Late for Nowhere

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Burma 1945: Three cinematic takes

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The third edition of The Myanmar Times weekly magazine was published on Armed Forces Day (March 27), so we went with a military theme. I contributed three stories to this edition, including these brief reviews of three World War II films set in Burma in 1945:


Objective, Burma! (1945)

Objective, Burma! was released, exclamation mark and all, while World War II was still raging in the Pacific. It begins with newsreel footage of the “Jap-infested jungles” of Burma – “the toughest battleground in the world” – before segueing into a fictional story about a group of US paratroopers who drop behind enemy lines to destroy a Japanese radar installation.

With Errol Flynn portraying squad leader Captain Charles Nelson, this is old Hollywood in all its stylized quirkiness: The jungle scenes were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, and the soundman compensates for the lack of exotic locale by going hilariously overboard with the hooting-monkey and trumpeting-elephant audio effects.

The battle scenes are tidy – squeeze the trigger and 10 enemy soldiers fall down, bloodless but stone-cold dead – and Flynn himself is a bit too languid and debonair: He never really demonstrates the rugged bravado one would expect from a captain tasked with leading a critical raid into enemy territory.

But Objective, Burma! was not merely for entertainment; it was a propaganda film in which moviegoers were asked, without a hint of irony, to buy into the view that the “Japs” were “stinking little savages” who deserve to be “wipe[d] … off the face of the earth” – a harbinger of the obliteration of two Japanese cities which came just six months after the film’s release.


The Purple Plain (1954)

Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck) is an RAF pilot with a death wish: On bombing runs over Burma, he flies straight into enemy fire, miraculously surviving even as those around him get shot up as a result of his actions. He wants to die, he says, but keeps on “[getting] medals instead”.

The other servicemen in his unit think he’s a lunatic. Forrester’s problem, however, is not madness but heartbreak: His wife died on their wedding night when the Luftwaffe interrupted their post-nuptial London soiree by dropping bombs on it.

Forrester longs for his own demise – until he meets a Burmese nurse named Anna (Win Min Than, in her only film role) who works at a Christian mission hospital and whose angelic appeal is cinematographically enhanced by the use of soft-focus effects on every close-up shot of her face.

Just when Forrester has someone to live for, well, wouldn’t you know it, Death comes a-knockin’. His plane goes down en route to Meiktila, and he and two other battered survivors must slog across the sweltering badlands of central Myanmar.

The prospect of exotic love inspires Forrester to fight for his life, while family man Blore – who had boasted about his wife and kids waiting back in England – spirals into hopelessness and despair. It’s a decidedly Kiplingesque take on the love story theme, where a “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land” holds greater appeal than the drudgery of an inevitable return to the “blasted English drizzle”.


The Burmese Harp (1956)

More so than the two other films reviewed here, The Burmese Harp tells a story in which Burma is central to the plot. The main character is Mizushima (Shoji Yasui), a harp-playing Japanese soldier fighting in Burma who gets separated from his unit. Wounded and wearing robes stolen from a Buddhist monk, he tries to make his way back to his company only to stumble across battlegrounds strewn with decomposing bodies. He determines to remain in Burma, wandering the land until all the war dead are given proper burials.

Director Ichikawa’s training as a graphic artist is evident in his superb sense of composition. The shots of Mizushima crossing the wastelands of Burma are sublime in a way that is sorely lacking in The Purple Plain’s over-dramatised survival scenes.

Burmese people are omnipresent in the film; they are usually seen staring impassively at the antics of the Japanese. The repetition of these close-up shots is initially baffling, but the director’s intention becomes clearer when a Japanese prisoner observes that Mizushima the monk “never had such a vacant look” when he was a soldier.

This is the transcendent gaze of people who have already seen too much blood, death and horror, and who have given themselves over to remaining untouched by the suffering of the world. As a Buddhist says to Mizushima during his painful transfiguration from soldier to monk, “The British and Japanese can come and fight as they wish. Burma is still Burma. Burma is the Buddha’s country.”



Written by latefornowhere

April 2, 2015 at 3:23 am