee in a can. I’m reminded of my favourite piece of writing about war when, in Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes about seeing an enemy soldier running along his trench lines. Orwell knows that he should shoot him but when he sees that the man is trying to hold up his trousers and is clearly suffering from the runs, he asks himself “How can you shoot someone with their trousers round their ankles?”

Lebanon has had some mixed reviews. On IMDB, war movie fans and ex-soldiers complain that the film isn’t realistic in the depiction of the procedures the tank crew follow or don’t follow – which rather misses the point. This a representation of a nightmare. It isn’t about ‘winning’, it explains nothing about why the tank is there, it doesn’t set out to critique policies or politicians or military commanders. It uses a restricted cast and location to tell us something about the nightmare. What I think I will remember, as much as the stifling physical confines of the tank, are the noises – the hydraulics of the turret turning, the viewfinder changing its zoom setting, the roar of the engine and the explosions and screams outside, the orders barked over the radio and the occasional use of music. All of these should, I think, be experienced in the cinema. I suspect much will be lost on a TV set.

The Burmese Harp (Biruma no tategoto Japan 1956)

The Japanese soldiers in their prison camp are addressed by their music-loving officer. (Image grabbed by DVD Beaver.)

Ichikawa Kon’s The Burmese Harp is one of the films that promoted Japanese Cinema to the world in the 1950s. I’ve been waiting to see it for almost 40 years and it’s not available in the UK (although I discovered that it had been shown on BBC4 in 2002 – presumably when I was on holiday). It’s been available on a Criterion Region 1 DVD since 2007.

Taken from a novel written only a year or so after the events it covers, the film offers a beautifully photographed and sensitively played narrative about the moment of defeat and humiliation for the soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army in 1945. The novel by Takeyama Michio was intended as ‘young adult fiction’ and first serialised in a literary magazine. This might explain the fairy tale/folk tale style of the narrative.

Plot outline (possible spoilers!)

A company of Japanese soldiers are first seen crossing Northern Burma in an attempt to reach Siam (now Thailand), a Japanese ally (but actually occupied by the Japanese). This unusual company is led by a captain who is a draftee from a music school and who has taught the men to sing as a formal choir. One soldier, the company scout Mizushima, has learned to play a Burmese instrument, a saung or traditional harp which he carries on his back. The singing helps to keep up morale.

When the company reach a Burmese village, they seek shelter but are surprised by the approach of an Indian Army company. The Japanese sing to cover their preparations for the expected attack, but they are surprised when the Indians and British respond with the same song ‘Home Sweet Home’. Conflict is averted when the British inform the Japanese that the war has ended. The Japanese company are taken to a holding camp but the Captain persuades the harpist to undertake a mission (approved by the Brits) to try to get a Japanese company holed up in mountain caves to surrender. When they refuse, they are all killed in a final British assault and the harpist goes missing. He survives and is nursed back to health by a monk. Taking the monk’s robes he later decides to look for his comrades. His search and his comrades actions in trying to find him (they seem to have a fair amount of freedom in the camp) take up the rest of the narrative.

Here’s the trailer for The Burmese Harp:


The film is generally discussed in terms of Ichikawa Kon – as his first film to be seen in the West – and as a possible anti-war film in the context of 1950s humanist cinema (the dominant mode of international art cinema at the time). I’m not going to rehearse all of these arguments as there are some excellent reviews out there already, not least the two Criterion essays by Japanese Cinema experts Tony Rayns and Audie Bock. Of the two the Rayns is far more useful, I think – though that may be because it is more recent and attuned to the possibilities of internet publishing.

I want to develop some points that aren’t covered so much in these essays. Despite Rayns’ essay, there are relatively few British commentaries on the film and this intrigues me as the war in Burma and the experience of the Japanese occupation of Burma and Siam was more of a British than an American affair. The Errol Flynn film Objective Burma! in 1945 caused more offence to British audiences than most Hollywood films. It appeared at a time in 1945 when the ‘forgotten 14th Army’ in Burma were still fighting (or had just got leave in India). There is a long discussion on IMDB bulletin boards. I can’t remember if I’ve seen the film, but I’ve certainly been ‘warned off’ it. As far as I can see it is a quite legitimate film about an American Special Forces Group (cf.  Merrill’s Marauders (1962)).

My point here is not to criticise Hollywood but to explore the hurt felt by British commentators and audiences in 1945. The history of the Second World War in this South/South East Asian sector is perhaps the least known of all the major campaigns and the British in particular were humiliated by the early losses to the Japanese. 130,000 British, Australian and India troops surrendered to the Japanese in the three weeks of  fighting in which British forces suffered their biggest ever military defeat – losing Singapore and Malaya and then most of Burma with the Japanese advance finally halted in North-East India.

The experience of British POWs was terrible and is represented in several films, most famously perhaps in The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) but more interestingly perhaps in A Town Like Alice (UK 1956) and the TV series Tenko (1981) – both of which deal with European women held in Japanese prison camps. The notorious film of the period was Hammer’s The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and the ‘revised’ view came in the intriguing UK/Japanese production of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983) directed by Oshima Nagisa and starring David Bowie. In all of these films (and implicitly in a number of other action films and melodramas with a similar setting) there is a potential clash between British and Japanese culture. It manifests itself in several ways – the different military traditions, attitudes to colonialism, the position of women in society, attitudes towards religious beliefs.

When I was a child in Blackpool in the 1950s, I was particularly conscious of all of this as many young men from the town had been captured in Malaya/Singapore as part of the 137th Field Regiment and the stories about the Japanese prison camps were well-known. What did Ichikawa Kon know in 1956, I wonder? As Tony Rayns points out, the author of the original novel, like most Japanese in 1946, would not have been aware of what went on in the camps in Burma/Siam/Malaya. And it’s fair to guess that even by 1956, unless they were particularly interested in Western literature, most Japanese might not have realised the extent to which the Imperial Army misbehaved (the films over the next couple of years presumably created some sort of reaction in Japan). But surely by 1985 when Ichikawa re-made The Burmese Harp in colour, he would have realised how strange the film felt (he was using the same script-adaptation of the novel by his wife Wadda Natto)? The film was clearly shot partly on location in Burma (which in 1956 was a free nation and no longer part of the British Commonwealth – and not under the control of the military as today). Whether it was a second unit or Ichikawa himself, the shooting of temple scenes can be seen on the trailer. If he was in the country, Ichikawa must have learned more of what went on – I’d be surprised if the Burmese didn’t say something.

What we see is a Japanese company of soldiers presented like any other group of ordinary men pressed into military service. The only ‘fanatical’ soldiers are the Japanese that Mizushima attempts to persuade to surrender. The British, Indians and Australians seem remarkably composed, tolerant and almost bemused by the behaviour of the singing soldiers. The re-patriation of Japanese soldiers from the holding camp is orderly (and seemingly swift). In reality, many soldiers took months to get home and the British authorities had many other issues to deal with that were perhaps more pressing.

So, the narrative of this film feels almost like a fantasy. This doesn’t mean it has no relevance to what was happening in 1956 when it was released. But it might explain why some readings focus more on the spiritual undertones and the discourse of comparative religion. Burmese Buddhism is clearly different from the Buddhism in Japan, so that Mizushima’s adoption of a Burmese Buddhist perspective on the war and its aftermath is different from those of his comrades. At the same time, one of the most moving scenes in the film comes when Mizushima observes a Christian burial attended by a group of British nurses, seemingly for an unknown soldier. On his travels through Burma, Mizushima discovers the rotting corpses of Japanese soldiers in many places – in the mountains, by the river, in the forests. The local Burmese seem impassive, but do help bury the dead when Mizushima leads by example. We don’t see any British/Indian dead.

I’m trying to think about the Japanese films that are set abroad and specifically those that deal with the colonial/imperial relationship. I’m stuck really. I can remember a Naruse melodrama with scenes set in Indo-China where the protagonist is working for the Japanese Forestry service and there are some films which show the Occupation of China, but in neither case do I remember anything about the interaction between the Japanese and colonised peoples – e.g. in Korea, Manchuria, Formosa and then in Siam and the conquered territories in 1942-5. In this sense, The Burmese Harp stands out. Come to think of it, I haven’t really seen any Japanese films about being Japanese outside Japan in a peacetime situation. Anyone any ideas about films I should explore?

Tony Rayns points out that The Burmese Harp was released in two parts in 1956 with each part forming part of a double bill. The film was then cut down from 148 mins across the two parts to a single 120 minute film (which explains why it carries the Nikkatsu 1957 credit) for export. It would be interesting to know a) what was in the missing 25 minutes and b) what the films were paired with on release. I will look out for Ichikawa’s Fires On the Plains (about the war in Manchuria, I think). He is one of the most interesting Japanese directors of the post-war period and went on making films until 2006 – he died in 2008 aged 93.