Tag Archives: war films

Fires on the Plain

Fires on the Plain
Fires on the Plain

Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Writer: Shin’ya Tsukamoto

Based on the book by: Shohei Ooka

Original title: Nobi

Japan 2014

87 mins

War is hell! But that cliché is often contained in a more mundane frame. In Terrence Malick’s 1998 The Thin Red Line the battle for Guadalcanal is soothed by philosophical voice-overs and magic hour photography. The same year Saving Private Ryan had Steven Spielberg seek to justify the bloody horror of war with a broader ‘good war’/ ‘greatest generation’ frame. Clint Eastwood’s twin films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are remarkable for their shifting perspectives and ambivalence, but as with the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific, there is a sense that each film is careful of its historical context. Authenticity is as much concerned with uniforms and hardware as with the lived experience of war.

Fires on the Plain offers something quite different. Shin’ya Tsukamoto presents a tubercular nightmare vision of war in all its bloody ferocity. This is an infernal internal vision. Private Tamura (Tsukamoto himself) racked with TB is a dead man walking, staggering from field hospital, where he is refused treatment, back to his unit, where he is beaten because he is too sick to forage for food. ‘If they turn you away again, kill yourself with the grenade,’ his commanding officer tells him. But some feint erotic memory keeps Tamura clinging to life and he flees into the jungle as the Americans launch another attack.

Everything we see from Tamura’s perspective is heightened with the same mad subjectivity that carved Tsukamoto’s punk body-horror Tetsuo a cult niche. The jungle is a painful emerald green, so gorgeously fecund and vital as to make it seem impossible that these men are all starving and rotting away. The enemy is an invisible power striking with God-like impunity from the skies, and even when the soldiers are drawn into battle on the ground they first unleash a God-like bright light onto proceedings, before the machine guns and bullets begin to churn up bodies once more.

Taken from Shohei Ooka’s novel Nobi – already filmed in 1959 by Kon Ichikawa – Fire on the Plains tears to shreds ideas of Japanese military honour. There is scant Bushido here. All cohesion and discipline has broken down, and madness grips the tattered remnants of the army. Isolated from his unit and ever closer to death, Tamura is pushed to the extreme, stripped of everything that makes him human, wandering the jungle looking for escape. Like John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), the film attains the power of fable as Tamura descend through a paradisiacal landscape into a realm of the dead, where the survivors are reduced to cannibalism, gnawing on each other like something from a Goya canvas.

Fires on the Plain screened as part of Black Movie Festival 2015.

John Bleasdale

La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion

Format: Cinema

Dates: 6 April 2012

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Dates: 23 April 2012

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jean Renoir

Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir

Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim

France 1937

114 mins

To mark the 75th anniversary of La Grande Illusion, Jean Renoir’s most successful film, Studiocanal and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse are releasing a new, digitally restored version. It is very moving to see a classic film so skilfully restored, the image as clear and blemish-free as if it were made yesterday, the soundtrack without the hint of a crackle. Jean Gabin and Erich von Stroheim are resurrected and, without any technical interference, the audience of 2012 is transported to World War I. They sense, with a shiver, the film’s original significance on the eve of a second world war. As Europe confronts financial crisis today, La Grande Illusion retains its power as an example of European camaraderie and co-operation.

Set in Germany, the film follows a group of French prisoners of war. The central characters span the social spectrum: Lieutenant Maréchal (Gabin), a good-humoured, big-hearted man of modest means; Lieutenant Rosenthal, a rich Jewish banker who generously shares his care packages from Paris; and their captain, de Boeldieu, whose upper-class manners and habits keep his men at a distance, even though he considers them his equals. De Boeldieu feels more at home with a German of similar rank and background: Captain von Rauffenstein (von Stroheim), a captor who acts as a gracious host. All of the men regularly comment on the differences that separate them, but they equally demonstrate how friendship can overcome barriers of class, religion and nationality. Class is the greatest separating factor, specifically the divide between an increasingly outdated aristocracy and the plebs who are about to take over power in a fast-changing Europe. While Rosenthal’s wealth doesn’t prevent him and Maréchal from becoming firm friends, the stiff behaviour of de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein isolates them. Yet these two repressed characters are at the centre of one of the film’s most moving scenes: the powerful emotions that de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein must feel are made more poignant for being so carefully controlled and subtly expressed. All human relationships are precious here, as it is uncertain whether any of the men will make it to the end of the war.

There was uncertainty in the very existence of La Grande Illusion. An anti-war film made just two years before World War II, it was banned in Germany, Italy and France, before the Nazis confiscated the negative. Luckily, the Reichfilmarchiv was located in a part of Berlin that later fell to the Red Army. La Grande Illusion was taken to Moscow, where it formed part of the founding collection of Gosfilmfond, Russia’s National Film Archives. It was 20 years before the film was finally returned to France. The film’s first restoration in the 1990s reinstated previously censored scenes featuring sympathetic Germans or references to venereal disease. The new print will be released in UK cinemas on April 6, and from April 23, La Grande Illusion will be available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Alison Frank

Watch the trailer: