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David L. Cunningham
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Major Ben Wheeler was a Canadian doctor assigned to Singapore when the Japanese forced an unconditional surrender of the British and took him prisoner in 1942. He was taken to the notorious Kinkaseki Japanese POW mining camp in Formosa (Taiwan) and given the task of maintaining the mental and physical health of the British POWs. Wheeler kept detailed diaries of his experiences during his three and a half years at the camp and excerpts are narrated with dramatized scenes of the traumatic experiences of daily life. The working conditions in the mines caused innumerable injuries, and disease and malnutrition were rampant, but Wheeler had to make do with very few medical supplies and equipment. Also featured is newsreel footage of related events, archival footage of the camp, interviews with fellow survivors of the camp who unanimously praised Wheeler for his good work and provide their perspectives on the events described by him, and finally snippets of Wheeler's family life back home in... Written by
As a kid working my way through the Ontario school system in the 1970's, productions from the National Film Board of Canada (especially in history classes) were a regular part of the curriculum, and, like most kids at that age, I probably sat through most of them bored to tears. I haven't seen an NFB production in quite a while when I suddenly saw this one pop up on TV and decided I'd watch it. Major Ben Wheeler was a Canadian doctor serving in Singapore when the Japanese captured him in 1942. The movie recounts, through the pages of his diary, his experiences as a POW, and it's both very sobering and very powerful.
What I particularly liked was the way four different kinds of productions were put together to create an essentially seamless story. Wheeler's diary (narrated by Donald Sutherland) was accompanied with dramatized scenes of life in the camp. The story of the camp was supplemented by what I call "talking head" segments - interviews with survivors of the camp - and with what I have to assume (based on the obvious level of the starvation of the POWs) was actual archival footage of the camps. Then, interspersed with all that were snippets of Wheeler's life and family back home in Canada (both before and after the war) in segments narrated by his daughter Ann, who was also co-producer, director and writer. It was very well done and offered a sobering view of life in the Japanese POW camps. One thing I appreciated was at least an attempt to look at the harsh, inhuman treatment of the POWs from the Japanese perspective. It was pointed out near the beginning that, in the Japanese culture of that day, a Japanese soldier would kill himself before being taken prisoner, and so they tended to look at soldiers who allowed themselves to be taken prisoner as less than human. Then, at the end, it was noted that many of the Japanese guards at the camp did, in fact, commit suicide rather than become prisoners as the Americans arrived to liberate the camps. I'm certainly not trying to justify the treatment of POWs by the Japanese, but certainly it does have to be seen from the perspective of that culture to be fully understood, and that's often a perspective we fail to see.
There were a lot of "talking head" segments - which I'm not really enamoured of - but I still thought this was very well done. 8/10
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