Sunday 4 March 2007

Fires on the Plain (1959) Kon Ichikawa

There's not a lot left of the Japanese Imperial army in the Phillipines in 1945. Most are dead and the rest are too busy foraging for food to fight. Private Tamura has been sent to the hospital with TB but sent back three days later, prompting his squad leader to tell him that there isn't enough food, he can't carry his weight and that he should therefore return to the hospital and commit suicide if they won't let him back in. Of course the hospital won't let him in this time either, because as far as they're concerned if he can walk he's too well to be there. They're overflowing with seriously injured men as it is. He takes up with a few others too sick to fight but too well to get into the hospital, which is very quickly destroyed by enemy fire anyway. So he finds himself on his own, unable to go back to his unit and unwilling to kill himself.

This has to be one of the most realistic war films I've ever seen, mostly because the only name I know here, director Kon Ichikawa, who made The Burmese Harp, wanted maximum authenticity, so deliberately starved his cast and barred them from attending to matters of simple hygiene. He did keep a number of nurses on set to protect against serious malnutrition or illness, but I'm sure that his actors hated him for it while probably not coming to an appreciation of what he achieved until later. Then again, The Burmese Harp came three years earlier, so maybe they were merely willing to go through the hardships in order to be in a film by the same director.

There are scenes of great power here, that don't require words and preachiness. When the bombs start falling on the hospital, the doctors run quickly out of there, carrying anything of value, while the injured start rolling out of the hut as quickly as they can which is notably not very quickly. It's all quite pathetic but then again it should be in an anti-war film. A troop of half dead soldiers struggles along the road, all drop when a plane flies overhead and strafes them, then half get up and carry on. There are no theatrics here at all, just people doing the only thing they can: move, drop, move. Don't worry about those who can't carry on, just keep going. When a soldier passes a pair of boots in a puddle, he takes them and leaves his own which are in worse condition, but the next few soldiers to come along do precisely the same thing because theirs are even worse still.

Now I really need to see The Burmese Harp, because if it's better than this it's got to be awesome. This one is unforgettable.

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