Fires on the Plain

5ktNHhaExfhysweGFg6JzMlBmEH

Years ago I read an absorbing, horrifyingly moving novel called Fires on the Plain by Shohei Ooka. It was a look at WWII in the Pacific showing aspects of war that left me stunned. When I saw the DVD in my library, I had to check it out.

Directed by Kon Ichikawa, who switched careers from graphic arts to film, Fires on the Plain was a powerful, timeless look at war, particularly World War II in the the Philippines. The main character is Tamura, who’s got TB, and returns to his unit after the hospital sent him away. They’re only taking patients with food and curable diseases at the hospital. Back with his comrades, who don’t want another mouth to feed, his superior shouts at him, gives him a few yams and a grenade. His orders are to return to the hospital and convince them to take him. If that doesn’t work, and it’s unlikely that it will, Tamura is to use the grenade to kill himself.

Like the other soldiers, his clothes are beyond tatters, his shoes are falling apart and he has little to eat. He knows his orders are impossible. So he leaves and wanders. He’s not sure where to go, and he doesn’t have any valor or philosophy or loved one’s to live for, but he’ll evade the fires the Americans (or is it the locals) set off before they attack. His desire to live is as thin as a razor’s edge, but he’ll trudge on. Along the way he meets a Filipino brother and sister in a deserted village. He winds up shooting the girl. Her brother runs off and in the distance black smoke rises from fires. It’s best for Tamura to make a run for it.

Tamura continues to flee. Along the way he meets fellow soldiers, all soldiers for an army that’s all but lost. There’s no food, no plans, no leadership, and no trust of each other. The only person Tamura can trust, sort of, is Yasuda who said he was going to surrender, but towards the end of the film is still psychologically tethered to a mean, unpredictable older soldier who’s probably lying when he says he can’t walk and he has no weapons. This trio stays together, but not only does Yasuda sleep with one eye open, he sleeps in a hiding place far from the old man.

The film is filled with beautiful and poignant scenes. One I’ll never forget is when it’s pouring rain and Tamura is with a group of soldiers planning to go to a city where the Americans are to surrender. When they come to a soldier lying dead in a puddle, another soldier whose shoes are full of holes, removes his shoes and takes the dead man’s. Then Tamura reaches the corpse with the shoes beside it. He picks up the discarded shoes and looks through them. Eighty percent of the soles are gone. They’re useless. So are the shoes Tamura’s own pair, which he removes and proceeds barefoot. Later when Tamura encounters another corpse. As soon as he establishes the man is dead, the takes his shoes.

The film has no ideology or message. It simply shows the affects of a particular war, which is unique in some ways and not in others. The soldiers know they’re losing and they trudge along. They keep going without having the least idea why. The lack of morale or trite reason to live, makes the characters all the more heroic in a very modern sense.

The hardship the characters experience was hard to watch and I had to take several breaks. I think I saw the film over three days. Still I’m glad I did. I’ll definitely look for more Ichikawa films.

If you’re interested, I found the film with English subtitles on YouTube.

Advertisements

Army of Shadows

An amazingly powerful film, Army of Shadows shows the ordinary people joined the French Resistance and courageously opposed the Germans during WWII.

From the solemn beginning with German soldiers goose-stepping in front of the Arc de Triomphe to the bitter end, when . . . oh, I won’t say, Army of Shadows grabbed me.

After the opening sequence, we meet Gerbier, who’s sitting in the back of a German truck getting transported to a prison camp. Scenes of ordinariness follow. The truck driver makes a stop to pick up provisions from a farmer. Gerbier’s guard makes small talk to let Gerbier know he’s going to a “good” prison camp. At the camp, Gerbier is housed with two groups of prisoners, the first three amuse themselves with dominos and chit chat and seem to be and to have been men who just go with the flow. The other two prisoners are a young communist and a dying Catholic teacher. The division reflects French society, two groups, one that’s earnest and sickly and the other that’s lively, but superficial. Neither one gets much accomplished. Thus Gerbier sets his own course and doesn’t join either “side.” He’s the lone, strong, sensible man.

960__army_of_shadows_blu-ray_8

Gerbier is transported to the Nazi headquarters and manages to escape. Then as he meets the other members of the Resistance, we watch as Gerbier leads a plot to abduct and kill the young man, who betrayed the Resistance. ordinary people plan and organize what would be criminal acts they’d never undertake in ordinary circumstances.

All the actors deliver compelling performances. The story presents a fascinating look at history and was quite controversial when it was released in France in 1969. Critics were divided on the film because of its controversial portrayal of the Resistance fighters, who sometimes act like very intelligent gangsters.

What’s amazing about the film is how little action it contains. In certain instances there are chases and attacks, but that’s subordinate to the characters’ thinking, sacrifice and courage.

This film was so compelling that after I finished watching I started watching again, this time with the commentary running.

The Bridge over the River Kwai

How did I miss this one? I just finished watching the classic The Bridge over the River Kwai starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I’m blown away. Every scene was perfect in this story of Holden’s Shale, a jaded American officer who’s at odds with Guinness’ a British commander’s absolute, unstinting adoration of following codes and rules.

I remember the whistling and the powerful ending from my childhood. I was no more than 6 and annoyed at a family party where all the adults were enthralled by this film. Now I appreciate why as Holden and Guinness deliver perfect performances in these two characters, who couldn’t be more different. They’re conflicts aren’t direct as they’re rarely in the same scenes, but they’re central to the film’s theme.

Both characters are prisoners of war in a Japanese camp run by the brutal Satoo who must get a bridge built in a few weeks. The work is far behind schedule. Satoo operates on the Japanese ancient military code of Bushidoo. which runs contrary to the Geneva Convention, which Guinness insists upon. Guinness shows his dedication to duty when he refuses to let his officers work on the bridge. He’s willing to spend days in a metal box, called the “Oven” to stand up for this belief. You have to admire his courage.

Holden’s Shale looks for short cuts and sees the futility of the war. He has his points, but neither character is clearly right or wrong, which is the key to why the film is so absorbing.

(I wonder how my students would view this film which shows the Japanese as cruel not just to the Chinese, but to the Allied soldiers. I wouldn’t show it because I don’t want to spread anti-Japanese sentiment, which made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but is outmoded now.)

No Regrets for Our Youth

a947a29bfc3ed938e70c5aac1106418b

Directed by Kurosawa, No Regrets for Our Youth surprised me as it’s the story of a young woman by a director whose prolific body of work otherwise emphasised male characters. The heroine Yukie is carefree and playful at the start of the film. She has no use for anything serious. The film opens with Yukie strolling through the mountains with her father’s university students. When they come to a shallow creek, she halts and waits for someone to rescue her.

Noge, a very political, man of action carries her across the water that seems about three inches deep. On the sidelines looking awkward is his friend Itokawa who has feelings for Yukie, but is too shy and unsure of himself to do anything. Yukie likes teasing men more than anything and  plays Noge and Itokawa off each other.

As political tensions rise in Japan leading up to WWII, Yukie’s father is fired by the government because he’s spoken out against military aggression. Made after the war No Regrets for Our Youth, contains several scenes with characters discussing the importance of academic freedom, free speech and the importance of self sacrifice when working towards a greater good. Both Yukie’s father and Noge, who is arrested and imprisoned pay for their ideals.

After seven years, Yukie leaves her hometown Kyoto, to work in Tokyo. Here she bumps into Itokawa who’s continued to play it safe. He’s a lawyer and is married. He’s kept in touch with Noge, who’s just been released. Now Yukie’s matured somewhat and when she sees Noge again she’s willing to give up a conventional life to risk life with a rebel.

Soon Noge is arrested and she’s imprisoned, questioned and eventually released. We’re not entirely sure of what Noge did with his underground work but he says that in 10 years the Japanese will thank him and Yukie. From then on Yukie’s life is full of hardship, hardship she voluntarily takes on despite protests from her parents and Noge’s parents. It’s amazing to see someone who was such a flibbertigibbet turn into an honest to goodness heroine.

While the film was made early in Kurosawa’s career and lacks the mastery of later films, No Regrets of Our Youth tells a compelling story and enlightened me on anti-war protests in Japan prior to and during WWII.

Jeux Interdict, Forbidden Games

Forbidden-Games-22168_9

Set in WWII, Jeux Inderdict (Forbidden Games) follows Paulette, a girl of maybe 5, who’s fleeing Paris with her parents. Refugees run along a country road as I suppose they do now in the Middle East. As war planes bomb a bridge, refugees seek cover. Paulette gets separated from her parents as she runs after her little dog. Soon, both parents and her dog are killed by German bullets. Paulette’s left to wander amongst the refugees.

Eventually, Paulette crosses paths with Michel Dollé, an older farm boy who’s searching for a cow that’s scared by the bombs and shooting. Michel brings Paulette to his poor family and they take her in. There’s no other place for her to go, other than to the neighbors, whom they view as snobs. The father does not want the neighbors to get a good write up in the local paper for taking in a war orphan.

Though he’s probably about 9 or 10, Michel’s the most educated of his family. He knows all the prayers by heart and regales Paulette with facts about animals and religion.

forbidden-owl2

Paulette’s been carrying around her dead puppy and Michel convinces her to bury it. When Paulette sees a cross in the Dollé’s house, she’s curious. She never knew what they were for. Thus Michel leads Paulette to build their own private cemetery in a deserted mill and they begin to steal crosses from wherever they can get them–graves, churches, hearses.

The adults can’t understand who’s taking the crosses and the rivalry between the neighbors grows.

All in all, Forbidden Games  is a natural, haunting film that mixes innocence, war, poverty, generosity and faith. It’s a simple, yet profound film, one I doubt anyone could make today.

The Two of Us

thetwoofusbignew_web

Claude Berri’s autobiographical, The Two of Us is a gem set during WWI in France. It opens with Claude, a mischievous boy, stealing a toy tank from a toy store getting chased all around. Claude finds trouble at every turn driving his father to distraction. Because since they’re Jewish, the safest path for the family is to lay low, but Claude constantly calls attention to himself with his troublemaking. A family friend arranges for Claude to go live with her Catholic parents.

The problem is that “Grampa” is quite a bigot and spouts all sorts of anti-Semitic slurs. Claude is coached to hide is religion so he’ll be safe in the countryside. Nonetheless, he’s mercilessly bullied for being the new kid from Paris. You just can’t win.

Based on the director’s own childhood experience, there’s a sophisticated treatment of a close relationship that grows in spite of prejudice. Played masterfully by Michel Simon, Grampa loves this boy and takes him under his wing, dealing with his troublemaking with patience Claude’s father couldn’t muster. Berri chose Cohen to play Claude while visiting a Jewish school and seeing him getting into trouble in class and later hiding from the principal behind some curtains. The shoes poking out from under the curtains gave him away. A natural actor, Cohen brings a realism to his understated performance.

TheTwoofUs1967-Still3

The Two of Us, as Truffaut commented, shows how most French people lived during the war, those who weren’t in the Resistance or helping the Germans. People just going about their business; people who could be both kind, loving, and yet be hindered by ugly beliefs. It’s a deft film that can portray bigotry without supporting hatred all the while showing the goodness mixed in with the prejudice.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD, as usual, includes insightful short interviews that deepen one’s understanding of the film.

If you liked Claude Berry’s later films, Jean de Floret or Manon of the Spring, you’ll love The Two of Us.

Ministry of Fear

Poster

Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) gets released from a mental institution where he’s lived since he was charged with euthanasia of his sickly wife. His train makes a stop in a country town and at the urging of a kind conductor he steps out and goes over to the nearby country fair. He sees a fortune teller and wins a cake. This leads him to getting in trouble with Nazi’s who chase him and frame him with murder. He can’t trust anyone as everyone he meets — even a pretty, warm-hearted woman who runs a charity for widows and orphans with her brother — seems ready to turn him in.

Set during WWII Franz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944) is brimming with tension and suspense. The plot moves quickly and takes Neal to one creepy, yet sophisticated experience after another. Nothing is what it seems. While I read that Lang wanted to make an overtly anti-Nazi movie, the script writer didn’t provide him with the sort of horrible Nazi he could rail against. Based on a Graham Green novel, I found the film compelling. Green wouldn’t agree, I’ve learned. He thought it was awful, but then Green’s a perfectionist and master.