World War II: Pacific POWs and Friends

by theiridescentone | created - 28 Mar 2015 | updated - 07 Feb 2016 | Public

Good, bad, brutal, humorous: films portraying the experiences of prisoners of war or internees in World War II. Emphasizes Allied POWs and the Pacific theatre.

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1. Malaya (1949)

Passed | 98 min | Adventure, Drama, War

Newspaperman Royer convinces government officials of a plan to obtain rubber by smuggling it out from under the Japanese. Carnahan is let out of prison to help.

Director: Richard Thorpe | Stars: Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Valentina Cortese, Sydney Greenstreet

Votes: 1,324

You'd think a film starring both Stewart and Tracy must be either a classic or a failure. Instead, this satisfying espionage flick seems to have disappeared from the consciousness, but it's worth tracking down for the intrigue in a recently vanished colonial outpost and the occasionally accurate drama of the Japanese takeover.

2. In Harm's Way (1965)

Approved | 165 min | Drama, War

A Naval officer, reprimanded after Pearl Harbor, is later promoted to Rear Admiral and gets a second chance to prove himself against the Japanese.

Director: Otto Preminger | Stars: John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Tom Tryon

Votes: 8,779 | Gross: $4.20M

This was made just long enough postwar to straddle the divide between a good old macho re-up flick and a self-aware remix of the tropes. Director Preminger handles the Pearl Harbor attack in terrifying fashion, far preferable to Michael Bay's 2001 effort.

3. Empire of the Sun (1987)

PG | 153 min | Action, Drama, History

62 Metascore

A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation of China during World War II.

Director: Steven Spielberg | Stars: Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers

Votes: 122,129 | Gross: $22.24M

Possibly the answer to "if I watch only one film on this list...." The fall of British China and the anguish, tedium, willpower and perseverance of the resulting internees rendered in heartrending detail. Little Christian Bale is so good you can't believe he's acting.

4. Come See the Paradise (1990)

R | 138 min | Drama, Romance, War

The passionate romance between an Irish-American man and a Japanese-American woman is threatened when the Pearl Harbor attacks happen and the woman is forced into a prison camp because of her ethnicity.

Director: Alan Parker | Stars: Dennis Quaid, Tamlyn Tomita, Sab Shimono, Shizuko Hoshi

Votes: 2,777 | Gross: $0.85M

While the Japanese were providing lousy accommodation for POWs and civilians in Southeast Asia, the Americans were busy locking up their neighbors of Japanese descent. A beautiful portrayal of the 1930s glory days of Asian-immigrant California and the struggles of one appealing melting-pot family as it descends into war.

5. So Proudly We Hail! (1943)

Passed | 126 min | Drama, Romance, War

A group of nurses returning from the war in the Phillippines recall their experiences in combat and in love.

Director: Mark Sandrich | Stars: Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, George Reeves

Votes: 1,710

Claudette Colbert in one of her strongest roles and Paulette Goddard at her best, in a remarkably un-dated portrayal of American nurses in the Pacific, made while the war still raged.

6. Three Came Home (1950)

Not Rated | 106 min | Drama, War

During Word War II, American author Agnes Newton Keith is imprisoned by the Japanese in various POW camps in North Borneo and Sarawak.

Director: Jean Negulesco | Stars: Claudette Colbert, Patric Knowles, Florence Desmond, Sessue Hayakawa

Votes: 1,850

Colbert in her second lead role as a Pacific-theatre internee, here a civilian struggling to survive and give hope to others. Overlaps with PARADISE ROAD, TENKO, EMPIRE OF THE SUN.

7. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

PG | 161 min | Adventure, Drama, War

87 Metascore

British POWs are forced to build a railway bridge across the river Kwai for their Japanese captors in occupied Burma, not knowing that the allied forces are planning a daring commando raid through the jungle to destroy it.

Director: David Lean | Stars: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa

Votes: 214,165 | Gross: $44.91M

In scripting, acting, and direction, one of the finest films of its decade. Though woefully misleading about the real people, motivations, and situations of the Siam-Burma Railway, it's the everybody's-seen-it touchstone for that appalling episode.

8. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)

R | 123 min | Drama, War

53 Metascore

During W.W. II, a British colonel tries to bridge the cultural divides between a British P.O.W. and the Japanese camp commander in order to avoid blood-shed.

Director: Nagisa Ôshima | Stars: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano

Votes: 17,024 | Gross: $2.31M

Essential, although let's be clear that director Oshima is telling a story he's interested in, not trying to capture real POWs' experiences. Can't take your eyes off performances by the sinfully talented Tom Conti, a completely serious David Bowie, and his compelling Japanese counterpart Ryuichi Sakamoto. Based on Laurence van der Post's slightly autobiographical book THE SEED AND THE SOWER, also recommended.

9. Paradise Road (1997)

R | 122 min | Drama, History, War

48 Metascore

A group of women who are imprisoned on the island of Sumatra by the Japanese during World War II use music to relieve their misery.

Director: Bruce Beresford | Stars: Glenn Close, Frances McDormand, Pauline Collins, Cate Blanchett

Votes: 5,454 | Gross: $1.92M

A kickass cast overcomes life as civilian internees by founding a "vocal orchestra." Strongly based on fact, and with a particularly nice turn by Frances McDormand before she was a household name.

10. Tenko (1981–1984)

50 min | Drama, History, War

After the Japanese invasion of Singapore in February 1942, a group of British, Dutch and Australian women are held in a Japanese internment camp on a Japanese-occupied island between Singapore and Australia.

Stars: Ann Bell, Stephanie Cole, Claire Oberman, Emily Bolton

Votes: 678

"Tenko" means "roll call" for British and Dutch civilian women interned by the Japanese. Harrowing and warm-hearted, with some major star power from, notably, Stephanie Cole (WAITING FOR GOD). Watch it if you couldn't get enough of PARADISE ROAD.

11. To End All Wars (2001)

R | 117 min | Action, Drama, War

A true story about four Allied POWs who endure harsh treatment from their Japanese captors during World War II while being forced to build a railroad through the Burmese jungle. Ultimately ... See full summary »

Director: David L. Cunningham | Stars: Robert Carlyle, Kiefer Sutherland, Ciarán McMenamin, Mark Strong

Votes: 10,857

The book (by Ernest Gordon) is better, but the film is well worth watching despite the Hollywoodish miscasting of Kiefer Sutherland. Kind of worth it just to see Mark Strong as a good guy--so good a guy, in fact, that his storyline reeks of implausibility, but it's straight out of Gordon's passionate memoir.

12. The True Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai (2001 TV Movie)

100 min | Documentary

What really happened is a long way removed from the Hollywood movie. This is the story of hardship almost beyond belief that was suffered by the Allied soldiers at the hands of their Japanese captors.

Director: David Devries | Star: Edward Woodward

Votes: 28

A workmanlike documentary providing the basics on the Siam-Burma Railway and Philip Toosey, on whom THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI's Col. Nicholson is loosely based. A good complement/corrective to David Lean's masterpiece.

An excellent starting place on some horrifying history. The moving and surprisingly funny interviews with extremely elderly survivors are what make this tidy gem of a documentary.

14. Unbroken (I) (2014)

PG-13 | 137 min | Action, Biography, Drama

59 Metascore

After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he's caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Director: Angelina Jolie | Stars: Jack O'Connell, Miyavi, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund

Votes: 160,814 | Gross: $115.64M

Angelina Jolie's epic winds up a touch lackluster but very much worth seeing. Suspend your disbelief to take in all the twists of Louis Zamperini's wild story, though Laura Hillenbrand's superior book swears it's all true. As a surprising rock star/actor successor to Bowie and Sakamoto in MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE, Miyavi is deliciously and appropriately creepy.

15. The Thin Red Line (1998)

R | 170 min | Drama, History, War

78 Metascore

Adaptation of James Jones' autobiographical 1962 novel, focusing on the conflict at Guadalcanal during the second World War.

Director: Terrence Malick | Stars: Jim Caviezel, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Kirk Acevedo

Votes: 182,983 | Gross: $36.40M

Not about POWs, but this achingly gorgeous collage of white men on the edge of combat in Melanesia nails the Pacific war's juxtaposition of natural beauty and terrifying violence. Also, groundbreaking musical score.

16. Return from the River Kwai (1989)

PG-13 | 101 min | Drama, War

A group of war prisoners from the Kwai bridge building camp undertake a harsh journey to Japan.

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen | Stars: Timothy Bottoms, Nick Tate, George Takei, Edward Fox

Votes: 970

Surprisingly well-filmed and acted TV movie, filled to the brim with inaccuracy and implausibility, yet shining a light on some corners of the history not usually portrayed (the Thai underground!). Plus, one of the rare times it's definitely not OK to be Takei.

17. The Great Raid (2005)

R | 132 min | Action, Drama, War

48 Metascore

Taking place towards the end of WWII, 500 American Soldiers have been entrapped in a camp for 3 years. Beginning to give up hope they will ever be rescued, a group of Rangers goes on a dangerous mission to try and save them.

Director: John Dahl | Stars: Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco, Robert Mammone

Votes: 22,186 | Gross: $10.17M

Not a terrible movie, but the liberation of Cabanatuan POW camp deserved better. James Franco and Joseph Fiennes are seldom more than OK. Read Hampton Sides' GHOST SOLDIERS instead.

18. Back to Bataan (1945)

Approved | 95 min | Drama, War

In 1942, after the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese, U.S. Army Col. Joseph Madden stays behind to organize the local resistance against the Japanese invaders.

Director: Edward Dmytryk | Stars: John Wayne, Anthony Quinn, Beulah Bondi, Fely Franquelli

Votes: 3,968

This epic of the Bataan Death March and the guerillas left behind, while very much of its moment, occasionally transcends it. A pleasant surprise that a story set in the Philippines is actually in large part about Filipinos, led by Mr. Ethnic Anthony Quinn. The ripped-from-the-headlines portrayal of the Cabanatuan raid is not too inaccurate, and a parade of actual freed POWs adds a touching framing sequence.

19. Emperor (2012)

PG-13 | 105 min | Drama, History, War

48 Metascore

As the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II, General Fellers is tasked with deciding if Emperor Hirohito will be hanged as a war criminal. Influencing his ruling is his quest to find Aya, an exchange student he met years earlier in the U.S.

Director: Peter Webber | Stars: Matthew Fox, Colin Moy, Tommy Lee Jones, Eriko Hatsune

Votes: 13,859 | Gross: $3.35M

Tommy Lee Jones feels like he could win the war single-handed as Douglas MacArthur, 'returned' to the Japanese homeland to organize war tribunals. His definitive performance aside, a sobering glimpse of two civilizations--Japanese and American--that have deeply injured each other, no matter who started it.

20. Prisoners of the Sun (1990)

R | 108 min | Drama, War

The island of Ambon in Indonesia, 1945. During the War, the number of Australian POWs on the island had dropped from 1100 to less than 300 due to abuses by their Japanese captors. Capt. ... See full summary »

Director: Stephen Wallace | Stars: Bryan Brown, George Takei, Terry O'Quinn, John Bach

Votes: 878

It's that brief moment when Bryan Brown was a bigger star than Russell Crowe, and they're both great in this passionate courtroom drama where postwar Australian authorities try to bring justice to the massacre of POWs on Ambon Island. Excellent turns as well by George Takei and especially Toshi Shioya.

21. The Railway Man (2013)

R | 116 min | Biography, Drama, Romance

59 Metascore

A former British Army officer, who was tortured as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp during World War II, discovers that the man responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him.

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky | Stars: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, Jeremy Irvine

Votes: 39,353 | Gross: $4.44M

The story of internal strife told in ENEMY, MY FRIEND (and the original memoir THE RAILWAY MAN) gets tarted up with too much action and false suspense, but absolutely worth it for the chemistry between Firth and Kidman, Skarsgard, Sanada, the train schedule, the pot of rice...

22. Enemy, My Friend? (1995 TV Movie)

Documentary, Biography, History

This documentary tells the extraordinary story of a British prisoner of war tortured by the Japanese in World War II who spent 50 years trying to locate the man who cruelly interrogated him near Thailand's infamous Kwai bridge.

Stars: Eric Lomax, Patti Lomax, Takashi Nagase

Not the best-crafted documentary ever, but watch it anyway, especially if you saw Colin Firth in THE RAILWAY MAN (2013). Elderly veterans Eric Lomax and Nagase Takashi shyly work out their wartime trauma and wrongs in a halting friendship captured by the cameras.

23. Stalag 17 (1953)

Not Rated | 120 min | Comedy, Drama, War

84 Metascore

After two Americans are killed while escaping from a German P.O.W. camp in World War II, the barracks black marketeer, J.J. Sefton, is suspected of being an informer.

Director: Billy Wilder | Stars: William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss

Votes: 54,732

Absolutely gripping thriller that happens to take place among Americans (mostly) in a German prison camp. One of my favorite William Holden turns, plus hilarious and sympathetic performances by an amazing roster of character actors.

24. The Great Escape (1963)

Approved | 172 min | Adventure, Drama, History

86 Metascore

Allied prisoners of war plan for several hundred of their number to escape from a German camp during World War II.

Director: John Sturges | Stars: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson

Votes: 237,362 | Gross: $12.10M

Americans and others behind German barbed wire. One of the first and best of the huge-all-star-cast films of the 1960s. Not especially historically aware, but who cares: suspenseful, funny, with James Garner in particular in one of his best roles.

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